Transcript: Building visibility, equity, and impact for Asian Canadian artists

The following is a rough transcript of the episode of Talking Radical Radio for the week of January 2 to 6, 2023.

Scott Neigh 0:08
My name is Scott Neigh. And this is Talking Radical Radio

Theme music

Shawn Tse 0:30
When we talk about the inequities that Asian Canadians face in all types of sectors, we are lacking a lot of data. Really the only data that we know is pretty surface and already beaten into, I think, our society’s consciousness — the lack of representation. We need to start building, I would say, more nuanced data and more nuanced ways of signaling to our systems that go beyond the representation piece because it’s not just about representation.

Scott Neigh 1:01
That’s the voice of Shawn Tse. He’s today’s guest on Talking Radical Radio. This show brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people who are involved in many different struggles talk about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why they’re doing it, in the belief that such listening can strengthen all of our efforts to change the world. In Canada, the dominant shape of the art sector can largely trace its history to a Royal Commission headed by future Governor General Vincent Massey, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A fairly explicit exercise in nation building, it produced a vision of the arts that was — unsurprisingly — Eurocentric, white dominated and settler colonial. A lot has changed since then, as institutional and funding practices in the arts sector, not to mention the nation more broadly, have been challenged and changed by the relentless work of Black, Indigenous and racialized people, and by a range of people of all backgrounds with a different vision of belonging and thriving in northern Turtle Island. Nonetheless, much work remains to be done to realize a vision of the arts in this country that is fully equitable, inclusive, and just. Shawn Tse is an artist, filmmaker, and community organizer based in amiskwacîwâskahikan, also known as Edmonton, Alberta, in Treaty Six territory and the Métis homeland. Tse grew up in Toronto. He was always very involved in music and theater, and he attended film school. But he didn’t have any insider connections in the industry and he didn’t see a lot of space for stories based on racialized experiences back then. So after graduating, he decided to become an educator and spent a decade teaching English in various places in Asia. It took the revolution in high quality, affordable digital technology to bring him back to filmmaking. He moved back to Canada and launched his own production company, Fallout Media, in 2016. A lot of his filmmaking work has happened in community-based settings, often in collaboration with nonprofits, newcomer organizations, and arts based organizations, and often grounded in Edmonton’s Chinatown. Through those relationships, he learned a lot about a range of social justice issues and inequities, and they became an increasing focus for him. Today, he sees much of what he does as bringing together art and filmmaking with community organizing. In 2019, Tse heard about a Montreal-based organization called Festival Accès Asie that was hosting an Asian Heritage Symposium, bringing together people from across Canada involved in various kinds of community work in Asian-Canadian context. And pretty soon he got involved in the working group that was guiding it. A little later on, through the symposium itself, through written surveys, and through consultations with community organizers and with arts organizations in lots of different Asian-Canadian communities, this informal group began to develop a more robust sense of what Asian-Canadian artists need — primarily, according to their findings, visibility and connection. So, with Festival Accès Asie as the lead agency, they applied for and got grant funding to produce an online platform to meet those needs called the CanAsian Arts Network. Much of the work of developing the platform was technical — it involves taking their insights into community need, and figuring out how to implement a useful and accessible online space to address them. A key element of this site allows Asian-Canadian artists to make searchable profiles, including in depth discussion of their arts practice and a portfolio. In conjunction with the site’s other tools for sharing content and for focused collective conversation, they hope that this will facilitate the growth of networks of artists across different communities and contexts. They hope it will also make it easier for Asian Canadian artists to find and connect with opportunities. In the platform’s vision of justice and equity, a key priority is contributing to reconciliation and decolonization, including by catalyzing related conversations in Asian-Canadian arts contexts, and bringing Asian-Canadian and Indigenous artists together for discussion and collaboration. In 2023, the network will be hosting 16 digital literacy workshops as well as other events to help Asian Canadian artists build their knowledge and skills. And the broader vision is to have the online platform of the CanAsian Arts Network and the periodic in person Asian heritage symposium do complimentary work, all the while continuing to evolve as the needs of artists and communities shift, and hopefully contributing to the larger ongoing work of developing an arts sector in Canada with a broadened understanding of the arts and to more just and equitable practices. I speak with Tse about the development and work of the CanAsian Arts Network.

Shawn Tse 5:28
Hi, my name is Sean Tse. He/him pronouns. I’m based in amiskwacîwâskahikan, also known as Edmonton, Treaty Six territory, Métis homeland. I’m an artist, a filmmaker, community organizer, and doing a project called AanAsian Arts Network, which is a platform bringing more visibility to Asian-Canadian artists across our country. I’ve always been very active in performing arts. I grew up in a home where music was a big deal. So I played a lot of music, and then was part of doing a lot of theater growing up. And then eventually I found my way into film through film school. I think film is my core practice right now. The path into film, there was kind of a side turn. Because after I graduated, I ended up going to Asia to teach English. It wasn’t until really the digital age, that really developed closer to the end of my time in Asia, where I started getting back into film. It was much more affordable and accessible for someone like me that didn’t really see necessarily a future in film, because I didn’t really have any great networks. I also didn’t really see a lot of stories that really wanted to centre around the racialized experience, back when I graduated. And so yeah, that technology allowed to break some of those barriers in terms of being able to capture and create stories that I wanted to tell as, you know, a very small crew, or even one-person crew. I decided to come back to Canada and start my own production company called Fallout Media. And I have been working on this media production business since 2016. Most of the work that we’ve been doing at Fallout Media has really been focused around social change-type projects. So, working with a lot of nonprofit, and community, and arts-based projects. And those skills of building a business and also having to coordinate sets and coordinate shoots — a lot of those skills were transferable towards community organizing. And I’m very grateful for those connections specifically in the newcomer and nonprofit spaces. That’s how I started becoming more aware of the different social justice issues, inequities — just being part of a community that really surfaced a lot of the untold stories in our municipality. And through that, my career just continued to build off of learning more about grassroots organizations and how they’re connected and how they are, in many ways, forgotten within our high-level systems. That’s basically how I got into and continue to work in both filmmaking, art, and community organizing. COVID was quite pivotal in taking my work beyond the local, municipal, even provincial context. I heard in 2019, that a Asian heritage festival organization, Festival Accès Asie, based in Montreal, was creating this Asian Heritage Symposium. And it was the second annual one. And I was like, What is this? And how do I not know about this? That put a bit more on my radar that there was this world out there where folks from across Canada who identify as Asian Canadian were meeting up. That event initially was supposed to be just in person, but it switched to virtual. And that’s really how Edmonton was reached out to and folks in the community here that were already organizers were invited to participate. And so I joined a working group that helped steer what this virtual symposium was going to look like. And that’s how I got connected with this network, or this growing idea of what this network would be. Because eventually, through the symposium, we were able to build some data and build some proof around what were the needs of Asian-Canadian artists from across Canada. And one thing that was identified, especially over COVID, is the lack of infrastructure for folks to connect within the virtual space. And so really the prompt for those needs helped generate the grant that was eventually developed and led by Festival Accès Asie, which is the folks that ran the symposium to put in an application for Canada Council to get a digital strategies grant. Through that support of Canada Council, and then also Festival Accès Asie, the community has been able to take it forward to launch within the last few months, this digital platform to serve the community that identifies as Asian-Canadian artists, and bring visibility and ways of connection within the virtual space.

Scott Neigh 10:31
How did you go about engaging with the community in order to assess what Asian-Canadian artists need?

Shawn Tse 10:36
The symposium itself had a number of different workshops that had surveys. We also, when we did finally get the grant or developing the grant itself, had three written surveys for Asian-Canadian artists, but also presenters and folks within industry who would be looking to hire or to invite Asian-Canadian artists to some of their events. So we built some data really around what it would look like and what would the needs be within a digital space. That’s how we generated the idea around visibility and connection as some of the core needs. The other aspects, in terms of consultation, we have a digital council, which is a group of folks from all over Canada who are Asian-Canadian organizers or part of Asian-Canadian organizing arts groups. And they are really important to consult with to shape also how this platform is created, and how it also is outreach to the community. Some of the other things that I’ve done as part of the project is community consultations. Thanks to being able to host virtual engagements, we’ve been able to do a number of different types of community conversations and build more qualitative data around what the specific needs and the functions would be. You know, we know about visibility and we know about wanting connection, but the community conversations really helped to get us closer and closer to real life examples and real life use of what visibility would look like and what connections would look like.

Scott Neigh 12:24
What work was involved in going from this understanding of need to actually establishing the CanAsian Arts Network?

Shawn Tse 12:31
This is a digital platform, so a massive part of it is just tech. And most of the grant funds really went towards a professional web design company to basically take all the information that we had and build it into code, from scratch. And so that was the next stage. You know, here’s what we’ve heard, here are the different functions that we really like, and then negotiating and navigating what that would look like technically and stylistically, as a platform itself. And so most of the work that I’ve been in is, you know, doing a lot of testing and doing a lot of meetings with the tech folks to try to improve the ways that we can make this, at least from a back end perspective, more accessible for the community.

Scott Neigh 13:21
What are some of the key features of the platform that implement the vision you had developed?

Shawn Tse 13:25
If you are an Asian-Canadian artist and you would like to join, it’s a very simple signup form. Once you’ve signed up and your account is approved, you can create your own page where you have a portfolio, where you can really talk a bit more in depth about what your practices. And how that links to the website itself, there’s a directory where you can use all sorts of filters and search functions to really find folks in your community. So I do a lot of organizing in my local Chinatown here in Edmonton. And so within the directory of artists, if you put in the word Chinatown in the search bar, you’d be able to find other artists — myself in there as well — that do specifically Chinatown type art projects. So that’s a really, really important tool and function of visibility, because I think that — and this kind of relates more to my own personal journey in arts, a huge part of me staying within the Chinatown organizing is being able to build connections outside to other folks in their Chinatown. So, you know, I’ve connected with people in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and these kinds of connections have allowed me to share notes and think about certain tools and different strategies in thinking about community organizing in Chinatown here. So those are the types of concrete ways that I can see these kinds of connections being built with other artists, is that naturally you’re going to find folks that you didn’t know in other parts of the country that are doing potentially similar types of themes or topics or practices. And on the website, you’ll be able to either message them, or create a group, or create an interest group. And that’s other ways of connecting. Yeah, there are so many other functions as well. There’s resources, there’s events that you can post, there’s articles that you could write and share. And so, yeah, there’s a number of ways that folks that are in the community can really promote the work that they’re doing, and just bring more visibility to other folks who are interested in this type of cultural and arts material to outside of your networks.

Scott Neigh 15:37
What’s your sense of the community’s response to and uptake of the platform so far?

Shawn Tse 15:42
We’ve hit some of our targets in terms of populating the directory. I don’t know exactly what the number is, but I think we’re close to 300 right now. And so in the few months that we’ve had, and through more word of mouth and social media sharing, we’ve been able to get a nice number of artists be active in the space. We are developing some different workshops and content. This is kind of an ongoing question in terms of having a platform that goes beyond just kind of a static and self-empowered or self-instructed type of website to one that is more dynamic and engaged with folks. That’s the next steps, in terms of where we’re going nd what we know folks are looking towards. Like, how do we generate content or generate activities so that people have, you know, not just this tool to bring visibility to their platform, but also a way to engage community and their own educational learning within the arts and cultural sector?

Scott Neigh 16:45
What have you been doing to get word out about the platform?

Shawn Tse 16:48
We have a great communications strategist, Michelle, based in Montreal, and they’ve been working on a number of different ways of promoting the platform. That’s kind of an ongoing process, right? For now, most of our community outreach has been word of mouth and through social media platforms, and posting this very preliminary foundation step of, you know, are you an artist that identifies as Asian-Canadian that wants to have more visibility and connect with other artists across Canada? So that is a very general kind of pitch to gain the interest and get folks to just sign up. And now we’re in that step of building content that really speaks to getting them engaged and stay connected with the platform itself. So we’ve also developed a blog and, like, encouraging folks to upload their events so that other folks are able to attend and/or see what are the different activities that are out there in Canada that are focused around our community.

Scott Neigh 17:54
What are the paths that you see connecting the functionality of the platform and the things it brings to the community around visibility and connection to the larger challenges that Asian-Canadian artists experience in terms of, you know, their work, and the broader arts community, and the Canadian context as a whole?

Shawn Tse 18:12
I think there’s a number of things. Reconciliation or decolonization is a really important framework right now within the platform itself. People’s experiences within the Asian-Canadian community are varied, right. And I think, like, in Canada as well, everyone is either learning or has already developed specific practice in how they’re engaging within the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the 94 calls to action. So we have put that front and centre as a way to really prompt our community to also recognize there’s work for us as a community and as individuals to really engage in how are we in solidarity with indigenous community. And so that, I think, is one of the really important emphases that we’ve really established as part of the core to why we’re doing this work. And to be very clear and honest, because of our lack of, I would say, community knowledge around this, we’re working towards this. We need help, right? And so that’s why we have an Indigenous consultant really helping us think about not just what a platform would look like in talking about decolonization, but also, within the consultation but also the content that we are producing, how are we making it so that it’s not just a tokened concept. You know, like, you can have your land acknowledgement and stuff like that, but what are the very specific actions and what are the concrete ways that we are furthering this conversation around Indigenous sovereignty and intercultural solidarity? Some of the content that we are building right now is around bringing together Asian-Canadian artists and Indigenous artists to talk about what it is to work together interculturally. Those talks will be released in the new year. But these are some of the ways that we’re navigating these new futures and these new places that really, really we need to invest in. So that’s, that’s one big, big, big, big one. Some of the other ways I would say, we talk about changing paradigms around the way that we look at arts. There’s a hope for a different language when it comes to who is an artist. One of the biggest things that we know from our consultations is kind of this homogeneous labeling of what art or an artist is, and that is very much dictated by our governments, our arts councils, and our federal, provincial and our municipal granting agencies in arts. For a lot of folks who are artists, they rely on these high-level decision makers and gatekeepers to tell us who is an artist and who is not an artist. And I think culturally speaking, especially if you’re a person that’s practicing, you know, a cultural-based type of art — like if I was playing guzheng. Like, there’s no school here for specifically getting some sort of university accreditation for that. And so does that make me not a professional artist if I’ve trained in guzheng for 20 years? So I think that there’s parts of that that we’re also trying to hopefully make some paradigm shifts on what is accessible, or what is considered art within Canada. There are folks that are constantly going on to the website that say, you know, why isn’t this practice more highlighted. For example, spoken word poetry — why isn’t that a title? There is a lot of potential barriers to even wanting to sign up for something like this, because there are a lot of different artists that have different labels or different types of ways that they want to express themselves and consider themselves artists, that potentially this platform does not yet unearth. So that is an important part of the work that we need to do, is not only signaling to our high-level systems that the artists within our community have signaled that they don’t necessarily feel included, but how do we also include them, and then also be a voice making sure that the arts sector is accessible to them? Segueing into the more high level, for the most part, our world is very data-centric. So when we talk about the inequities that Asian Canadians face in all types of sectors, we are lacking a lot of data. Really the only data that we know is pretty surface and already beaten into I think our society’s consciousness, is the lack of representation, right? There’s a lot of conversation still around lack of representation, and how do we increase representation, how do we get folks into roles that have more power. But, yeah, we need to start building I would say, more nuanced data and more nuanced ways of signaling to our systems that go beyond the representation piece. Because it’s not just about representation. There’s a lot more that we can do when we think about, structurally, how do we create safe spaces and spaces where folks do feel empowered to improve our systems? How do we take some of these criticisms that are within this platform and within this community, and generate that to signal to our larger systems to say, these are the types of additional — I would say a bit more complex — ways of looking around how we can generate better systems. As an organizer myself, I’m really interested in seeing how a platform like this can really inform and make more complex and detailed feedback around how our infrastructures or our systems are changing, and how they potentially could change to make things more barrier free and accessible and inclusive.

Scott Neigh 24:09
And building on that, what can you say at this point about the kinds of changes consistent with but going beyond the goals of the CanAsian Arts Network that need to be made by arts funders and by mainstream arts organizations?

Shawn Tse 24:22
I do think that institutions want to develop practices of change. I don’t see that as one of the problems. It’s just right now, when we talk about, you know, gatekeeping and these high-level institutions, it’s slow. It’s slow, because we need organizers on the ground to bring attention or to figure out strategies so that high-level can understand it in a way that they can also see a way for them to engage and make changes. So there’s a process, right? As someone that does move into these different spaces — like grassroots to even institutionalized spaces — my recommendation really is about how do we invest in grassroots organizers to stay and continue and sustain careers in this type of work. Because really, a lot of our institutions and our high-level systems and our governments, they need the grassroots folks to inform them how to move forward. So there has to be just a bit more of that kind of synergy that really invites everyone to be engaged. And what we do see is that when you are an institution that has, like, a good financial backing and, you know, health benefits and things that are like very stable, they will continue to prosper and live on. But grassroot organizations, it’s much more volatile, it’s a lot harder to sustain. And so the reality is, the burnout is so real. There’s so many passionate folks out there that have to walk away because life happens. So how can institution and government and these more stable access points actually invest in grassroots partners that they’ve always partnered with, to encourage them to keep going?

Scott Neigh 26:16
What does the network have coming up in 2023?

Shawn Tse 26:19
We have some really exciting digital literacy and community conversations that will be coming out in 2023. There’ll be 16 digital literacy workshops. We are focusing on helping Asian-Canadian artists learn about, you know, business and arts, social media, the digital space, and also a really important theme, like I had mentioned before, decolonization. And then the community conversations will be invites to a panel and we will talk about some of the gaps and some of the different topics that folks in the community have flagged. It’s also been really exciting meeting up with all these really great leaders in not just the Asian community but the Indigenous and the BIPOC community, to see how we can move together when we talk about justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Scott Neigh 27:15
You have been listening to my interview with Sean Tse about the CanAsian Arts Network. To learn more about the network, go to To find out more about Talking Radical Radio, the guests, the theme music, and the ways that you can listen go to and click on the link for the radio show. On the site, you can sign up for email updates or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, SoundCloud and other platforms. I’m Scott Neigh, a writer and media producer based in Hamilton, Ontario and the author of two books of Canadian history told through the stories of activists published by Fernwood Publishing. Thank you very much for listening and I hope you tune in again next week.

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