It’s a long way from Vancouver to Penang Island.
Yet in spite of the distance, Penang-born and B.C.-based visual artist Arty Guava still likes to convey the northern Malaysian community’s relaxed vibe. She often does this by prominently featuring women in sarongs in her paintings and illustrations.
“I have a colour palette I use quite often,” Guava, a.k.a. Lay Hoon Ho, tells Pancouver over Zoom. “I would say it’s very ‘tropical’ feeling because I just draw inspiration from what I know and where I come from.”
The downtown Vancouver artist is best known for creating large, sunny murals in Cambie Village and the River District. In addition to her artwork, she’s collaborated with photographer Sumay C to co-found OtherHalfStudio, which specializes in immersive art installation.
For the upcoming LunarFest celebrations, Guava has created another image showing a tropical paradise. Called The Eve, it features women cavorting on the beach near a tiger, representing the passing of the previous year. The artwork also hints of the looming Year of the Rabbit.
“I imagine the scene to be the eve of the Lunar New Year, the tiger performing the last dance before the rabbits usher in the new year,” Guava declares. “It is a huge celebration where everyone is invited to dance and be merry.”
She’s even written a poem to go along with the image.
People gather from everywhere,
Striking poses like they just don’t care,
Everyone is invited,
Even the tiger and the hare.
Prior to the pandemic, she would always spend Lunar New Year together with her relatives in the same place in Malaysia.
“I didn’t realize there will be a time when we couldn’t go and visit family—and we are so far away,” Guava says.
Guava art in LunarFest lantern gallery
Later this month, the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association will present Guava’s Lunar New Year design on a large lantern at šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
From January 20 to February 7, it will be part of the We Are Family exhibition with other lanterns designed by Indigenous and racialized artists.
It’s one of three “Lantern City” locations in the city.
In addition as part of LunarFest, there will be a Coastal Lunar Lanterns exhibition at Jack Poole Plaza from January 20 to February 15.
Over at the Ocean Artworks covered pavilion on Granville Island, the Forever Young exhibition of lanterns will be available from January 20 to February 20.
All of these shows are free.
From bio-engineering to marketing to art
Guava came up with her pseudonym from two passions dating back to her childhood. She’s always loved guavas and she’s always loved making art.
“Even as a child, my parents would put me in art classes,” Guava says. “But they would always say, ‘Keep that as a hobby, not a career for you. It’s not your day job.’ I do understand where they were coming from because it’s a very competitive industry.”
Her birthplace, Penang Island, has a population slightly larger than that of Vancouver. The island is nearly three times the area of Vancouver and is connected to the Malaysian mainland by bridges.
She decided to move from Penang to Singapore to study bio-engineering. And Guava says that she worked in this field for about a year before deciding that it wasn’t for her.
From there, Guava transitioned into advertising and marketing, rising to art director at Ogilvy Singapore. About four years ago, she and her husband immigrated to Vancouver with their young son.
Even though Singapore is economically vibrant, they were concerned about its education system.
“There’s always this mentality that you have to be the best; you have to get ahead of people,” Guava states. “It’s always a race. We just felt that maybe we want something different for our kids.”
She and her husband also worried about the lack of career options for their child given that Singapore only has a population of about 5.5 million.
“There are not big opportunities for youths to be a musician, for example,” she says.
A Malaysian Chinese perspective
Like Vancouver, Singapore is multi-ethnic and multi-racial, with three-quarters of the residents having Chinese ancestry. Even though Vancouver also has many people of Chinese ancestry, Guava still found it to be a big adjustment, particularly after the pandemic struck.
She feels that she sometimes sticks out here because she doesn’t look like many Chinese people who trace their roots to Hong Kong and other parts of China.
For many years, Guava has been creating images for products and in advertising. But she really became serious about pursuing her career as an artist when the pandemic struck. Her images can be found on her @artyguava Instagram account and her website.
Her family has been in Malaysia for about four generations, where Chinese residents have at times faced intense discrimination. Guava’s first language is English and she also speaks Malay. In addition, she can converse in Fujian, which is the language of her Chinese ancestors.
But unlike many Chinese immigrants, Guava is not fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese, the two most common Chinese languages in Metro Vancouver.
“People can tell you’re different,” Guava says. “It’s not a bad feeling. It’s just that I know that I am different and I need to assimilate.”
She aims to create artworks that brighten people’s moods. Upon seeing her paintings and illustrations, some people conclude from the bright colours that she must be from Southeast Asia.
With a smile, she adds that the more you know, the more you can see.
“I’m excited to share my Malaysian Chinese perspective with the audience here,” Guava says.
For more information on the Lantern City exhibitions, visit the website. Charlie Smith is the editor of Pancouver. Follow him on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.