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'Identity is more complex than we think'

GIVING VOICE. Activist and artist Samuel Chow embraces the cultural complexities of being young, queer and an immigrant. Credit: Paula Wilson

Twenty-two year old videomaker Samuel Chow remembers emigrating with his family from Hong Kong to Mississauga when he was nine. “When we first moved, I was bored. There was nothing to do. It was so quiet compared to Hong Kong. And I was the token person of colour.



“Both Canadian culture and established Chinese Canadian culture were very different from what I knew.”



Cultural expectations are at the heart of Chow’s two short videos playing at the Reel Asian Film Festival this week.



Auditions To Be The Next Canadian is a jokey series of snippets with Chow addressing such Canadiana as Lloyd Robertson, SARS and beer. As any actor who’s endured real auditions knows, there is this awful special K feeling to the endeavour (as in Kafka, not breakfast cereal), they’re forced to play a game whose ever-changing rules are never apparent – something which Chow manages to evoke in the roughly hewn two-minute piece (screening at 1pm on Fri, Nov 28 in the Toe Your Own Line program at the NFB, 150 John St; $5).



In the award-winning Banana Boy, Chow provides an intimate look at his indeterminate identity as a first-generation immigrant.



The seven-minute piece is a heartfelt examination of home and belonging. It begins with memories of his final month in Hong Kong, watching news of the Tiananmen uprising in Beijing with its unrealized “dream” of democracy and freedom.



Once in Canada, Banana Boy shifts to his parents’ conflicting expectations for him: assimilation versus respect for heritage. Banana is the term used by his father to denote negatively Asians who have lost their heritage. Banana boy is a term Chow uses, somewhat ruefully, to describe himself. Not Chinese and not Canadian, maybe Chinese Canadian or Canadian Chinese – his identity remains open-ended, enigmatic.



The complexity increases when Chow discusses his gayness and its impact on his parents. Again, their response is contradictory. But the video ends with Chow able to say, “I can still call my family home.”



Banana Boy (screening at 3pm on Sun, Nov 30 in the Wherever You Are, You Are Home program at the NFB)was made when Chow enrolled in Inside Out’s Digital Youth Project. “I wanted to bring awareness to the fact that there’s a large population of queer youth who aren’t necessarily from Toronto,” says Chow. “And for a queer person coming from outside of Canada, they’re dealing with cultural difference as well as their sexual orientationÂ….



Because of language barriers and cultural differences, they might find it hard to participate in the queer community or to find the supports they need.



“I was trying to draw the parallels between racism and homophobia and the other ‘isms’ because people don’t often see them as necessarily similar.



“Identity is more complex than we think.”



Banana Boy won Chow this year’s Trinity Square Video Emerging Local Artist Award consisting of $650 in membership and services as well as a $100 fee for a future screening. This is the second year that Trinity Square Video has supported Reel Asian with an award.



“I was shocked. It hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I’m not really sure what it means. When I heard about it, I thought there are so many good shorts that people are making, how can I possibly have won?”



Coming out and moving more and more into the world of art and video happened in tandem. Chow first enrolled in computer science at university but wasn’t happy. Despite family expectations, he switched programs and is currently in fourth year visual studies at the University Of Toronto, studying digital photography and painting.



“I knew that I was gay at the end of high school but I wasn’t comfortable enough with myself to come out. When I started university, I was living downtown and I started getting more exposed to queer life and meeting queer people. I mean, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as Church and Wellesley.”



He came out to his parents three years ago and they’ve dealt, somewhat.



“My brother and sister saw [Banana Boy] at Inside Out and they were very supportive,” says the youngest of three. “My parents know about it but they’re not ready to watch it yet. I respect where they’re coming from and maybe one day they’ll be able to see it.



“Doing the film was very taxing emotionally and spiritually. I had to figure out whether I wanted to say certain things or not because I was outing myself on film forever.



“It made me stronger as an artist and as a person. Banana Boy is a very personal piece and making it has allowed me to be more courageous in my life.”



The busy Chow can’t say he’s bored any more. He’s part of a collective working on a documentary on the queer Asian youth conference F3: Facts For Friction that happened last summer. He has made a third short video, Confessions, which screened this month at Spark Contemporary Art Space in Syracuse, New York.



His first solo show of painting and photography is currently showing in the Arbor Room at Hart House, as part of a student exhibition entitled Reincarnations, running till to Dec 20.



He is the facilitator for Re/present: Youth Remake History Digital Video Project at the Chinese Canadian National Council, he volunteers at Inside Out and is on the board of the Youth Action Network, a national non-profit organization run by youth dedicated to raising awareness about social justice and environmental issues. He also serves as the chair of the Visibility Committee of LGBTOUT, the University Of Toronto queer group.



“My motivation is the lack of representation. In the ’90s, identity politics reached its peak and then people seemed to move on. But for me there are issues that still need to be talked about. I’m from a different generation and I guess now it’s my turn.”



Despite his facility with cultural labels, Chow has yet to come to grips with one particular name. “I don’t consider myself an artist yet. It seems an odd term to use. It’s a very loaded term. There are all sorts of connotations and expectations that go along with that label.



“Right now I just see myself as a person with something to say.”