Thursday, April 28, 2011

Keep Toronto Reading Month

April is Keep Toronto Reading month, which the Toronto public libraries have been celebrating with literary events including authors readings, book signings, book club meetings, panel discussions, presentations, demonstrations and activities for kids, all to promote the love of reading.  I wanted to go to a reading by Andrew Pyper, the author of the last book (The Guardians) read by my book club but unfortunately it was during a work day.

I did attend a presentation by former librarian and now author Arlene Chan titled "From Chop Suey to Peking Duck: The Evolution of Chinese Food in Toronto".  Growing up, Arlene worked at Kwong Chow, her parents' Chinese restaurant in downtown Toronto. She has written a book called "The Chinese in Toronto from 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle", which will be coming out in November.  Her presentation gave a brief history of how and why the Chinese emigrated to Canada and then Toronto, and how Chinese restaurants evolved over time.

She talked about the various regions of China and how the climate, terrain and growing potential influenced the food and styles of cooking.  For example, while rice is the staple of southern China because it could be easily grown, Northern China dealt mostly in wheat products including breads and dumplings.  The most interesting part of her talk revolved around her mother Jean Lumb, who fought to save the initial Chinatown when land was being expropriated to build the New City Hall.  Jean was the first Chinese female to win the Order of Canada for this and numerous other community contributions.  The evening ended with a tastings of Chinese delicacies and a discussion about how fortune cookies and chop suey are not really Chinese food!

Books about the Chinese must be a main theme for this year's festival since the featured book was on the same topic.  It was called "Midnight at the Dragon Cafe" and I attended a book club meeting that was led by the author Judy Fong Bates.

The book is about a family immigrated from China to small town  Irvine Ontario, trying to make a living as the only Chinese family in town while running a small restaurant.  The book deals with themes of unhappiness, isolation and loneliness, familial duty battling against personal dreams and desires. The author paints a vivid picture of what the life was like for Chinese immigrants in small towns in the 1960s.  She draws you into this world through in-depth details mined from her own immigrant childhood growing up in Acton, Ontario where her family owned a laundry. 

The story is told from the point of view of Su-Jen, the young daughter of the family.  She is caught between the old customs, superstitions and the importance of saving face of her family versus the new western ways of her friends and townspeople, which she is quickly adopting as her own.  Through her eyes, many secrets and plot points are innocently foreshadowed before coming to fruition. 

Although my family came to Canada around the same period, my own childhood in downtown Toronto was quite different. I was too young to remember much about Hong Kong so I never experienced the family's feelings of alienation.  We first moved into the Chinatown area in Toronto, so in my early school days, the little white boy was the minority in my class.  However I did recognize many of the particulars and traditions described in the book, which had a very authentic and sometimes almost stereotypical feel.  Rich is currently also reading the book so it will be interesting to hear his perspective as a Caucasian reader.  Had he read it prior to meeting me, the cultural shock would have been greater, but so far he still has gained much insight into "what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land".
Judy Fong Bates is a vivacious speaker and spent most of the book club meeting fielding questions both about the plot of the book, as well as questions about her life in contrast to the heroine in the book, her writing processes and career.  She is a gifted story teller and told many amusing anecdotes during the Q&A.  She explained that she didn't start writing until her 40s because as a young girl without any other Chinese role models, she did not feel what she had to say was interesting or worthy of sharing. While the book is not autobiographical, she did claim to relate to many of the themes explored.

She wrapped up the meeting with a reading from the book. While she spoke English with absolutely no accent, when she read phoneticized Chinese dialogue from the book, she easily switched to perfectly pronounced Chinese village dialect that was obviously her mother tongue. 

Recently on one of our walks, we stumbled upon a plaque that stands at the North East end of the Bloor viaduct. It describes an enthralling tale of the building of the bridge and an incident where a woman almost plunged to her death but is saved, at least temporarily, by a worker who had been dangling underneath doing repair work.  At first I thought this was one of the many historical plaques that are found throughout Toronto.  I was mesmerized by the lyrical description of the story, made all the more poignant by standing at the spot where the action took place.  Looking at it more closely, I realized that this was actually an excerpt from Michael Ondaatje's book "In the Skin of a Lion". This was a plaque for Project Bookmark Canada.

Project Bookmark Canada celebrates Canadian writing by placing bookmarks across Canada that mark real locations featured in fictionalized stories and poems.  There are two more bookmarks in Toronto (Anne Michael's Fugitive Pieces at the corner of College and Manning, Ken Babcock's poem "Essentialist" across from St. George subway) as well as ones in Ottawa, Owen Sound and Kingston.  There is currently a call out for readers to find locations in Vancouver and hopefully this is just the start of many more to come across Canada.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Danforth Ave Walk

The stretch of Danforth Ave. between Broadview and Jones is the location of the yearly "Taste of the Danforth" festival in August.  Although this area was originally known as Greek town and still has many Greek restaurants, it now also hosts an eclectic set of restaurants including English pubs, Japanese, Italian, Indian, Chinese, Spanish, Brazilian, Thai and Continental.  But if you've been to that festival lately, you will know that it is too packed with people to maneuver.  So instead of trying to fight the crowds, taking a leisurely stroll on sunny spring day is so much more enjoyable.

How could we possibly walk through an area known as Greek town without sampling Greek specialties?  When we got to Athens Pastries, we noticed a huge line-up almost out the door, so without stopping to figure out what they were lining up for we joined the queue. What we got was fresh out of the oven Spanokapita, which is a phyllo pastry with spinach and feta cheese. We got some to go, and while it was delicious, we did burn our tongues a bit!  At Louis Authentic Gyros and Souvlaki, we watched as the cook put a couple of french fries in with the pita toppings, just like they did when we visited Greece

And as always, we scouted out potential future dining opportunities.  Aravind seemed like an interesting Indian Fusion restaurant mixing "the flavours of South India with Great Lakes fish, Canadian seafood and seasonal produce".  Their menu featured items such as "Banana wrapped Ontario Whole Fish", "Dungeness Crab Biryani", "Rainbow Trout Pakoras".

Passing through The Big Carrot Natural Food Market was a unique experience.  Where other shops usually offer samples of sweet and savoury snacks, here I tasted a healthy medley of spinach, collards, rapinni, yellow beans and onion sauteed in roasted garlic and olive oil. 

Continuing along, we spotted all sorts of quirky and delightful stores and items including the home accessories and furnishing store named Bullet.  They are currently having a moving sale, featuring giant wrought iron Eiffel towers, Will and Kate wedding plates, and these rubber duckies dressed up as British foot guards.  It's too bad that this store will soon no longer be on the Danforth, but it is moving to Queen St. East in Leslieville, which is another great area to walk.

In a store called La Di Dah, we bought this whimsical salt and pepper shaker called "Salt and Pants" to add to my collection.

Further down in a kitchen store, we spotted the cutest cookie cutters that made images of not-too-happy gingerbread men who already had a bite taken out of them.

We also liked the Easter themed display window in the children's clothing store "100-Mile Child", featuring a small mannequin dressed up like little-pink-riding-hood, sporting a t-shirt that read "Whatever Happens at Grandma's, Stays at Grandma's".  Speaking of mannequins, one clothing store had a very modern stylistic one consisting of a steel sculptured head and frame. 

Stopping by the party supply and costume store called It's My Party is always fun.  They always have something interesting in their store window, even when it's not Halloween.  This time there were a pair of giant rabbits each dressed in a suit of armour - in honour of Easter??  In the other window was a giant pink gorilla sporting a Hawaiian lei and beach hat.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

AGO - Inuit Modern and David Blackwood Newfoundland Paintings

We saw several new exhibits at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  The first was called Inuit Modern and featured the impressive personal collection of Samuel and Esther Sarick, consisting of over 175 works which they've now donated to the AGO.  Amongst these were two iconic prints from the 1950s to 60s Cape Dorset era - The Enchanted Owl by Kengiuak Ashevok and Man Hunting at a Seal Hole by Niviaksiak, each print copy worth tens of thousands at Waddington auctions.  Rich and I lusted over Niviaksiak's seal skin stencil, admiring the rich vibrant aquamarine colour and pictured the perfect place for it in our home.... if only ...

The collection included many more prints, sketchings and drawings as well as a wide collection of stone and whale bone carvings.   Two unique carvings of note stood out for me and gave credence to the title of the exhibit - Inuit "Modern".  The first was called Shaman's Crash and melded a Shaman's head into the front of a crashed airplane split in two.  The second depicted the typical image of Sedna the sea goddess but shockingly nailed to a Christian cross.  Both these sculptures show how modern times and Western culture have influenced Inuit art. This impact was also prevalent in the current drawings depicting items like skidoos, kitchen appliances and cornflakes.

While the carvings were beautiful, most of them depicted typical themes of dancing bears, shamans, women carrying babies, etc.  There was one "sculpture" that consisted of what looked like a smooth grey rock in the form of a half trapozoid ... the sculpture version of minimalism contemporary art?  Didn't work for me!

In comparison we found the private Inuit art collection of Christopher Bredt and Jamie Cameron that was exhibited in 2010 at the Art Gallery of Hamilton to be much more interesting because of the uniqueness of their pieces, especially the sculptures.  That collection included wimsical renderings of an owl, in insect, what looked to me like Dracula or the character from Edvard Munch's The Scream, and face carving that seemed more European in style than Inuit.

The next exhibit was called "Black Ice" by Newfoundland artist David Blackwood.  It consisted of a haunting series of  prints depicting themes of isolation, dangers and hardships of the life in little fishing villages like Wesleyville where he was born and Bragg's Island where his grandparents lived.  Recurring images in his art include whales, icebergs, ships and shipwrecks, fires, fishing, seal hunting, village life and customs such as mummering (the tradition of visiting friends and family while dressed up in disguise during the Christmas season).  Based on the titles of his prints, the subjects seem almost autobiographical, depicting scenes and people inspired from his childhood. Prints with names such as Glam Glover's Dream, Uncle Sam Kelloway's Place, Uncle Eli Glover Moving, Edgar Glover's Cod Splitting Table, Captain Abram Kean Awaiting the Return of the Lost Party, make you wonder about the fascinating stories behind them.

An entire room is devoted to showing the step by step process behind one of his best known works - Fire Down on the Labrador.  Starting with a quick rough pencil sketch, the work is expanded upon with each additional print progressively showing more detail and colour until the final version is reached.  In the centre of the room, the copper etching that is used to produce the print is displayed and the etching process is explained.   This print encapsulates all the primary dangers of a seaman's existence - fire on the ship, the looming icebergs, the dark of night and the menacing sea creatures below.

Finally we viewed a room devoted to Aesop's Fables with a brief history of the possible origins of Aesop.  Old books of fables were accompanied by black and white as well as coloured drawings.  Fables are short stories involving talking animals or mythical creatures interacting with each other and ended with a morale, such as the Tortoise and the Hare - slow and steady wins the Race.  It seemed to me though that some of the tales and morales were a bit dark and mean-spirited in their teachings.  One story told of a fox who had a stork over for dinner and played a trick on him so that the stork could not easily eat the meal.  So the stork returned the favour, teaching you that "One good spite deserves another"?  Or maybe "Tit for tat"? "An eye for an eye"?  What happened to "Turn the other cheek"?

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

List of Festivals and Events for Toronto 2011

After a long cold winter, spring is approaching and it's the start of festival season in Toronto.  Here is a list of some notable upcoming festivals and events for 2011.  This is by no means a complete list but it gives a good idea of all the wonderful things going on in Toronto throughout the year.  More info about each event can be found on the internet.

Date                      Event
Mar 30-Apr 3       One of a Kind Spring Show
Apr 1-Apr 30        Keep Toronto Reading @ public libraries
Apr 28-May 8       Hot Docs
May 1-31              Contact Photography Exhibition
May 7-8                Jane Walk 
May 28-29            Doors Open Toronto 
June 10-19           Luminato 
June 11                 Yonge-Lawrence Village Day
June 12                 Bloor Street Festival
June 17-19           Taste of Little Italy
June 24-July 3      Pride Week
June 24-July 3      Toronto Jazz Festival
June 25-26           Toronto Island Garden Tour
July 1-3                 CHIN International Picnic
July 6-17               Toronto Fringe Festival
July 2-3                 Corso Italian Fiesta
July 8-10               Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition
July 8-10                Honda Indy Toronto
July 8-24                Summerlicious
July 14-Aug 2       Caribana
July 15-24             Beaches Jazz Festival
July 2011              Just For Laughs Toronto
Aug 5-8              Taste of the Danforth
Aug 19-Sep 5      Canadian National Exhibition
Sept 9-11             Cabbagetown Festival
Sept 8-18            Toronto International Film Festival
Sep 25                 Word on the Street
Oct 16                  Toronto Waterfront Marathon
October 1             Nuit Blanche
Oct 19-29             International Festival of Authors
Oct 22                  Zombie Walk
Oct  29                 Night of the Dead
Nov 4-13              Royal Agricultural Winter Fair
Nov 9                  Flash Forward Festival
Nov 24-Dec 4     One of a Kind Christmas show
Nov 26                 Cavalcade of Lights