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From the Homeless Shelter, a Set of Portraits

Inside An Dong’s visual census of the Downtown Eastside.

Christopher Cheung 6 Jun 2024The Tyee

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on X @bychrischeung.

On early mornings after breakfast, An Dong chats up one of his homeless peers at the Union Gospel Mission shelter and asks to draw their portrait.

They take about an hour, and as he captures the details of their faces in charcoal, he hears snippets of their stories. Themes of addictions and health struggles often emerge, but also sharing about their homes far away, their loved ones and what brought them to Vancouver and the Downtown Eastside.

“That’s not my own creativity,” Dong said on a recent Thursday, showing the many faces of people he’s met and drawn. “I just use my hands, my pencils and my brushes to describe their lives and experiences.”

Rows of charcoal sketches of people line a white wall. They’re in brown, red and grey.
Detail of three portraits in brown charcoal. The one in the centre depicts a bald man with a cross in the background.
After each portrait, An Dong invites his subject to contribute some text in their own hand, a signature or a thought. Here, one subject muses on his faith. Photos for The Tyee by Christopher Cheung.

His work caught the attention of staff at UGM.

“I’ve witnessed him be able to talk to someone and that person tells him their whole life story. He just soaks it in and puts it into the drawing,” said Sarah Chew, who works in media relations for the non-profit.

Dong has been staying at the shelter for over a year. In that time, he’s amassed over 100 portraits. Unless he’s commissioned for a portrait, he doesn’t like to give the originals away, though he’s happy to photocopy them for his subjects.

Together, the collection of faces is a visual census of those passing through the streets of the neighbourhood.

In the day, he wheels a metal cart around with all his possessions. He paints at the nearby Coast Mental Health centre, which supports artists in the neighbourhood and welcomes them to use its studio and supplies for free.

Two paintings stand on grey metal easels in an indoor studio space.
In addition to producing charcoal sketches, An Dong is an avid outdoor painter. This is a scene from the Strathcona neighbourhood near the shelter. He makes use of the studio space at the Coast Mental Health centre. Photo for The Tyee by Christopher Cheung.

Like many Downtown Eastsiders, he too has moved from place to place, working job to job.

Dong is from Qingdao, China, where he studied fine art for most of his life before embarking on a career as an interior designer, working on everything from homes to hotels to supermarkets.

But when he arrived in Canada in 2006 at age 42, he found it hard to continue his profession in a new country, a challenge faced by many immigrants.

“I didn’t have local experience,” he lamented, with employers passing him over for others who did.

As a result, he picked up jobs here and there, from washing dishes at restaurants to carpentry for a firm that makes architectural scale models of the city’s latest condos to be pre-sold.

In 2014, Dong made a move to Calgary. He received a provincial grant to learn English and ended up being captivated by Albertan culture, hence the cowboy hat he likes to wear. But in the middle of the pandemic, his landlord sold the house where he was renting, and the new owner evicted him.

Dong returned to British Columbia, staying in the sunroom of a friend’s house in New Westminster. But when that friend wanted to do some renovations, Dong had to leave.

Since April 2023, Dong has been living in shelters, mostly at UGM, with a three-month stint in Victoria, where he tried to sell art to locals and tourists at the harbour. He came away from it with a mere $600.

An Dong is seated with his back turned to the camera, wearing a tan Aztec patterned jacket and a green camo hat. His long black hair is tied back, and he holds a sketchbook in front of him while drawing a brown charcoal rendering of the bearded man seated across from him.
An Dong studied fine art for most of his life. But the skills he honed professionally in his home country did not translate to employment in Canada, where he moved in his early 40s. Photo courtesy of Union Gospel Mission.

In that time, he’s been on the wait-list for transitional housing run by UGM. Until then, he’s back at the shelter every night to line up for a bed — first-come, first-served.

Dong is an example of a kind of “hidden homelessness” that isn’t talked about enough, says Chew. This refers to people who aren’t on the streets but have no permanent home.

Having moved around, Dong has lots to chat about with his subjects. They come from across Canada, with Cree, Inuit and Attawapiskat roots, and around the world, from India to Guatemala.

“The community treasures it a lot,” said Chew. “It’s a way of capturing a moment in time. One man got really, really emotional. I don’t think he has a phone, so he’s not taking selfies of himself. He said, ‘Other than this, I only have one or two photos of me in my lifetime.’”

Many Downtown Eastsiders are creative people, and UGM is in the process of finding ways to showcase their talents, which is an important way for them to hold on to their skills and sense of self while living at the shelter, says Chew.

UGM and the Coast Mental Health centre are among a number of places in the neighbourhood that encourage locals to express their artistic side, from journalistic or poetic writing at Megaphone magazine to the many programs at the Carnegie Community Centre.

A sketchbook reveals a grey charcoal portrait of a bald man with a moustache.
People treasure the portraits An Dong makes of them — they help them feel seen and valued. Photo courtesy of Union Gospel Mission.

Dong has a challenge as an artist without a home: where to store your art?

Canvases are particularly challenging. He slips them into gaps between buildings of the Downtown Eastside to be retrieved later.

But sometimes, they go missing, like one of his paintings of the Hotel Europe, the Flatiron-like building in Gastown.

“I hid it in a bush in the park,” he said. “Two days later, I went to the street market and saw a guy selling my painting. I tried to take it back and pay him $5. He didn’t give it back to me!”

Whenever Dong finishes a portrait, one of his signatures is not his own signature at all — he’ll invite the subject to contribute. They might write their name, their thoughts that day or where they’re coming to the Hastings Street shelter from.

“He’s had his own experience of homelessness for years now, and instead of concentrating on his own lived experience, he’s trying to uplift others who are going through the same,” said Chew. “I think that’s where he showcases his empathy. It just shows a beautiful dichotomy of two people working together on a piece of art.”

Dong knows that his unhoused neighbours are some of the most marginalized people in the city, struggling with everything from poverty to their mental and physical health. But there’s humanity too, and he hopes people from outside the neighbourhood who may view them with stigma will be able to see them with fresh eyes through his portraits.

“I think there’s beauty in this genre of art,” he said.

“I hope society pays attention.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Art, Housing

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