Interview with Alvis Choi

Alvis Choi (aka Alvis Parsley) is an artist, curator, project manager, researcher, and an aspiring clown. Their project, Chinatown Community Think Tank, caught my eye and I was excited to find out a bunch more about Alvis and what they do.

Sunny: What was the first art or creative project you remember doing?

Alvis: I’ve been curating and programming since 2008 but the first performance that I did was in 2012 at the Radical Queer Semaine in Montreal. It was called “HOW TO DO GAY IN CANADA – A Survival Kit for Chinese Lesbian Newcomers”. I introduced a survival kit invented by my company Fantasy is Reality Unlimited (FiRU) with all the products that helped me survive during my short time in Canada. The piece talks about cultural differences, racism, my struggles as a “newcomer” and my experience in Toronto’s Chinatown as a queer person.


 HOW TO DO GAY IN CANADA – A Survival Kit for Chinese Lesbian Newcomers, 2012, Meow Mix. Photo: viva delorme


Sunny: How has your approach to creating art changed over the years and why?

Alvis: My artistic practice revolves around my life experience, identity, and what I learn everyday. I came to Toronto in 2011. My identity here is very different from when I was in Hong Kong. I am a person-of-color, a temporary resident, and I’m in a different class. All these that define my marginalized identities have an impact on the content of my projects.

In terms of style, I’d like to think that my work is down-to-earth and connects with the audience in a genuine and truthful way. My performances are often witty and poignant, in a way that challenges the mind of the audience and political correctness.


Sunny: Tell us a bit about Chinatown Community Think Tank.

Alvis: Chinatown Community Think Tank (CCTT) is a dialogue-based neighbourhood engagement project. The aim of the project is to invite the Chinese-speaking community based in the Chinatown of downtown Toronto to collectively envision the role of art in the neighbourhood. I’m turning the storefront space of Whippersnapper Gallery into a social space for the Chinese-speaking community in Chinatown. My role is to engage community members in conversations about a wide range of social, political, and cultural issues that have an impact on their perception and definition of art. These dialogues become a bridge between contemporary art, which is often inaccessible to non-English speakers in the city, and the Chinese speaking community.

I speak both Cantonese and Mandarin and it has been a fruitful month meeting community members, getting to know them and building relationship through open dialogues. In July, we will continue these dialogues in the form of survey and conduct a series of community mapping workshops.


Sunny: What inspired you to do the project?

Alvis: The project started with the question of “how is Whippersnapper’s programming accessible for the Chinese-speaking community in Chinatown?” As a Hongkong-Chinese who’s lived in Toronto for less than two years, I find Anglo-centrism in the city and the art world in general problematic. I wanted to share my creative practice with the Chinese-speaking community.

The first time I worked at Whippersnapper Gallery was at Nuit Blanche 2012. I was going to invite the Chinese-speaking woman who works at the print shop on Spadina Road to come see the project that I curated, but very quickly realized how inaccessible it could be because of the language barrier and the cultural differences. Since then, I continued to reflect on the incident and the issues that come along, and eventually started a conversation with Maggie Flynn, the director of Whippersnapper, about the potential of engaging this community in a deeper level.


Sunny: In your wildest dreams, if money was no barrier, what would you hope to achieve with Chinatown Community Think Tank?

Alvis: I would like to see Chinatown Community Think Tank grow into an ongoing project that facilitates and supports the Chinese-speaking community to engage in the arts in the neighbourhood, not just at Whippersnapper but also in other galleries or even museums. One of my many dreams is to work with the AGO to make the Art Gallery more accessible to the Chinese-speaking community. I’ve been thinking a lot about Whippersnapper as the west end of Chinatown and the AGO as the east end of Chinatown. They are at such perfect locations to advocate for improved access to arts for the Chinese-speaking community and I’m hoping that what I’m doing this summer will build a foundation for such advocacy.


Sunny: What’s a terrifying or embarrassing or confusing moment you’ve faced in your creative projects and how did you get through it?

Alvis: Ha! I don’t think I’ve ever had a terrifying or embarrassing moment doing creative projects. I am always excited about trying new things and going on adventures. I feel very positive about making mistakes. I think some of the questions that I continue to ask are whom I am making art for and if it matters if what I do is being called art. I am against art elitism. But at the same time it’s challenging to strike a balance between getting resources and presenting work that is accessible.


Sunny: What are some things that you couldn’t make art/ creative projects without?

Alvis: A free mind and an open heart – to feel free regardless of the surroundings and difficult situations. It’s challenging but a really fun thing to practice. Hopes keep me going, love, rage, and the magical universe – chance, coincidence, and strangers – things that I couldn’t live without!

Alvis’ work sounds amazing, doesn’t it?! Here’s how you can support their project: Chinatown Community Think Tank! Any donations small or large, gratefully received. Oh, and there’s awesome perks including haircuts and tea-leaf readings and mentorships (including a 2 hour mentorship conversation with me). Click here:


Photo: Bonz Merlin

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