Regarde les Chinois : Joe Kan

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Joe Kan

Ceci est la première de cinq entrevues réalisées lorsque j’étais à Beijing en avril dernier, pour la section Regarde les Chinois de CLC. J’ai rencontré Joe Kan, un Canadien Chinois né à Edmonton et qui a étudié et vécu à Montréal pour sept ans, et qui travaille maintenant comme architecte basé à Beijing pour une firme américaine. Après avoir visité un nouveau complexe résidentiel à être construit près du centre de Dongzhimen, nous sommes allé nous asseoir à la succursale toute proche de Din Tai Fung, une chaîne taiwanaise de restaurant connue pour leurs xiao long bao. On a parlé d’Edmonton, de la banlieue et de la redéfinition des espaces urbains et publics en Chine.

This is the first of five interviews that I conducted when I was in Beijing in mid-April, for CLC’s Regarde les Chinois section. I met Joe Kan, an Edmonton-born Canadian Chinese who studied and lived in Montreal for seven years, and who has been for the past year a Beijing-based architect working for an American firm. After visiting a new residential complex in construction near the Dongzhimen hub, we sat at the nearby branch of Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese restaurant chain famous for its xiao long bao. We talked about Edmonton, suburbs, and the redefinition of urban and public spaces in China.

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Comme les Chinois: Where are you from?

Joe Kan: I was born in Edmonton, moved to Montreal for university, and lived in Montreal for about seven years, and then came to Beijing last year.

CLC: Why did you come to Beijing?

I came to Beijing on a scholarship with McGill, to do research on urbanism in Beijing. My travels kind of transformed into working as an architect in China, which is something I’ve always wanted to do anyways.

CLC: How was it growing up in Edmonton?

Well, when I came to Beijing, I realized how small Edmonton is. Actually, when I was living in Montreal, and had to go back to Edmonton, to visit my family, you get a sense that Edmonton is kind of surrounded with farmlands. It’s like a farm city! Edmonton is 95% suburbia. There is no downtown, or if there is, nobody uses it.

CLC: Tell me about public space in China.

The general perspective is that public space is disappearing in China, that the kinds of space that you would see in old cities is disappearing, like the alleyways, the public courtyards and things like that.

I don’t think it’s necessarily the case. I think that public space in China is transforming, in two different directions. One direction is a typical suburban transformation. All the public space gets located inside a mall, so there is a separation between where you live and work, and where you play. The other direction is sort of these new innovative urban spaces, like the one being designed by Steven Holl, where you are incorporating public space within where you live, within where you work. By doing that, you create these new connections between people, these spontaneous happenings within the city that are disappearing because of suburbia.

There is a number of projects in China, especially in Beijing, that are trying to rethink what contemporary public space is. And that’s exciting – and it’s happening at an unprecedented scale in China.

CLC: I think that with the density of population, it will never go back to courtyards, or alleyways. Do you think that’s true?

When you go to the streets right now, even some of the new streets, you still get the sense of the street life that existed for decades. You see these food hawkers, on the side of the road, in this brand new complex. Or these spontaneous grocery stores with all the vegetable and fruits spilling onto the street. These things still happen, even in the new context. I don’t think it’s entirely disappearing. But it’s just like… Everything in China is reappropriated.

*** As we are talking, the waiter is bringing us our order: a steamer of xiao long bao, and some fried tung choy…

CLC: Do you like Din Tai Fung?

…Din Tai Fung is a weird thing. It’s Taiwanese. It’s not even what you would characterize as a modern Chinese restaurant…

CLC: Well, it comes from Taiwan, but that’s (pointing to the xiao long bao) from Shanghai.

It’s a caricature of Chinese cuisine. That’s (pointing to the choy I think) typically Hong Kong, that’s typically Shanghai, and you get some food that is typically Taiwanese… I find that Chinese food is… You can’t really define it, it’s really complex. So, Din Tai Fung kind of offers different flavours, from different parts of the Chinese world. But it’s by no means a Chinese restaurant.

CLC: What do you like the most about China? Or what don’t you like about China?

I like how real people are in China, you know. Real in the sense like… At least in Canada, you’re defined by what kind of clothes you wear, what kind of music you listen to, what you believe in, and things like that. In China, you know, I don’t think that vanity is such an issue. The clothing people wear, people’s habits, they don’t change based on vanity.

People are very proud of where they came from, you know. The kind of question that you ask locals is: “Ni shi nali ren?”, or “Where are you from”. Your rootedness, your sense of where you are from: that gives you identity. And that’s what I like about the Chinese people. They know where they come from.

CLC: And you grew up in Edmonton, and there were not a lot of Chinese people…

Not too much… I mean, there weren’t lots of Chinese people like you would find in Vancouver or Toronto, like whole communities, whole neighbourhoods. People who move to Edmonton, especially Chinese who move to Edmonton, they don’t move because of the climate, they don’t move because it’s the most exhilarating place to live, or most exotic place to live.

Chinese people move to Edmonton primarily because of work. It happened in the 80s, when there was the oil boom. People moved to Edmonton for a lifestyle that they dream for.

CLC: Was it why your parents moved to Edmonton?

I think that might’ve been one of the reasons. Back at that time, there was so much wealth in Alberta because of the oil…

CLC: Well, I mean, it’s happening all over again.

It’s happening all over again, yeah. But this time around, it’s different, because it’s not affordable to live in Edmonton, unless you have a good job, and unless you can afford the housing. But yes, it’s true, a lot of people are moving again, because there are jobs again. That’s a natural…

CLC: Sometimes, people move for the quality of life.

But they quickly realize that the quality of life in Edmonton is not dictated by climate, is not dictated by the quality of the city. By most standards, Edmonton is a suburban city, a city that requires you to own a car…

CLC: What’s your relationship with suburbs?

After living in Montreal for several years, downtown, and in the Plateau, and after living in Beijing for one year, I find that … the quality of life, when you are living in close quarters is dramatically better than when you live in your piece of land in suburbia.

CLC: Changes the personality of people too, I think. Whereas suburbs encourage individuality a lot, people living in huge apartment blocks are more closely-knit. Is that possible? That there is something different about people living in apartment complexes.

Yeah, most truth. But sometimes you find aspect of this kind of (suburban) lifestyle in the middle of the city. The city is supposed to be a rich place, where people from all walks of life come to… There’s a reason why people live together. It’s like when you share a space with roommates, and it’s not only because you want to save money. Because there is these interesting things that can happen when people live together.

So it’s kind of ironic that when people live in the city, they don’t want to reap the benefits of the city. Like, walking on the street, right outside your house… like grocery store within walking distance of your doorstep.

The idea that the city is a place where you are interacting with people that may not be of the same background as you, or the same beliefs, same mentality. You learn from them, people want to learn from those interactions. It’s lost in suburbs.

CLC: Thank you Joe.

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