Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

Celestials of Saltwater City


Howie Tsui
Celestials of Saltwater City

Exhibition: May 28 – July 2, 2011
Opening: Friday May 27, 8 pm | Live Frescoe: 6 – 8 pm
Performance: Friday, June 10, 9 pm

Curator: Makiko Hara

Project Patron:  Anndraya T. Luui
Special thanks to: BC Arts Council Special Project Assistance – Innovations

Centre A presents solo exhibition of Howie Tsui, Celestials of Saltwater City.

Celestials of Saltwater City consists of two bodies of works, Horror Fables, a series of paintings and a multi-media sculpture that incorporates projection and newly commissioned performance and multi-media installationCelestials of Saltwater City.

Ottawa based artist Howie Tsui hybridizes historical traditions from Japan with the aesthetic sensibilities of underground culture. For his most recent exhibit Horror Fables, he uses imagery from ancient Asian ghost stories to satirize the disturbing climate of fear in contemporary society. By juxtaposing disparate cultural practices, Tsui emphasizes the contrast between the way fear was used in historical Asian fables to encourage morality as opposed to its deployment in modern society, where a pervasive climate of terror is used to further partisan political and economic interests. With an emphasis on faux-antiquity and hyper-narration, Tsui’s works are comprised of characters, scenes and landscapes sourced from old Asian ghost tales, Buddhist hell scrolls, ancient bestiaries, Hong Kong vampire films and anecdotes of supernatural encounters from his own family’s ancestral origin. Horror Fables is comprised of a series of paintings executed on mulberry paper, complemented by site-specific, ephemeral wall frescoes and a multi-media sculpture that incorporates video projection. All these components are situated in a haunting gallery atmosphere accompanied by an unnerving audio collage culled from Asian horror films.

Celestials of Saltwater City

Centre A commissioned Howie Tsui to create a new body of installation work entitled Celestials of Saltwater City. Stories from Vancouver’s Chinese community will be compiled, re-interpreted, and transformed into otherworldly fables that will “deify” Chinese immigrants from the turn of the century until now. This approach will destabilize the prevailing historical portrayal of this group from nondescript, victimized and hapless labourers to that of mythic beings sourced from ancient Chinese cosmology and bestiaries. This new piece will be presented in the form of Japanese magic lanterns called ‘utsushi-e’ – an 18th century, pre-cinema haunting storytelling tradition that combines live narration, music, illustrated transparencies and projections.

A one night projection & story telling event at Centre A will be held on Friday, June 10, 2011, starting at 9 pm.


In Celestials of Saltwater City, stories about family, labour and superstitious traditions will be re-interpreted and transformed into otherworldly divinity tales. By weaving together excerpts of these recollections with images sourced from Chinese cosmology and bestiaries, my hope is to alleviate any trauma or ‘allegorical ghosts’ that may still haunt the collective memory of Chinatown. The performance will re-animate forgotten technology, spaces and histories.

“Celestial” was a racist term used against Chinese immigrants, but it also means an otherworldly being. In a way, I will be fantasizing these collected stories to exaggerate the characterization of the Chinese during those old times as a strange, mysterious almost supernatural other. Faithful to the fantastic tendencies of utsushi-e, this piece will provide room for unconscious exploration that will dilute the weighty subject of hardship and discrimination with the absurd and whimsical.

The use of magic lantern projectors and the utsushi-e medium is a natural extension of my interest in reviving archaic art forms and genres from East Asia, whether it is Hokusai’s manga (Of Manga & Mongrels) or hell scrolls and ghost stories (Horror Fables).

On a personal level, as a Chinese immigrant who grew up in Thunder Bay in the 1980’s, this project allows me to connect my isolated experience with a greater and historically present Chinese Canadian community in Vancouver.


Howie Tsui is a Canadian visual artist based in Ottawa. Born in Hong Kong (1978) and raised in Nigeria and Thunder Bay, he holds an Honours BFA in painting from the University of Waterloo (2002). His recent scroll painting project, Horror Fables, uses imagery from traditional Asian ghost tales, Buddhist hell scrolls, ancient bestiaries, Hong Kong vampire films and the Sino-Japanese War to satirize the climate of fear in contemporary culture. In 2005, he was awarded the Joseph S. Stauffer Prize from the Canada Council for the Arts for most outstanding young visual artist. His work is held by the Canada Council Art Bank and Le Centre d’exposition de Baie-Saint-Paul,and has been shown in North America, Europe, Australia and Mexico. Horror Fables was recently exhibited at Carleton University Art Gallery (Ottawa), Ace Art Inc (Winnipeg), the West Vancouver Museum, and the Ottawa Art Gallery; with future shows at MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels) and Centre A (Vancouver).

Artist’s website:

Media contact: Makiko Hara (Curator), [email protected]
Chinese Media contact: Debra Zhou, [email protected]


Centre A gratefully acknowledges the support of all its patrons, sponsors, members, partners, private foundations, and government funding agencies, including the Canada Council for the Arts, the British Columbia Arts Council, and the City of Vancouver through the Office of Cultural Affairs.

The artist gratefully acknowledges the support of Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the City of Ottawa.