Artist Anson Ng’s Journey Through Grief, Cultural Preservation and Healing in Toronto’s Chinatown

“Sharing my work connected me to a community that uplifted one another, reminding me of my own importance and allowing us to heal collectively.”

“Sharing my work connected me to a community that uplifted one another, reminding me of my own importance and allowing us to heal collectively.”

By: Anson Ng, as told to Nathan Sing

As the pandemic lockdown took hold in 2020, I had just graduated from Sheridan College and moved in with my sister in the place she was renting in Toronto’s Chinatown. The once lively streets became hauntingly deserted. Day by day, as I wandered past my cherished comfort food spots—now shuttered and boarded up—I couldn’t help but feel swallowed by a deep sense of despair.

Growing up in an environment that lacked emotional safety, I had to navigate the process of developing my emotional skills and resilience later on in life. After the heartbreak of separating from a longtime partner and the devastating loss of a cherished pet, an overwhelming tidal wave of isolation, grief, shame and guilt consumed me. This led me to eventually seek out a therapist. 

My therapist gradually helped me work through my emotions, keeping me grounded in the present and reminding me of my strengths. She gave me tools to manage my depression, focusing on what fueled my creativity.

Throughout this time, journeying through Chinatown’s streets filled me with a sense of nourishment and inspiration from my community. Gradually, I gathered the courage to transform my feelings of isolation and grief into a digital illustration series featuring the neighbourhood’s restaurants that have carved a special place in my heart, such as Swatow Restaurant, New Ho King, and Rol San Restaurant.

Having spent much of my childhood in these restaurants with my family, I felt a strong connection to these spaces. As I painted, my work unveiled layers of grief and pain rooted in the loss of my family’s restaurant, Thai Princess, which had closed its doors after 17 years of business just months before the pandemic.

On overwhelming days, my depression made simple tasks like showering and brushing my teeth feel monumental. Yet, the heavier feelings seemed further away on the days I painted. My therapist helped me see my problems as just one of many layers to my work, allowing me to acknowledge my depression without being consumed by it. With this new perspective, I felt empowered to create.

To my surprise, when I initially shared my art online, it resonated deeply with many. Comments flooded with people recounting their own stories and memories related to the restaurants I was capturing, sparking conversations about the significance of preserving these spaces.

As Toronto’s Chinatown faces the ongoing threat of gentrification, and conversations continued to flow in the comment sections of the posts, I felt the collective appreciation for these cultural landmarks strengthen. 

Despite my initial hesitation, I continued posting my paintings and was astonished when they not only sold but also led to more commissions.

My paintings were helping people see Chinatown as I did—an impermanent flower that would eventually wither.

Expressing myself through art also helped me break free from the harmful rumination that used to hold me back. In some of my darkest moments, I received unrelenting kindness and generosity from people I’ve never met. These messages reminded me of the positive impact I could have on others’ lives through my creations and chosen path.

Sharing my work connected me to a community that uplifted one another, reminding me of my own importance and allowing us to heal collectively. I’ve learned that pain doesn’t go away; it just gets easier to hold when you find something to channel your emotions into and realize you don’t have to bear it alone. Even in the darkness, I was constantly reminded by my community that we could still come together. 

Today, I’ve continued building community and expanding perspectives through my paintings and art workshops. On one bustling sunny Saturday afternoon in Chinatown, I held a Plein Air painting workshop teaching a group how to capture the essence of Hong Fatt BBQ, a treasured spot famed for its delectable variety of barbecue meats that hang in the front window.

As we created together, I could feel the warmth of connection and healing that emanates from sharing our stories, our pain and our triumphs through the language of art. Reflecting on my journey at this moment, I remember how it all began with posting a painting I initially considered awful, a moment marred by the persistent shadow of imposter syndrome.

So when I opened the workshop, I reminded everyone to treat their art with kindness. After all, one’s art is a reflection of their unique vision and, ultimately, your art is you.

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