Breaking new ground, connecting to the past | Work of Arts
Breaking new ground, connecting to the past | Work of Arts

Breaking new ground, connecting to the past

by | September 18, 2015
Photography by Akemi Matsubuchi
Karaoke rekindled a passion that would become a lifelong mission for Alumni Centenary Award winner

As we look forward to Alumni Weekend (Sept 24-27, 2015), the Faculty of Arts is proud to share the stories of our inspiring alumni. The Faculty of Arts hits a key milestone this year with 50,000 alumni contributing in all areas of life worldwide. Watch for more in the coming days. 

We encourage all Arts grads to proudly identify as #1of50K on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all year long! 


Pursuit of a childhood passion was what brought Helen Kwan Yee Cheung (’13 MA) to her graduate studies after retirement.

The Alumni Centenary Award winner grew up in Hong Kong, where her parents often took her to Cantonese opera. Cheung was fascinated by the colourful costumes, painted faces and beautiful singing, but lost touch with the art after moving to Edmonton in 1979. When karaoke became popular in the late 1990s, friends encouraged her to sing the opera pieces for fun, and her passion was rekindled. Credit Akemi Matsubuchi CEN_Cheung_Faculty Photo_2015_119

She quickly discovered that most of the repertoires deal with Chinese history, ethics and social norms. Intrigued and wanting to share her discovery, Cheung secured funding to create a program called “Listening to Cantonese Opera from Different Angles” in 2004 on an Edmonton radio station. She enlisted the help of Jennifer Jay, a professor in the U of A’s Department of History & Classics for advice and guidance. It was Cheung’s first taste of research. Impressed with her research skills and passion, Jay later encouraged her to pursue her interest academically. “As soon as I retire!” was Cheung’s response.

And so she did. After various careers in business, social work and personnel, Cheung retired in 2010 and began an MA in East Asian Studies. Her thesis was on Cantonese opera and the Edmonton Chinese community from 1890 to 2009. “I wanted to spend the time to learn more,” explains Cheung. “After years of volunteer work, this time I wanted to do something just for myself.”

But her work has had implications far beyond her personal interest. Cheung found she was breaking new ground in studying the Edmonton Chinese community through this type of research lens. She came up with the idea of a community collection, since related primary source materials were scarce. She garnered the backing of the Alberta Chinese Cultural Society to support the community collection process, and connected with Robert Desmarais, Head of the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library and Archives, for a place to store and preserve the collected materials. In two years, she collected more than 2,000 primary source materials, including 500 items on Cantonese opera, through the generous donations of the Chinese community. Wanting to share the rich collection with the academic community and the general public, Desmarais invited Cheung to serve as guest curator of a historical exhibition entitled Painted Faces on the Prairies: Cantonese Opera and the Edmonton Chinese Community, as well as on its accompanying book.

“While doing my MA, I realized that I can still grow and develop even after retiring.”

Cheung’s work helped build a stronger relationship between the university and the Edmonton Chinese community, as well as significantly enriching the holdings at the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library. It was these contributions that garnered Cheung the Alumni Centenary Award in recognition of her extraordinary commitment, dedication and years of volunteer service to the University of Alberta. She is no stranger to high honours — Cheung has also been the recipient of a Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award and a Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal, both recognizing her decades of community service and her work in establishing two women’s groups within the Chinese community.

Today Cheung shows no signs of slowing down. With Desmarais, she is now working as guest curator of a second exhibition on Chinese merchants in western Canada, planned to open in 2020. “While doing my MA, I realized that I can still grow and develop even after retiring,” she says. “And I have so much more to learn from others to better myself and better society.”


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