Here’s a story of the moment for a certain fast globalizing city:
A powerful artwork, born of graffiti, is erected to shine over and pay respects to the working-class side of town. The Monument to East Vancouver, otherwise known as the East Van Cross, now risks being overshadowed, even blotted from view, by a shiny new corporate headquarters.
The headquarters is for a granola-bar maker named Nature’s Path Foods. Whose CEO illegally cut down trees.
The city hems and haws, while the artist who crafted the iconic artwork waits with the rest of us to find out what will happen to his beloved creation.
The artist is Ken Lum, a true child of the city. He grew up in the east side neighbourhood of Strathcona. Although his career has taken him from performance to public art, as well as around the globe, Vancouver remains his place of origin.
Born the day after his mother arrived in Vancouver, Lum started school at Admiral Seymour Elementary and studied chemistry at SFU, all before figuring out that what he really wanted to do was make art.
Lum is currently the Marilyn Jordan Taylor Presidential Professor and chair of the department of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design. Later this month, he will return home to launch a new book and public art installation.
“It’s not just that I don’t recognize the city anymore. I don’t feel it anymore,” he tells me over the phone. “There’s a deeper sense that the soul has disappeared.”
Lum details his winding journey in the opening essay of Everything is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life 1991-2018, a new anthology of his essays and artwork published by Concordia University Press.
In clear, plain language, the events and experiences that shaped him are laid out — family, class, race, ambition, fear, failure, and the strange places from which help can arrive. Vancouver occupies a central role in this formative narrative.
And though he pines for his hometown’s soul, he wants to make one thing clear. “Vancouver is not a cadaver.”
Rather, it’s a city full of ghosts. In a talk given at Sam Sullivan’s Public Salon back in 2010, Lum recounted how kids often had to climb under the freight train that was parked in front of Admiral Seymour Elementary for hours on end, in order to access their classrooms.
“Every so often the cars would start to move,” he said, adding there was a rumour that a child was killed under one.*
The image of a dead child resurfaces every time Lum returns to his old neighbourhood.
As Lum recounted in his talk, ghosts of the city’s past are everywhere, including at the foot of Denman Street, once home to a Hawaiian community, some of whom were comfort women brought in by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
In Hogan’s Alley, the site of the city’s first black community, many of the residents were porters for CP Rail.
In Still Creek, near Renfrew Street, Chinese labourers who worked on the railway lived and died. Lum’s own grandfather was one of the last of the Chinese workers to immigrate to Canada and work on the CPR line.
Ideally, these “liminal beings,” as Lum describes them, should haunt us, but as he bluntly states: “People don’t seem to care about their ghosts in Vancouver. I grew up in East Vancouver, its complex and rich past is wiped away in the name of money.”
Lum's new public artwork is situated in Burnaby.
“The official title of the artwork is The Retired Draft Horse and the Last Pulled Log,” says Lum, adding, “So far, there’s no word of inauguration. I think it just gets installed.”
Lum says the location is part of what drew him to the project. “It’s on a sharp triangle, about two-thirds of an acre, a fair size on top of a long rise on Kingsway, so it’s a highly visible site.”
As the description on the Ballard Fine Arts site says, the horse, “no longer called to work, sits at the corner of a busy plaza, watching a parade of pedestrians and automobiles, surveying the modernity that has transpired since its working days in Burnaby.”
Lum is interested in the history of equestrian monuments in Canada. His image of an elderly workhorse, still in harness, its legs collapsing underneath, resounds in different ways, especially at a time when public art divides a place already riven with social and economic disparity.
And there is perhaps a more personal aspect to the sculpture, revealed by reading Lum’s written work. Many of the collected essays in Everything is Relevant take inspiration from the lives and labour of working people, beginning with Lum’s own mother.
In keeping with that spirit, Lum’s Monument to East Vancouver heralds Vancouver’s historic, economic and social divide, inhabiting a bald spit of land and rattled by the constant roar of trucks on Clark Drive. The cross is imbued with multiple meanings — part rogue marker, part symbol of succor.
The origins of the work, as well as the critical importance of its location, are addressed in Lum’s description on his website: “Over the years, the symbol has been adopted as an emblem for East Vancouver as a whole, but its appearance has generally been tentative rather than overt. The lack of overtness is, I feel, symptomatic of the underlying meanings that the symbol expresses. These meanings have to do with problems of injustice, inequality, subjugation and the trauma of poverty and acculturation, particularly as it relates to immigrant life.... It is an expression of hope and defiance.”
From the day it appeared, the cross struck a chord in Vancouver, everyone wanting a piece of its rebel spirit. Even a former Hell’s Angel once claimed he held copyright of the image.
Lum remembers the immediate response to the work from the day it was erected. “The city was administering it, and they just put it up one morning and never said anything. Every chat room was talking about it.”
People zipping down Clark Drive the morning the cross went up must have thought the second coming was nigh. Looking toward downtown, the cross has always reminded me of the statue of Christ the Redeemer that overlooks Rio de Janeiro. There’s the same kind of spare beneficence coming off of it, especially at night, when its glow can be seen from the SkyTrain line, lighting the way home to the scrappier part of town.
When that planned 10-storey headquarters of Nature’s Path Foods is built right alongside, the conjunction will fundamentally alter the nature of the work. Even in the architectural renderings, the public artwork and the new office building appear to be engaged in a stare down.
Lum is less than pleased with the situation, citing the irony of a company whose CEO was once fined for cutting down the trees that blocked the view of his Point Grey home. (Nature’s Cleared Path might be a better name for the company.)
Whether the cross will stay in its current location or be moved somewhere else has yet to be determined, but the process has been less than ideal in Lum’s opinion. “Cultural capital,” he says, “still isn’t recognized in Vancouver, the way it is in other centres.” Finding a new home for the cross, he says, can never replicate its “perfect setting.”
I’d always assumed that Lum must have received royalties for the image, though as he notes the combination of the words “East Van” emblazoned on a cross had been in existence since the early 1940s.
Despite its iconic status, Lum says he made less than $1,000 after the budget for the work was exhausted. Still, the image pops up everything from t-shirts to Christmas ornaments.
“My design has a copyright that I transferred to the city,” he explains. “If people want to use it, they only need to contact the city. I’m fine with coffee mugs and such. But not so if it is some major company wanting to use it. I like that my design of the cross shows up on t-shirts, bibs, etc.”
In a city where a developer commissioned a $5 million chandelier to hang under a bridge and wink at the idea of public art, no one could accuse Lum of chasing similar prizes. In an essay entitled "Dear Steven," he contrasts the insularity, privilege and obliviousness of the artworld with the grittier aspects of growing up poor in East Vancouver.
“When I was six years old my mother would wake me in the middle of the night. After breakfast we would walk to the edge of Chinatown, where a delivery truck would pick us up. It would be filled with elderly Chinese seated on small wooden stools. They would be holding onto a thick rope hooked to the wall in lieu of safety belts. My mother and I would climb aboard, and the doors would be shut behind us. The interior would be completely dark except for a beam a light that would stream in through a slit located at the top of the doors... I accompanied my mother to these fields during the summer months in order to help support our family financially. I was not the only child doing. But I was the youngest. Perhaps this is why my elderly traveling companions treated me with such affection.”
From the time he was six-years-old, he was determined to lift his family out of poverty. But his mother worked in the hard conditions of Keefer Laundry until she died. His grandparents worked in the fields in Cloverdale.
If art and work have a long-tangled history in Lum’s oeuvre, so do the complex interchanges of class, race and culture.
In another essay entitled To Say or Not To Say, Lum recounts how his grandmother made her way after work in Manhattan to his art opening in New York. “Into the black suits of the art world, comes this little woman.”
He remembers her calling his name in Cantonese and says there was a moment of being exposed, of having his working-class Chinese-ness revealed amidst the tony climes of the Manhattan art scene.
But at the same time, he says there was a profound sense of recognition and love, as his grandmother demanded, “Who are all these people? What is all this stuff on the walls?”
“I felt a deep kinship and a surge of affection for her,” says Lum. “I still get this frisson when I think about her voice.”
This kind of experience is a reminder to be who you are, to strip away the veneer and keep it real, to remember where you came from. As Lum says, “Don’t put on airs, treat everyone fairly and with respect. Always be curious.”
This story has been changed on Feb. 11 at 11 a.m. to correct some inaccuracies. Lum studied chemistry at SFU, not UBC, as previously stated. He is also not certain a child was killed under the tracks near his house, as previously stated. A previous version of this column also noted that Lum chose to situate his new artwork in Burnaby, but in fact he won a commission for the site.