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Time-travel dialogue and the synchronicity between Taiwanese artist Chen Cheng-po and B.C.’s Emily Carr

Emily Carr Archives of Ontario
This self-portrait by Chen Cheng-po and this photograph of Emily Carr were each created in 1930.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung came up with the term synchronicity to describe meaningful coincidences. To him, it meant that everything in the universe was connected.

Of course, scientists cannot prove synchronicity. However, there is a meaningful coincidence in the rise of two legendary early 20th-century painters on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean.

Emily Carr, who grew up on the West Coast of Canada, made her mark with vivid paintings of local scenery. Using vivid colours and strong brushstrokes, she depicted changes in the landscape of British Columbia, touching upon industrialization.

Carr was strongly influenced by Fauvism, advanced by Henri Matisse, André Derain, and other artists in France.

Odds and Ends
Odds and Ends (1939) by Emily Carr.

Similarly, Taiwanese artist Chen Cheng-po devoted much of his career to painting the natural landscape in bold, vivid colours. His oil paintings touched upon industrialization in Taiwan. And he, too, was influenced by Fauvism.

Here’s another meaningful coincidence: both Carr and Chen were painting in regions in the throes of colonial exploitation. In British Columbia, settlers had stolen the land from Indigenous people, who were confined to small reserves under federal law; in Taiwan, Chen painted the natural world in a land ruled by Japan through much of his lifetime.

More than 70 years after their deaths, they remain central figures in academic and popular discourse about 20th-century art in their respective homelands. It’s one reason why the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association is trying to spur an ongoing public dialogue centering on both Carr and Chen to promote cross-cultural understanding. This will take place at the association’s events in the coming years, including the annual TAIWANfest Vancouver celebration in 2023.

Nostalgia by Chen Cheng-po
Nostalgia (1941) by Chen Cheng-po.

Carr-Chen synchronicity strikes in other ways

“They both lived in similar times in history,” says becky tu, a Taiwanese-born and Vancouver-based researcher with  the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association. “They were able to see the beauty in their local surroundings. And their willingness to try to capture that in their painting is very good for historical records now.”

As an example, tu says that she can see the British Columbia capital of Victoria a century ago from Carr’s perspective.

“It reaches through time and space to people like us today,” tu adds.

In addition to being aware of Carr’s paintings, tu has also read a great deal of the artist’s written work. While Carr demonstrated sympathy for Indigenous people, this didn’t carry over to the sizeable Asian population in her hometown.

“In Emily’s writing and her records, she doesn’t leave a lot of space for Asian immigrants at the time,” tu, who’s also associated editor of Pancouver, says.

Vanquished by Emily Carr.
Vanquished (1930) by Emily Carr.

According to tu, Carr, like other white settlers, never saw them as being Canadian. And when it came to Indigenous people, tu feels that Carr put herself in the position of an anthropologist recording a disappearing culture.

“But for Indigenous people, their culture is still alive because they live it every day,” tu says.

At the same time, tu respects Carr’s bravery and determination to forge her own artistic path, even if it wasn’t widely accepted while she was alive. It was only long after her death that her paintings started selling for millions of Canadian dollars.

Meanwhile, the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association’s managing director, Charlie Wu, points to another similarity between Carr and Chen: both were eager to capture Indigenous life.

Plum Garden (1930)
Plum Garden (1930) by Chen Cheng-po.

Chen lived in Japan and China

According to Wu, Chen would venture into the mountains of Taiwan to make sketches of Aboriginal people.

“He might have done this at the request of the Japanese government because they wanted an artist to be able to take these images down,” Wu says.

Chen was painting when the Japanese colonizers did not view the Taiwanese as Japanese, even though the island was part of Imperial Japan from 1895 to 1945. Chen studied Western-style watercolour painting under Kinichiro Ishikawa and, in 1924, enrolled in the Tokyo School of Fine Arts.

Yet when Chen moved to Shanghai to teach art in 1929, Wu says that Chinese people viewed him as Japanese. And as tensions between Japan and China intensified in the early 1930s, Chen could feel the stigma.

In 1933, Chen returned to his hometown of Kagi (now Chiayi) where he cofounded the Tai-Yang Art Society to help young artists. And through his work, he laid a foundation for the rise of a distinct Taiwanese identity.

One of Chen’s contemporaries and close friends was another brilliant landscape painter, Chen Zhi-qi. Chen Zhi-qi’s nephew, retired Vancouver businessman Leigh Pan, says that whereas his uncle largely stuck to landscapes, Chen Cheng-po often inserted people in his paintings.

Pan maintains that this reflects the influence of the proletarian art movement on Chen Cheng-po.

“He wanted to show he was on the side of the people,” Pan says.

Chinese nationalist soldiers shot Chen dead in March 1947 in the wake of the Kuomintang government’s notorious 228 massacre. On the last day of February that year and in subsequent weeks, the KMT killed an estimated 18,000 to 28,000 people.

Chen Zhi-qi
Chn Zhi-qi’s The Scenery of Taiwan (1928) was included in the 9th Exhibition of the Imperial Fine Arts Academy.

End of martial law sparked revival of interest

Pan’s uncle, on the other hand, died from illness in 1931 at the age of 26. Chen Zhi-qi also studied at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts and was twice selected for the prestigious Imperial Art Exhibition.

“During his lifetime he was brilliant,” Pan says. “Everybody in the family knows that if he didn’t die of natural causes, he would have been killed in 228 for sure. He was so political.”

Chen Cheng-po’s work was not exhibited in prominent galleries after his death. Nor was the work of Chen Zhi-qi. Wu says it’s because the KMT government still saw Taiwan as part of China.

“All these major galleries would only exhibit the famous painters or artists from China,” Wu says. “They would show calligraphy. The local artists were not seen as important.”

He attributes this to an anti-Japanese mindset. Moreover, Wu thinks KMT officials believed that Chen Cheng-po had been influenced by the Japanese.

In addition, Wu says that many KMT supporters—who moved en masse to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War—felt superior to the local population.

As a result, Taiwanese art lovers kept Chen’s work in private collections. Many did not show them in public until after the end of martial law in 1987.

“They are surfacing now because Taiwanese identity is seen as important,” Wu says.

Similarly, Carr’s works received major showings long after she had died in 1945.

Perhaps this is another example of synchronicity.

This is the third installment of Pancouver’s six-part series on Canada, the Netherlands, and Taiwan. Pancouver created this in partnership with Taiwan Insight. It’s the online magazine of the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham. Taiwan Insight has published different versions of the articles on its website. Follow Taiwan Insight on Twitter @UoNARI_Taiwan. Follow Pancouver @PancouverMedia. Wu is general manager of the Society of We Are Canadians Too, which owns Pancouver.

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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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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.