By Renée Mok
If you walk westward on Keefer Street towards downtown Vancouver, the old buildings adorned with Chinese characters and the novel red lampposts of Chinatown begin to fade. At Keefer Place, a residential building at the historic entrance to Shanghai Alley, you will come across an abacus.
The abacus, a tool for calculating values, was historically used by European, Asian and African merchants since the 8th century BCE and was commonly found in Chinatown shops during the late 19th and early 20th century. Artist Gwen Boyle’s sculpture, Abacus (Suan Phan), is a large-scale counting board suspended between cement pillars and crowned by a sweeping red top reminiscent of temples and palaces. A red frame outlines the traditional Chinese abacus with rows of moveable jade beads, two on the top and five on the bottom: 63 in total.
Early Chinese immigrants came to Canada for a better life, but many faced hardship and discrimination upon arrival. The Chinese population, united by shared cultural frameworks and experiences, built a thriving community in Chinatown, which is one of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods. Boyle’s grandfather was Chinatown’s only goldsmith and owner of the well-respected jewellery store, Mee Shing. In Chinese culture, it is customary to give jade and gold on special occasions, such as the birth of a child or a wedding, and the jewellery store supported these community traditions. Boyle recalls sculpting tiny links for her grandfather and listening to the clink of the beads on his wooden abacus as he counted the register at night.
Boyle’s Abacus brings together key symbolic Chinese elements demonstrating the value of the culture. Her use of red signifies joy and fortune, similar to the red coin-filled envelopes gifted during Lunar New Year. The magnificent jade stones – sculpted, sanded and polished into symmetrical green beads – represent good fortune, wisdom and harmony. On a spiritual level, jade is believed to have protective healing qualities. Its mineral composition is used to support the body’s ‘qi’ or life energy. Its calm surface and beauty are often the muse of artists and a physical representation of power and wealth. However these jade beads were not sourced in China, they were mined from Mount Ogden in Northern British Columbia and crafted by Canadian sculptor, Debbie Wilson. The jade allows positive ‘qi’ to flow from the mountains into the city and grounds the sculpture in Canada. Visitors can move the heavy stones up and down, their weight suggestive of the labour of immigrants in Canadian history. The jade simultaneously references the resilience of culture and immigrants’ desire to preserve their heritage and their intrinsic yearning to belong in Canada.
Abacus (Suan Phan) strives for a balance between the past and ever-changing present. When siting the piece in the early 2000s, Boyle was intrigued by the memory of the dark alley near her grandfather’s shop where the sounds of migrant workers, mah-jong tiles and music from the Sing Kew Theatre emanated at night. Currently, Shanghai Alley is closed off at this end; the sculpture stands before a gated condominium. Chinatown has experienced gentrification over the past fifteen years, and modern buildings have replaced many of the neighbourhood’s more traditional elements, despite revitalization efforts. Amidst development and change, the sculpture reminds generations of Canadians of their shared culture and encourages collaboration in preserving the history of this culturally significant neighbourhood.
Abacus (Suan Phan) was commissioned by Pinnacle for the City of Vancouver Public Art Program.
Renée Mok is a writer and communications coordinator in Vancouver, B.C.
About the Artist
Gwen Boyle is a Vancouver-based artist and sculptor who grew up in Vancouver’s Chinatown and lived in the Yukon. She received her diploma from the Vancouver School of Art and after further studies in sculpting, graduated with honours in bronze casting in 1975. Gwen’s studio practice aims to understand the fusion between art and science and her minimalistic exhibitions reference her experimental research with the magnetosphere and solar activities in the Arctic. Her public art installations are inspired by the elements. She often works with engineers and city planners to create monumental sculptures that unearth the history of a landscape. Boyle is currently working to restore the Abacus and continues to practice in Vancouver, B.C. http://gwenboyle.com/
The City of Vancouver’s Public Art Program celebrates 25 years of creating extraordinary artworks for public spaces. Every two weeks during 2016 we’ll share the story of a unique artwork created through the program. Over 260 pieces have been commissioned since 1991 through civic initiatives, community grants or private sector rezoning requirements. These are only a few of the key pieces that have helped to define Vancouver as a unique place and a world-class city for public art!