MEET KAREN TAM
In North America, food plays a key role in constructing
cultural identity, and restaurants often become a site for the formulation
of ideas about race. Through her installation recreating the typical Chinese
restaurant, Montreal-based artist Karen Tam investigates how these spaces
come to represent China and Chinese culture. Tam sees the Chinese restaurant
as "a metaphor for an imaginary China, imagined by the West and as a place
recreated by the Chinese in the West." By engaging local Chinese community
members, Tam has created an installation that examines Chinese immigrant
experiences, the localization of culture, racism and otherness.
Karen Tam arrived in Manitoba after a three-hour flight
from Montreal on April 10th, 2006. Her voyage from the East was part of
a quest to explore her personal past and conquer our collective present
through the re-creation of a (non-functioning) Chinese restaurant placed
within an art gallery setting.
The first three weeks of her residency at the AGSM were
spent scouring the city for pieces and props to make up her made-up restaurant.
She connected with local cafes, members of the Chinese community, artists
and the everyman. They all came together to celebrate the opening of the
restaurant exhibition on April 27, 2006. For the following two weeks, Tam
was the proprietor of a restaurant that served a steaming helping of ideas
on nostalgia, racism, identity, culture, fantasy, society, history, and
the art of making a living in Canada.
Karen Tam's art project involves installation work that
uses humour and familiarity to investigate a specific cultural phenomenon,
the Chinese restaurant. That is, the "Westernized," "Americanized," "Canadianized"
Chinese restaurant, primarily catering to non-Chinese customers in the
New World. These are often smaller establishments specializing in take-out,
falling uncelebrated amongst the current popularity of Pan-Asian quick
service dining and the seemingly more "authentic" restaurant within North
American Chinatowns. The smaller establishment is the restaurant style
that Karen knows best. This is the one that she grew up in and this is
the kind that her relatives owned. The ongoing existence of these establishments
across the country belies the ongoing existence of a Chinese culture of
Toishanese speakers, more numerous outside of China than within.
Karen Tam is the descendant of Chinese sojourners and
restaurateurs. Her great-grandfather, her aunt, her grandparents, her father
and his remaining siblings came to Canada from the district of Toishan
in the province of Guagdong/Canton, and all wound up working in the restaurant
business. Karen's parents owned a restaurant called Aux Sept Bonheurs
in the Montreal neighbourhood of Rosemont and the family lived in an apartment
above the restaurant for several years. In 2001, while Tam was working
on her MFA at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, her parents were
thinking about retiring from the business. Tam began to document the space
through drawings, photographs, videos, the recreation of objects, and so
on. Aux Sept Bonheurs was sold to new owners in 2004.
Text adapted from TAM TIMES,
an AGSW publication commemorating the opening of
Karen Tam's exhibit ~ April 27-June 10, 2006