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High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese

Play the Chinese lottery and see what life was like as a Chinese immigrant to British Columbia.

The artist collective High Muck a Muck bring west coast Chinese history into the present through a digital and interactive exhibit on display in the Surrey Art Gallery’s TechLab. High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese explores historical and contemporary tensions surrounding Chinese immigration to British Columbia. The term “high muck a muck” is Chinook jargon for somebody in a position of authority who thinks he is more important than he actually is. The exhibition is part of explorASIAN festival.

Visitors are invited to participate in the gamble of immigration by filling in a Chinese lottery card called Pak Ah Pu and inserting it into a machine that will read your card and offer you a “fortune” on the screen behind. You’ll be taken to Chinatown in Nelson, Victoria, Vancouver, or Richmond where you’ll encounter evocative poems by Fred Wah, former Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate, watercolour paintings of people and landscapes by Tomoyo Ihaya, music by Jin Zhang, videos and performances by Bessie Wapp and Thomas Loh, and oral histories by a number of people that give you a snapshot of Chinese life then and now. The project was curated by artist and writer Nicola Harwood who teaches Creative Writing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Harwood conceived this project in Nelson, BC as a way to commemorate the Chinese community history there that was “completely invisible.” The project grew to include other places in BC to make it more representative of Chinese immigration. Harwood says the project approaches immigration as “a journey towards a new identity” fraught with tensions: between the old way and the new way, between races, cultures, neighbourhoods, and also between different groups of Chinese immigrants such as the old labourers struggling to save money to bring their families to Canada and the new wave of immigrants from Hong Kong that come with cash and invest in property.

High Muck a Muck Collective is made up of Nicola Harwood, Fred Wah, composer Jin Zhang; and artists/performers Bessie Wapp and Thomas Loh. Significant artistic contributions also came from Nelson performer Hiromoto Ida, visual artist Tomoyo Ihaya, and electronic artist Phillip Djwa. Many community members also contributed oral histories and stories, including Cameron Mah and Lawrence Mar, both of Nelson.

High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese is also an interactive website where all the materials of the exhibition can be experienced online at The project was awarded the New Media Writing Prize in 2015.

Curator: Nicola Harwood
Origin of Exhibition: Oxygen Art Centre (Nelson, BC)

Image credits from top: Tomoyo Ihaya, Richmond Map (2014), watercolour and ink.
Installation image of High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese (2017) at Surrey Art Gallery. Photo by Scott Massey.