Be Like Sound

Paul Wong, 2022
Site specific, 6 channel, immersive surround sound installation
28min loop
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, Vancouver, BC

Be Like Sound (BLS) by Paul Wong is a new sound artwork commissioned by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden Society and funded by the City of Vancouver Shift  Public Art Programme. BLS has been created as a site-specific immersive experience  for the Hall of One Hundreds River courtyard. This is Wong’s first sound only installation and has involved collaborating with sound designers and engineers, composers, musicians, chefs, restaurants and researchers over the last two years . BLS is a new permanent work. Credits: Sound Design – Paddy Ryan, Installation Technical Design – Colin Griffiths, Production Assistant – Christian Yves Jones, Shumka Centre’s Art Apprenticeship Intern, Reach – Yan Liang.

The six channel (speakers) installation is designed to respond to the acoustic aesthetics  of the courtyard. The s 28 minute sound work is composed from sourced historical, sampled, remixed and new audio recordings. The  ancient Chinese Feng Shui  system of the five elements: fire, earth, air, water and metal was a conceptual source of inspiration for considering and gathering sounds. BLS not only invites an engagement within the physical space of the One Hundred Rivers Courtyard but with the sounds of Chinatown’s rich past and present in an auditory form that will be both representational, experimental and abstract. The Title Be Like Sound is a nod to Bruce Lee’s famous quote and philosophy “Be like water”. Sound is essential and is everywhere.

BLS include celebrations, ceremonies, music, games/play, spoken languages, labour, food preparation and the natural world. Sounds include Cantonese opera, canto-pop the bustle of restaurant kitchens, the clatter of a Mahjong game social the chatter of conversations, the languages: Cantonese, Mandarin and English, ping pong, badminton, trees falling in the deep forest, water in the forms of waves, babbling brooks, sounds of everyday street life, birds, the rustling of blowing bamboo.  Many of these are the sounds being lost in our rapidly disappearing and shifting Chinatown. A journey from the primordial to the present.

Feel the sounds of Chinatown in “Be Like Sound” exhibit

Paul Wong’s new immersive sound installation captures the energy of the past and present

Artist Paul Wong is stretching creative boundaries by tackling art for the ears in his newest installation “Be Like Sound” (BLS), exhibited at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver’s Chinatown. The experience is a progression of short sound clips recorded and pieced together into a 28-minute story. “The inspiration was going back to when I was a youngster and what it was like to walk down Pender street, and what you would hear …. the inspiration was ‘Welcome to the sounds of Chinatown,’” Wong says.

The title of his installation is a nod to famous martial artist Bruce Lee’s quote, “Be like water,” in which Lee describes how one can aspire to be like water in nature, with a sense of flow and change, just like the properties of sound. BLS is set up in the Hall of One Hundred Rivers courtyard, an outdoor space with a tree and rock feature, a table with bright red cloth, and calligraphy brushes with parchment paper for the public to use. Several speakers are hoisted out of sight so the sounds of the installation feel naturally part of the environment.

Wong taped several clips for this story such as primordial sounds, which Wong says are sounds before the arrival of humans, like the crashing surf of the ocean and the cries of birds. It then moves onto sounds of human activity, like steps on a pebbled beach, axes and the swish of falling trees, and loud construction noises. “It kind of moves throughout the changing of the landscape through human activity,” Wong says.

The installation then moves onto the sounds of Chinatown, with Chinese opera, the chatter of a Mahjong game, the back and forth plinks of ping-pong, and a contemporary Canto-pop song. The placement of the speakers are set along the outline of the courtyard, so some sounds start in one corner and rush to another, like a cascading wave. Things change. The sound environment is evolving. You hear the sounds of jack hammering and construction. Those [types of] sounds. And there’s no pro or con to that message,” Wong says. “We’ve seen the evolution of Chinatown over the last hundred years to its current state of flux. We’re in that in-between period of what it was, and what it’s going to be. It’s listening. It’s an observation.”

Wong also incorporates Feng Shui in BLS, an ancient Chinese practice of arranging objects in an environment to achieve harmony. Wong says he took its principles into account, not only with how the speakers are mapped out, but also in choosing sounds that showcase the five elements — metal, air, fire, water, and earth. An overpassing airplane represents air in the installation, and chopping sounds of a cleaver knife indicates metal.

The installation was commissioned by the garden with support from the City of Vancouver’s Arts & Cultural Services, public art program. “I think all these institutions [like the garden] can be multi-purpose. They have tried different ways of activating the space and making a welcome [place] to other communities besides the tourist destination,” Wong says. He also says the installation may be subtle, but that doesn’t make it any less worth experiencing. “I think that’s the nature of having this gentle, immersive sound installation that’s not in your face …. I’m hoping that [it] will be a found surprise for visitors to the garden. I think that’s what art does, it allows an unexpected and perhaps a new way of seeing or listening in this particular case.”

Visitors can experience the installation and tour the rest of the gardens for free on Thursdays from 1:00 to 3:00 pm.