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A brush with the past

Neighbourhood Small Grants

The lined faces of the senior citizens watch in awe as Master artist Siu Chang Wong gently glides his fine, horsehair brush over the delicate rice paper. With a few fluid strokes, a beautiful image is born.

The audience is impressed. But they are also watching carefully, because soon it will be their turn to take up brushes.

“The black ink is the most important part,” the soft spoken Wong says, a perpetual smile in his eyes. “Coloured paint is just used to complement the black ink. It is the ink that allows you to create shade and depth.”

The seniors — some Chinese, others South Asian and Caucasian —  are gathered at Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House in South Vancouver for lessons in traditional Chinese brush painting and calligraphy. Each is expected to try their hand at painting and producing works of art.

The free course has been organized by a diminutive dynamo named Mabel Leung. A senior citizen herself, fast-talking Leung is the ultimate volunteer and organizer. She can fire off a list of her volunteer projects at such a rate you can’t write them down fast enough.

It was Leung’s background in the arts (she got a Fine Arts degree in Hong Kong) and a love of giving back to the community that sparked her idea to bring traditional Chinese brush painting to Canadians.

She says she wanted to introduce the beauty of the ancient art form to people in her adopted country, hoping to show that anyone could learn to paint if they were willing to observe and open to expressing themselves. In particular, she wanted to reach out to senior citizens, many of whom live in isolation, have little money and enjoy few creative outlets.

“I met a woman who, in her 90s, starting learning how to do Chinese brush painting,” Leung recalls. “Even though she had never painted before, she turned into an amazing artist. … She did the best bamboo painting I have ever seen.”

Leung turned to Master Wong to help fulfill her dream. Wong is a well-known, traditional Chinese brush painting artist who immigrated to Canada in 1969. His humble demeanor belies a man with extraordinary talents. His paintings have been published and also featured in exhibits across Canada, and several of his works hang in private collections. His watercolours span a range of subjects, although he’s partial to painting birds and insects.

“Mr. Wong is very generous,” says Leung. “He has donated many of his paintings to raise money for charity.”

So it wasn’t a stretch for Wong when Leung asked him to volunteer as instructor for the senior’s course.

Leung applied for and received a small grant of $500 from Vancouver Foundation’s Neighbourhood Small Grants program. To ensure the course could be free, she had the classroom space donated by Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House, and decided all paints and inks would be shared. That way no one would have to buy supplies.

“At first, some of the seniors were hesitant. They spent the first workshop just watching how it was done,” Wong says. “Traditional Chinese brush painting is very different from painting with oils or acrylics. You need to learn how to hold the brush.”

Before they knew it, the little classroom was overflowing with a cross-cultural group of eager seniors, clamouring to make their own art pieces. One such student was Joseph Ho, a former civil servant from Hong Kong. Ho had learned Chinese calligraphy at the age of 17. Now retired, and with more time on his hands, he was eager to learn more about Chinese art forms.

“I took a contemporary Chinese painting course, but also wanted to learn the more traditional techniques,” the youngish-looking Ho says. “The big difference between contemporary and traditional Chinese painting, which are both done with watercolours, is that the traditional style doesn’t use any backgrounds.”

After only 10 months of study and practice, Ho has developed into an accomplished painter, and says he plans take more of the workshops. It is more than just learning to paint that attracts him to the course, it’s fellowship with other retirees.

Some seniors have benefitted in unexpected ways. One woman, who struggled for several years looking after an ill husband, says she has found refuge in painting, and feels a sense of peace whenever she gets a chance to create. For this woman, Chinese brush painting offered a chance to escape the stresses and strains of her daily life.

These are the riches and benefits Leung wanted to share with others. And she is grateful for the small NSG grant that helped make it possible.

“We are very thankful to Vancouver Foundation,” she says with a slight bow of her head.

And dozens of Vancouver seniors are grateful to Leung for bringing the past into the present; for bridging diverse cultures; and rekindling artistic ability in those who may have long forgotten what it’s like to be creative.

For more information on the NSG program, visit the Foundation’s website at or call 604.688.2204.


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