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Victoria artist’s new exhibit explores Canadian identity through immigrant family’s eyes

Chrystal Phan depicts scenes from her childhood growing up Vietnamese-Canadian
Victoria artist Chrystal Phan poses with her painting Pool Party at the Chapel Gallery ahead of her exhibit opening Jan. 21. (Courtesy of Chrystal Phan)

A Victoria artist’s large-scale paintings will immerse gallery goers into the everyday experiences of a Vietnamese-Canadian family finding its footing in a new country.

Based on her childhood as the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Chrystal Phan’s six-part series, Once for a While, is intended to feel both foreign and familiar.

In one painting, an upset young girl can be seen arms crossed at the end of a crowded dinner table. Seated next to an ancestral altar teeming with food, Phan still remembers being confused why she wasn’t allowed to eat it.

“She’s in the back, no one is noticing her and she’s having a traumatic moment. And if she were to tell the adults, they would probably just laugh at her,” Phan said. “I know everybody has had that kind of experience, no matter what your background is.”

In other paintings, a mother turns her first ever Christmas turkey into a curry, having never seen that kind of bird before, and a family takes a deep fat fryer on a camping trip.

The feelings behind them are universal and the experiences themselves are somewhat mundane, but the people living them and the artist telling them are different. Phan’s paintings promise to expand viewers’ understanding of what it means to be Canadian.

“I hope they show an experience that gives you a view into a different life,” she said.

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Growing up, Phan always felt uncomfortable in art galleries.

“This is due in part to the underrepresentation of subjects I could relate to. From my experience, collections exhibited in Victoria rarely depicted Asian figures; when they were, they were characterized as exotic or magical,” Phan wrote on her website.

The feeling continued into adulthood. Phan remembers attending a Royal B.C. Museum exhibit in 2017, which explored what family means to different communities in B.C., and seeing no Vietnamese representation. In 2018, she read a local magazine article about food vendors in Victoria’s Chinatown, where 11 of those featured were white and only one was Asian.

Once for a While is Phan’s response to the under- and misrepresentation of people from diverse backgrounds in mainstream culture. It is her way of carving out space for voices and experiences like her own to be seen and valued. It’s also Phan’s way of building understanding and shared experiences between different communities and cultures.

“I think in order to move past some challenges, we kind of have to focus on the things that connect us, rather than things that keep us separate,” she said.

Her work is on display at the Chapel Gallery in St. Matthias Anglican Church, 600 Richmond Ave., from Jan. 21 to Feb. 6, with an artist talk set for opening night at 5:30 p.m.

Tickets for the talk can be found at

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About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media after starting as a community reporter in Greater Victoria.
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