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Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Canadian James Lee Chiahan finds artistic niche in illustrations for major magazines and oil paintings for himself

James Lee Chiahan
James Lee Chiahan will create a self-portrait for this year's TAIWANfest celebrations.

More than a decade ago, James Lee Chiahan knew that he wanted to make a decent living. So he went into graphic design, first in the Toronto area and more recently in Montreal. But the Taiwanese Canadian never gave up the dream of becoming a professional artist.

In fact, he had been drawing detail-oriented illustrations since childhood, inspired by his favourite animators.

“As a kid, I always grew up watching a lot of Ghibli movies,” Lee tells Pancouver over Zoom. “

Later on, he learned to do oil painting on his own. Those efforts are now paying off.

In recent years, Lee’s work has appeared in some very high-profile periodicals, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Walrus, among others. Last year, the New York Times commissioned Lee to create an evocativ illustration of French author Emmanuel Carrère for a review of his novel Yoga.

“I’m super proud of that,” Lee tells Pancouver over Zoom. “It’s just in the past couple of years that I’ve been breaking through into the editorial space.”

James Lee Chiahan
James Lee Chiiahan created this illustration for the New York Times.

He’s also proud of an elaborate illustration for a feature article called “The Wrong Side of a New Age” in The Walrus. It shows a large crowd gathered around a psychedelic circle with a dot in the middle.

“I would approach that fairly differently from if I were to create a personal piece, because obviously, there’s a story attached to it,” Lee says.

In his magazines illustrations, Lee tries to capture the essence of the story—and especially the emotion. His website also includes original oil-on-panel works that were not commissioned for publications. They reveal his keen interest in capturing details through exquisite use of colour and meticulous shading.

James Lee Chiahan
Ah Gu (12 x 12 in, oil on panel) by James Lee Chiahan.

Lee reconnects with Taiwanese heritage

Lee was born in the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan. His mom’s side of the family grew up in the Anping District, which is where the Dutch East India Company set up a trading post in 1624. The Dutch colonization of Taiwan continued until 1662.

Lee is one of four Canadian artists who are participating in an exhibition called Self-portraits of Formosa: Reminiscing the Dutch?, which will be part of TAIWANfest Toronto and Vancouver TAIWANfest. This year, TAIWANfest in both cities is conducting an artistic and historical dialogue with the Netherlands. This will come in advance of the 400th anniversary of the Dutch occupation of the East Asian island nation.

When Pancouver asks Lee if he might have any Dutch ancestry, he replies: “I’ll ask my mom. Her side of the family runs, I think, 20 generations deep in Taiwan.”

His name is a combination of his Canadian name, James Lee, and his Mandarin name, Lee Chia-Han. His dad comes from a Hakka family with far more recent roots in China.

Lee has been influenced by various artist of Taiwanese ancestry. They include filmmakers Edward Yang and Hou Hsiiao-hsien, visual artist James Jean, musician Wu Bai, and the indie Taiwanese band Forests. He’s also been inspired by fellow Taiwanese Canadian musician Alex Zhang Hungtai.

“As an adult, I’ve been more and more interested in trying to reconnect with my Taiwanese heritage, the culture and the language,” Lee says. “But I would say in my formative years, Taiwan was always a big inspiration to me. More as a feeling or a longing or a missing piece of my personal self rather than a direct influence from the culture coming out of Taiwan.”

As two petals fall *24 x 18 in, oil on panel) by James Lee Chiahan.

TAIWANfest Toronto runs from August 25 to 27 at Harbourfront Centre. Its visual arts programs are at South Lawn, North Orchard, and Brigantine Patio.

Vancouver TAIWANfest takes place at various locations in downtown Vancouver from September 2 to 4. Its visual arts programs are in the 700 block of Granville Street. All events at TAIWANfest are free.

To  learn more about James Lee Chiahan, visit his website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.