Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
On a day in February close to the Lunar New Year, I decide to walk to Chinatown. The rare sunlight tastes like spring and the snowdrops are nodding upwards from wet dirt. Over the course of the pandemic, I have been turning my attention to my non-human neighbours and their unhurried ways, and on the way, I notice the brimming tulip shoots, the red speckled branches still plump with winter’s berries. Here on unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territory, the abundance of growing things and their attunement to non-linear time remind me of deeper definitions of place that underlay the city—the land’s memory, the land’s spirit. Indigenous knowledge keepers and matriarchs have taught me how relationship tending, ceremony, and marches disrupt the artificiality of cityscape borders and urban delineation, the mechanisms of spatial power. Neoliberal zoning policies, anti-poor park infringements meant to police the spread of tent cities, are overlays of dominance built on soft soil, on wisdom immemorial and undefeated. In the swelling we of the awakening, I’m learning to breathe to the beat of older loyalties.
As I approach Chinatown’s fraying edges, I have to consciously remind myself to breathe. Our Chinatown, like others, has felt the toll of Covid, even after the initial panic (and the spectre of yellow peril) receded in fervour. Under semi-lockdown a year into the pandemic, the acts of collective support seen in early days—organized group dinners at Chinatown restaurants before the virus was widespread, solidarity walks like the ones planned by placemaker Jay Pitter in Toronto—are no longer possible. I prepare myself for the shuttered restaurants, the quiet sidewalks, the crushing throng of for-lease signage and shiny bougie storefronts, even as I feel my heart expand with the familiar scent of fish and herb and smoke, the swaying Lunar New Year lanterns, the sight of accidentally-sartorialist seniors in their multi-layered clothing, pushing grocery carts and wishing each other Happy New Year. Chinatown contains the multitudes of me, an English-speaking child of the Hakka-Hokkien diaspora; it is an off-highway haven, a hometown for those of us who dwell in the in-between spaces, or, in Kai Cheng Thom’s words, places called no homeland. Chinatown is a living temple where I’ve shared congee with Indigenous Elders and popos (grandmothers), a sacred site of intergenerational encounter, a gathering place where meridians converge. In traditional Chinese conceptualizing of the body, meridians are a vast network of pathways that encompass the mind, emotions, and spirit in an intercommunicating, interconnected whole through which qi (life force, animating breath, spirit) flows. Meridians map us through movement.
If we are made of and through movement, orienting through meridians is ancestral reclamation, decolonial anti-cartography: like the plants and the Elders teach, honouring life (qi) as inherently interconnected. Tending to blockages, which can cause ill-health, is integral to practices of traditional medicine like qigong and acupuncture; expanding the scope to spatial terms, that which walls off, constricts and confines (borders, police, prisons, punishment) must be abolished for transformation to occur and for us to be whole and well. In an apocalyptic season which has clarified the failings of Western healthcare and healthcare systems writ large, it feels fitting to apply a meridian modality to the larger spaces we inhabit, in interrogation of colonial-capitalist control of bodies in space. After all, bodies are sentient and social, and the agency allowed to them—in what is called Vancouver, unceded Indigenous territory—holds political ramifications. Take, for example, how the barbed notion of trespassing has been weaponized against Indigenous youth or injunctions as a legal mechanism for the state to systematically scoop First Nations land rights.
In late February, a group of Indigenous youth called Braided Warriors occupied several office lobbies of corporations ensuring the Trans Mountain pipeline (TMX). In an assertion of Indigenous resurgence, they sang songs, held ceremonies, and read excerpts from Arthur Manuel’s Reconciliation Manifesto, a 2017 treatise which details the false reconciliation of Canada’s settler-state and its ongoing strategies of dispossession. The Vancouver Police Department made violent arrests as the warriors were occupying AIG Insurance in a downtown Bank of Montreal building—the same building where staff called the police on a grandfather and granddaughter from Heiltsuk Nation, who were handcuffed after trying to open a bank account. Braided Warriors documented the arrests on social media, including footage of officers throwing youth to the ground and dragging them by the hair. (Perhaps it is too obvious a contrast to point out the lack of arrests or even fines at recent anti-mask demonstrations held in Vancouver, headlined by far-right, fundamentalist, and downright fascist speakers.) Braided Warriors later posted on their social media that “VPD need to understand that indigenous youth holding ceremony on their ancestral territories, in the lobby of a building operating on unceded land, is not ‘trespassing.’” As of the writing of this piece, the warriors have submitted international human rights testimonials of their arrests to the UN and escalated their actions, currently blockading the port. Their embodied presence and reclamation of space rupture the fabric of coloniality, a refusal to be erased and a rallying call for Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty.
Further east in Secwepemc territory, the Tiny House Warriors are also resisting TMX, interrupting the pipeline’s construction route by building tiny homes on their traditional unceded land. Freedom fighter Kanahus Manuel is unstaunched in her fierce safeguarding of the land, drawing from the deep wells of its power in equilibrium with her ancestors. She writes, “I breathe in freedom and liberation with every breath. I swim the cold creeks and rivers and connect with every molecule. We are not separate [from the land] but the same.” In Wet’suwet’en territory, Karla Tait, Anne Spice, Fredu Huson and the other matriarchs protect the yintah. Their refusal to surrender, and subsequent arrests by Royal Canadian Mounted Police a year ago, birthed #ShutDownCanada, which propagated solidarity actions across Turtle Island and globally; striking photographs from the time captured show red dresses swaying, land defenders drumming, the sacred fire burning. The red dresses represent the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and the indivisible logic of gendered violence, man camps, and extractive industry. North, in Treaty 8 territory, Dunne-za and Cree leaders are renewing resistance to the Site C dam. Construction has already stripped medicines from the Peace River Valley and clearcut old-growth boreal forest, threatening thousand-year-old hillside wetlands, treaty rights, and burial grounds. This area is one of the last intact mountain ecosystems (which are also called “the mother of rivers”), heartland for West Moberly First Nations, and home to a crucial wildlife corridor traveled by birds, caribou, and bears. If the qi of the valley is forced into stagnation, how will the land breathe? Asian aunties-in-movement Rita Wong and Hiromi Goto have spoken to how love for the watershed buoys their advocacy against Site C. They are listening to the river’s voice and those who have swum in its music for generations. Rita says, “the land will have the last word, on its own time.” Embodying solidarity with Indigenous land defenders is breathwork: they are the ones traversing the frontlines to protect our inevitably interconnected earth, the dream-holders and future-makers righting the balance, naming and confronting the apparatus that steals life. Theirs are the drumbeats to breathe to, the leaders worth our collective loyalty.
In Chinatown, on a block where gentrification is in full swing, I remind myself to breathe. I’m remembering the recent attacks on Asian seniors and how watching the videos felt like a physical blow. I notice a white woman coming towards me, clad in activewear, and as she passes me, I hear a snippet of her phone conversation: she is planning a yoga class, and proposing a sunrise salutation to start. I almost laughed. It’s one of those crystalline moments that localizes the dynamics of power and privilege, like a pressure point throbbing under the surface of the skin. This quadrant of Chinatown is where Vancouver’s Black community, Hogan’s Alley, was demolished for the Georgia Viaduct, where rabid gentrification is (re)displacing low-income Chinese seniors and Indigenous residents from the Downtown Eastside, where the palimpsest of racialized communities and their organizing nonetheless perseveres. Into the midst of this strolls the colonizer, appropriating an Eastern spiritual tradition while exemplifying how, as adrienne maree brown has said, whiteness will kill to keep itself alive.
The recent attacks on our East Asian elders have been distillations rather than aberrations, despite what mainstream media narratives would posit. Racist violence is so much easier to condemn when it is enacted by anonymous villains, not comprehensively sustained by a white supremacist settler-colonial state that upholds some lives as more grievable than others. I say this not to diminish the importance of mourning these visible acts against our kin, but to bring anger as fuel to the invisibilized acts: the anti-Blackness hiding in plain sight that Desmond Cole describes in The Skin We’re In and what Glen Coulthard calls “colonial governance through state recognition and accommodation” in Red Skin, White Masks. Both Cole and Coulthard refer to Franz Fanon in their book titles, and decolonizing the body is, in Fanonical terms, de-epidermalization—or as Sheila Batacharya and Yuk-Lin Renita Wong put it, a “material entry point to the dislodging of colonial power, which has been imprinted not merely on minds but on the body-spirit that is inseparable from the lands we are dependent on for life.” A meridian modality means music, movement, pathway, possibility, and we have generous teachers. From Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh territories, from the diaspora, from Chinatown, from my own body, I am inviting the emergence of our interconnection. I am reminding us to breathe.
Céline Chuang (she/her) writes, creates, and conspires for freer futures from unceded Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh territories (Vancouver, Canada). Born in Treaty 7 territory (Mohkinstsis, Calgary, Canada) to immigrant parents, she has familial & ancestral ties to Fujian, Moiyan, Mauritius, and Hong Kong. Her interdisciplinary work explores embodiment and emergence, racial and spatial justice, troubling dominant narratives, and decolonizing the sacred.