Mural painter brings Cambodian-Chinese family roots to Montreal streets

When Montreal artist Bryan Beyung told his Cambodian-born parents he was quitting his day job to paint walls for a living, he faced a lot of anxious questions.

“You really sure that’s the way? Are you really selling these paintings? What type of work is this?” Beyung recalls his father asking.

Beyung’s parents had risked a lot to get to Canada. Both Chinese-Cambodians, they met in a refugee camp on the Thailand–Cambodia border after fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime. They arrived in Quebec in 1979.

Now, they were worried all over again — this time about the future of their Canadian-born son.

“Coming here, they wanted a better future for us. They wanted us to be sedentary, to have a good job, to do what they were not able to do,” Beyung said.

Two years after making the decision about what he wanted to do with his life, Beyung is one of the featured artists in Montreal’s annual Mural Festival — his painting taking shape on the side of a butcher shop on the corner of Roy Street and Coloniale Avenue.

His parents are less worried these days.

“My dad is coming to help me now,” says Beyung. “He did the past three days.”

Bridging Cambodia and Montreal

Beyung began as a graffiti artist in his teen years. Now, he travels the world beautifying walls, in his native Montreal and as far away as the country his parents once fled, Cambodia.

His contribution to the Mural Festival is a two-storey-high still life of lush vegetation, including a plump mango — an homage to Beyung’s childhood family dinners which always ended with a mango dessert similar to those made from yellow mangos in Cambodia.

This mural is scheduled to be done by the end of Montreal’s annual Mural Festival, on June 16. (Jennifer Yoon/CBC)

He says no matter where he goes, the experiences of his family and his own experience as a second-generation Canadian remain themes in his art.

“I’m trying to understand the differences between Western and Asian traditional culture to build my own story,” said Beyung.

An example of that is the mural near the gates of Montreal’s Chinatown,on the southwest corner of St-Laurent and René-Lévesque boulevards. A collaboration with Gene Pendon, a Filipino artist, it highlights the people in Montreal’s Chinatown community, whose identities lie between those two worlds.

Bryan Beyung worked on the mural next to the Chinatown gates with Filipino artist Gene Pendon. Beyung says they wanted to create an artwork that speaks to people in that community. (Coastal Elite/Flickr )

But Beyung also says he is working to move past his family background and his parents’ tumultuous history.

“You have to move beyond that past, just as Cambodians also, people there, they don’t want to talk about the Khmer Rouge era. They just want to move forward.” 

Beyung fiddles with his paint roller as he talks. It’s time to get back to work, while there’s still daylight.

“I’ll be here all day until 9 p.m.” he said. “It’s a big day.”

With just a week left to finish this mural, he’s falling behind schedule. Next week, he’ll be starting a new painting in Frédéric-Back Park in Ahuntsic.