Howie Tsui shines light on Canada’s Chinese leper colony

By STUDY28|Violette Stepaniuk

The Unfortunates of D’Arcy Island

Courtesy of Howie Tsui

The Unfortunates of D’Arcy Island by Howie Tsui, 2013, Chinese paint pigments and acrylic on mulberry paper mounted onto board, 38″ x 96″ (96.5 cm x 243.8 cm) in 4 panels, National Gallery of Canada.

The Unfortunates of D’Arcy Island, a painting by Vancouver artist Howie Tsui, is one of the National Gallery of Canada’s recent acquisitions featured in the Shine a Light: Canadian Biennial 2014 exhibition. Through this beautiful but poignant painting Tsui tells a disturbing story of a west coast leper colony, a sad and little known part of Canadian history.

From 1894 to 1924 Chinese immigrants infected with leprosy and feared to be infectious were exiled to D’Arcy Island, near Victoria, British Columbia. Until 1905 the outcasts were left to their own devices, except for the quarterly food and supply deliveries and visits from a medical officer.

Howie Tsui’s disturbing yet touching illustrations show how ‘the unfortunates’, as they were called, lived and suffered from day to day; how they cared for each other, planted gardens, and buried their dead.

The Unfortunates of D'Arcy Island detail 4
The Unfortunates of D'Arcy Island detail 1
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Tsui likes to turn to history for themes to explore in his art. “I enjoy compressing histories into a picture and also pointing out how things change, or in other cases, stay the same,” he says in an email interview.

Although his primary focus is on developing themes he is interested in and wants to learn more about, he also uses his art to raise awareness about different issues.

“I’m curious how I’ll process the material and what the end product/message will become,” he says. “But I do make a very conscious effort in illuminating obscured aspects in popular themes and provide a counter-perspective with a disobedient tone.”

His “disobedient” tone comes through in The Unfortunates, which he created for the 2013 group exhibition titled You Cannot Kill What is Already Dead and exploring political compliance, de-individualization and conformity through zombie culture, at the Doris McCarthy Gallery at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus.

In a summary text for The Unfortunates, Tsui explains that traditionally Asian scroll paintings portray figures of stature and privilege within meditative landscapes. Tsui, however, replaces the aristocrats, literati and deities with the disfigured, even repulsive, figures of the ailing, poor inhabitants of D’Arcy Island. He draws parallels between zombies and lepers as the living dead, numb and disfigured, and draws attention to the dehumanization of and the collective paranoia towards the infected  ‘other’.

The strong anti-Chinese sentiment at the turn of the twentieth century made it easy for the provincial and federal governments to abandon the sick and let them live, suffer and die in deplorable circumstances. Eventually some funding and changes were introduced, but the colony remains a testament to the power of discrimination.

The Unfortunates of D’Arcy Island is on display at the National Gallery of Canada until March 8, 2015.

To learn more about the colony, read “The Lepers of D’Arcy Island” on Greater Victoria Public Library website.

To find out more about Howie Tsui, visit