Rosalie Lam
Cholon, Not Forgotten
March 17 to May 15, 2022

John B. Aird Gallery
906 Queen St West

Curated by Erin Storus, this solo exhibition features selected work from Rosalie Lam’s collection of paintings of Vietnam in the 1960s. Working from memory, family albums, historical texts and photographic documentation, she captures the mood of life in Indochina at a time of both historical change and personal loss.

Above: Rosalie Lam, Alms For Blessing, Oil on canvas, 60 cm x 76 cm, 2017

Rosalie Lam, Parade of Warriors, Oil on canvas, 50 cm x 50 cm, 2017

Before the Vietnam War, Cholon was a predominantly Chinese-speaking city bordering Saigon. I was born there, and remember the community with its schools, hospitals, markets, temples and distinct rituals of life. I remember flame trees, houses along the arroyo, elephants walking on the street.

Rosalie Lam, Kodak Moment, Oil on canvas, 60 cm x 76 cm, 2017

I remember living in a very loving community along arroyo creeks.  Flame trees burst into full bloom after monsoon rains, children bathed with cows in the water. There were my caring parents, my grandmother, siblings and cousins, neighbours and friends, a busy kitchen with lots of food, and long evening dinners.

Spirituality played a major role in life. The area’s mix of Christians, Buddhists, Taoists and Gao Daoists all believed in a superior power and prayed for peace, seeking blessings. There was the ritual of preparing food for offering to the dead, daily visits to churches or temples, morning and evening prayers.

Rosalie Lam, Flare Light, Oil on canvas, 60 cm x 76 cm, 2016

With the passing of time, some images have faded… but certain elements are etched in my mind. The rotor-thud of helicopters, a sound that is both sharp and dull, interrupting the silence of night. The brilliant flashes of flares, blanketing fields with ghostly orange illumination, transforming night into day.

Rosalie Lam, After The Monsoon, Oil on canvas, 60 cm x 76 cm, 2017

Rosalie Lam, Air Vietnam, Pencil crayon on paper, 48 cm x 66 cm

I moved to Canada as a teenager, just after the Tet offensive. I put aside the painting I’d studied in my youth, learned English, graduated in architecture from McGill. Gradually, I established a life in Canada. I picked up my paintbrushes again, making images of my children skating, of Canada geese.

It took me until recently—nearly 50 years after I left Vietnam—to put my memories of my lost homeland on canvas. A few years ago, my Canadian-born son, a physician and novelist, began asking about his ancestry, about Vietnam before the war. I searched through family photo albums and mental recollections to feed his research.

In the process, the uniqueness of life in Indochina came into view. These paintings recapture my childhood homeland. But they are also coloured by my life in Canada: Indochina gains a surreal magic with the distance. The paintings aim to remain intimate, sensitive, and alive to viewers—themselves from other times and places.

-Rosalie Lam