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Artist Features

I Am YEG Arts: Yong Fei Guan

November 2, 2023

"If I could travel back in time, I would bring you goji berries once planted by your humble hands... You, my ancestors from Southern China will be remembered." Performance by Yong Fei Guan as part of her 杞子茶屋 Goji Berry Teahouse exhibition at Fort Edmonton Park. Archival image circa 1889 of Chinese Railway Railroad workers. Photo by Jonathan Luckhurst.

On November 20, 2023, the EAC and our friends at the Edmonton Community Foundation will celebrate 25 years of Edmonton Artists’ Trust Fund (EATF) awards. In recognition of the upcoming anniversary of EATF and our roster of more than 200 EATF recipients since the award’s inception in 1998, we’re highlighting some of the incredible past EATF recipients on the EAC blog. Today we feature Yong Fei Guan, an artist-researcher and two-time EATF recipient (2018 and 2021)… 

Yong Fei Guan is an intermedia artist with a research-intensive practice that is deeply rooted in community. As a researcher, the Chinese-Canadian artist explores multicultural identity, politics and their relationship to environmental issues in her work. In this I Am YEG Arts feature, Guan tells us about her research on the goji berry and how it reflects Chinese Canadian history and culture, as well as how she plans to build on that research and what it means to her to be an EATF recipient. 

Tell us about your creative approach as an intermedia artist. 

For me, an intermedia artist is more like an interdisciplinary artist. I make sculptures, installations, and books, and my practice is really connected to my community. My focus is equally divided between my art practice and research. I usually research my subject matter with my community, and I have a lot of historical factual context gathered before I create the work. Most recently, I’ve been completing my Master of Fine Arts at the University of Alberta. Through that, I’ve learned more about how to make video and audio artwork, as well as how to project my work in gallery spaces. 

Tell us about your connection to Edmonton and what keeps you living and working here. 

I immigrated to Canada in 2007 from Jiujiang, Foshan which is a city in Guangdong province in southern China. I have been here almost 17 years. My connection to Edmonton is also something I have been researching: the idea of home. I guess like most people, my idea of home — or Edmonton as my home — is my family, my friends and the people in my community that support me. I have a very supportive community here that cares about who I am and supports my practice, so I feel welcome here.

How did you get your start as an artist?

I wouldn’t have called myself an artist when I was little, I didn’t even know what that really meant. But I was really drawn to drawing, painting and anything that is involved in creativity and exploring differences. In other words, things outside of the regular format — the opposite of rigidity is what I find enjoyment in. When I was in high school, I proposed to my mom that I go on to study art, but it was rejected because we’re not a wealthy family. My mom couldn’t afford to send me to art school to be an artist and for me to be poor for the rest of my life in China. That’s something that is just not economically possible for my family. But I pursued art anyhow after a few years of working. I guess it really is the only thing I want to do! 

Your work often takes inspiration from the environment and our relationships with nature, what draws you to those topics? 

This topic still resonates with me and has since I graduated from Emily Carr University of Art + Design in 2014. I thought I would change by now, but those concepts are still vast enough to contain my practice. 

I’m from the Guangdong province in China where there’s a lot of pollution. One of the reasons is because there are a lot of manufacturing factories producing stuff that not only supply China but supplies the globe. There are also factories there to recycle paper and plastic. I didn’t realize the pollution was that bad when I was living in China, because at that time I couldn’t really compare it to anything else. 

Here in Canada, we live in a pristine place with plentiful resources. But those resources are only temporary if we don’t have the awareness to protect them or realize the connectedness of one place to the other. Why is this place better than others? Maybe because we don’t really have factories here, and all the clothing or other goods are produced in China or India or elsewhere, which means that we don’t have the same level of pollution, but does that mean that we are better here? 

The environment and our relationship with the environment have been very important to me since I moved to Canada. And the more I study it, the more it feels that time is running out. But that anxiousness is not necessarily completely negative, it is also motivating to keep going. 

Tell us about your research on goji berries and your book, The Living History of Gojis and Edmonton.

The book moves through time, from the Chinese people who brought the goji plant over to Canada and more recently, the Chinese elders who have grown them here for decades, and then moving to the recent image of the art community, and how they reflect on the goji berry and its relationship with the Chinese community. I wouldn’t say it’s a finished book, it’s more like a work in progress. 

Quite recently I went to the port near the city of Guangzhou in the province of Guangdong, from which the first Chinese Canadians that moved to Canada for the railway and mining emigrated though. I traced back their history to Guangzhou, to the museum that has information about Chinese Canadians. I gathered some images and information for future research to add to the history of Chinese Canadians. I thought it was important to add both stories from the Canadian side and the Chinese side to see a fuller image of what happened at that time. 

Even though the book is about goji berries, it’s actually about their companion species, which is the people that brought the plant overseas. I thought they were kind of like a reflection of each other in that sense. 

Recently with a couple local chemists we did a chemical analysis and analyzed seven local goji specimens comparing them to a species imported from China that is claimed to have the most authentic elements of goji and the proper medicinal ingredients. We compared local specimens with the Chinese specimen to figure out if this goji is better than the goji we have grown here or if they the same. And we discovered that the sample taken in the McCauley neighbourhood has the highest antioxidant capacity and the Chinese specimen comes in second. It’s not a competition, but it is a way to prove that the goji we grow here is the same or could be even better than the one that was claimed to have better quality in China. 

Tell us about what you’re currently working on and what’s next for you. 

Next, I will collaborate with the City of Edmonton Archives to document this multiyear research. I have never worked with them before so it will be a new experience for me, how to work with the local government to talk about our cultures through the lens of art — that will be fascinating. 

I plan to create an eBook that will be available through the City Archives to download. It’s important to me that it’s accessible, I want it to be easy to read in the digital format and it will be free of charge. Another plan is to collaborate with the City Archives to create a digital mapping of the goji plant in Edmonton. It will be interactive, and I have never done that before, so that will involve a lot of data collecting and figuring out how it will work as an interactive map. 

Meanwhile, during this research I created two audio installations with two teapots that tell the story of two different elders and their life experiences with their goji plants. It’s not only talking about their life, it is also about their relationship to our city. They tell their story in Cantonese and I hope that I can translate them and make their Cantonese story available in audio online and also provide the transcript in English. 

This year, we’re celebrating 25 years of the EATF Awards as a two-time recipient in 2018 and 2021. How has this award impacted your career as an artist here in Edmonton? 

It impacted me a lot. The money helped me to dedicate some time to focus on my art practice without worries about finances. Being recognized as an EATF recipient has helped me to advance my career as an artist. That recognition and financial support is exactly what this fund is for, for supporting local artists to dedicate time to create work. 

Yong Fei Guan planting seeds with youth.
About Yong Fei Guan

关泳霏 Yong Fei Guan is a Chinese Canadian artist-researcher completing a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) at the University of Alberta. Formally trained as an elementary school teacher in China, Guan taught Chinese in her hometown in Jiujiang, Foshan for three years before her artistic journey overseas.

When Guan immigrated to Canada in 2007, she fell in love with the Canadian natural landscapes where she spent many summers and falls fishing and camping with her family and friends. Since she received her degree at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in 2014, Guan has dedicated her passion to explore multicultural identity, politics and their relationship to environmental issues in her work. She has been actively involved in eco public art including 塑胶狮 Su Jiao Shi (2018) and 金猪 Golden Pig (2019), in which she diverted plastic waste from local landfills to create large art installations and exhibitions. In 2023, Guan presented her MFA thesis exhibition 杞子茶屋 Goji Berry Teahouse at Fort Edmonton Park, in conjunction with a multi-year research (20202023) regarding local goji berries and the history of Chinese Canadians in Edmonton.