Linocut in black, ochre and white of people marching on the street through Chinatown Toronto with the road in perspective at the centre. On the right there is a sign in Chinese characters, there is an outline of a placard in the foreground.

Palimpsests: Queer Asian Toronto, Then and Now

By Tracey Yu

  • Linocut in black, ochre and white of people marching on the street through Chinatown Toronto with the road in perspective at the centre. On the right there is a sign in Chinese characters, there is an outline of a placard in the foreground.
  • Black and ochre linocut print of three stories of an office building with a white outlines of two people carrying a sofa outside
  • Black and ochre linocut print of a building front with 'Manhattan Club' inscribed in big white text in the middle. White outlines of two people sitting opposite each other across a small table having bubble tea. Another outline of a standing person to their left.

For this project, I created a series of linocut prints re-imagining key historical queer Asian spaces in Toronto, as described in the Marvellous Grounds project. Through the reduction print method, I juxtaposed these spaces as they exist in people’s memories and what they have become, decades later.

Many sites of QTBIPOC placemaking in Toronto have not only been erased by relentless waves of gentrification and condofication, but also erased from the mainstream white- queer- narrative. However, traces of this past inevitably remain, as evidenced by the counter-archives that Marvellous Grounds has created.

Here Haritaworn, Moussa, and Ware draw on Alexander’s idea of palimpsestic time:

a palimpsest is “a parchment that has been inscribed two or three times, the previous text having been imperfectly erased and remaining therefore still partly visible.”

(Haritaworn, Moussa, and Ware 2018, p.6; quoting Alexander 2005)

The work of these counter-archives is then to uncover and piece together that previous text, and in so doing make visible a radical QTBIPOC presence that has always existed.

My wish was for this project to build on these counter-archives and make them visible in a literal sense, collapsing the temporal distance between the past and the present by putting them on the same canvas.

I created prints for three locations: Gay Asians Toronto’s (GAT) first office, located on “St. Joseph just west of Yonge” (Li 2018, p.58); Chinatown, which GAT marched through during the 1982 Pride Parade (Li 2018); and the bubble tea shop where Queer Asian Youth (QAY) held monthly gatherings, located around St. Joseph and Bay (Rodriguez 2018).

Lino cut in black, beige and white of people marching on the street through Chinatown Toronto with the road in perspective at the centre
Lino-cut Print of Pride March through Chinatown, Toronto by Tracey Yu.

GAT was co-founded in 1981 by Richard Fung and many others, and was a major hub for queer Asian organizing and advocacy. GAT provided a space for queer Asians to gather and create community. Alan Li recalls how they built their first office to feel like a home, finding recycled furniture and renting a truck to move each piece themselves. Many meetings, workshops, and events were hosted in that space.

Reference photo of Chinatown, provided by Tracey Yu.

Later, a number of groups that provided HIV/AIDS services to East and Southeast Asian communities merged and became the Asian Community AIDS Services (ACAS), which is still active today (Li 2018). GAT led the Pride march through Chinatown in 1982, the second year Pride happened in Toronto. GAT’s presence in the march was a direct counter to claims that there were no queer people from Chinese or Asian communities. Twenty-something people from GAT marched through Chinatown in a moment of both fear and liberation (Li 2018).

QAY is a group within ACAS that provides youth-oriented social programming. There is not much information about QAY’s history, but Catungal (2014) describes bubble tea socials the group used to host. Catungal includes a poster for a bubble tea social that happened in 2003, which specified the event as meant for “queer east & southeast asian young women & trans people & their friends” (2014, p.141). These socials provided a space in which queer Asian youth could gather and form a sense of collective identity, at a time where such spaces were rare and much needed.

These stories, and the locations attached to them, are pieces of a history that can often only be found in fragments and traces. By distilling them into a visual medium, I hope to anchor them solidly to the present.

While creating a visual representation of palimpsestic time, I also hope to evoke questions of queer futurities – how can these counter-archives inform and invigorate us on our ongoing efforts to organize for a radical future?

Gay Asians Toronto’s (GAT) first office, lino-cut by Tracey Yu

I have chosen to focus on queer Asian histories specifically, even though Marvellous Grounds documents many different racialized queer experiences. I have chosen this because of my own positionality: put simply, I am a queer Asian living in Toronto. I do not wish to speak on behalf of communities I am not part of.

Furthermore, I arrived at this project very much through following my own desires – I wanted to understand my own history, and more than that, I wanted to interact with it, feel a part of it, contribute something to it.

I have often felt dissatisfied with the versions of queerness that I saw, which were almost always white and therefore inaccessible to my racialized self.

This project allowed me to imagine myself into spaces where my whole, unfragmented self was welcomed – as complex and contested as those spaces were/are.


My project draws heavily on Marvellous Grounds: Queer of Colour Histories of Toronto, Queering Urban Justice: Queer of Colour Formations in Toronto, as well as the Marvellous Grounds blog and special issues. I am particularly indebted to the contributions of Alvis Choi (2018) and Amandeep Kaur Panag and Rio Rodriguez (2016). The two published collections, edited by Jin Haritaworn, Ghaida Moussa, and Syrus Marcus Ware, disrupt the white, colonial, capitalist queer history and geography of Toronto.

Instead, they uncover and highlight the rich presence of QTBIPOC community and organizing that has indelibly shaped the queer landscape of Toronto, creating what the editors call a counter-archive. This counter-archive is made up of interviews, essays, fictionalized personal accounts, poetry, performance, and much more, combining to form a complex and always-in-progress vision of QTBIPOC belonging in the city. The importance of these collections cannot be overstated, as they make up a huge wealth of QTBIPOC history, a history that is often longed for but rarely known.

My motivations for doing this project are informed by Eve Tuck’s (2009) call for desire-based research. In an open letter, Tuck questions the value of previous research agendas that merely focus on documenting damage in marginalized communities, especially Indigenous communities. She argues that these communities should refuse any further research that only depicts them as broken, and instead insist on a framework of desire, which would seek to understand the “complexity, contradiction, and the self-determination of lived lives” (Tuck 2009, p.416).

I am aware of the harms suffered by my community. From Canada’s history of racist exclusionary immigration policy, to the unbearable unimaginable tragedy of the AIDS crisis, to the complicated oppressions faced by those like me who exist at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities.

With that awareness, I deliberately choose to focus on re-remembering spaces of joy, triumph, connection, and self-determination. However, I also have to acknowledge that in her open letter, Tuck was specifically thinking of Indigenous communities and the particular history of violence and dispossession that they continue to feel the consequences of.

Centering desire is a powerful framework for research about marginalized communities, and it sparked the inspiration for me to speak within a group I am a part of. At the same time, my use of this concept is complicated by my (and indeed all queer Asians in Canada) position as an immigrant settler, only allowed here to further the modern colonial project.

I am also informed by adrienne maree brown’s concept of pleasure activism. In her book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (2019), brown outlines a guiding philosophy for activism (but also for living) that finds liberation and “joy, wholeness, and aliveness” (p.3) from within the pursuit of pleasure.

Pleasure activism, then, involves demanding our social structures to recognize the necessity of pleasure in our lives. It is also about learning to “make justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have on this planet” (p.13). It seems to me that queerness is all about pleasure – we are queer because the kinds of existence we find pleasurable are counter to the cis-hetero mainstream.

Becoming queer, or stepping into our queerness, is a process of finding what makes us feel pleasure, feel joyful and whole and alive, often while existing in environments that only want conformity.

Similar to Tuck, brown is working specifically from within her own community. She explicitly centers Black women, and her pleasure activism is firmly rooted in Black Feminist Theory. While brown does not limit her theory and in fact refuses to deny the connectedness of all humans, it is still important to acknowledge that her call for an intellectual framework that centers pleasure is grounded in the historical and material experiences of Black women, who have been especially alienated from it.


I will talk first about how I found each location, then explain my process of creating the prints. I initially found the locations I represented through the Marvellous Grounds project, but I also conducted my own research to find some missing details. I wanted to find the specific addresses of the first GAT office and the bubble tea lounge.

Lino-cut by Tracey Yu

I managed to find the office listing in the 1993 Toronto City Directory, although it was listed under Gay Asian AIDS Project. The bubble tea shop was more ambiguous, and I am still not certain that I found the right place. Rodriguez’ map entry suggests it was around St. Joseph St. & Bay St., but a doctoral thesis on ethno-specific AIDS services by Catungal (2014) included a poster for bubble tea socials run by Queer Asian Youth at 19 Balmuto St., which is geographically close but not quite the same. Even the poster led to more ambiguity: it names the place “club nanhattan”, but an internet search of the address reveals a long-since closed food establishment that was called Manhattan Club.

I ultimately chose to go with Manhattan Club for my print, but the uncertainty is still there. I could not find any references to the route GAT took during the 1982 Pride parade, so I based my print off of an amalgamation of reference photos I took around Chinatown.

Photo provided by Tracey Yu

After establishing the locations with as much precison as I could manage, I then went to each site and took reference photos, then created the sketches, linoleum blocks, and eventually final prints based on the photos. I chose to use the method of reduction printing because I found that it resonated nicely with the idea of palimpsestic time. The general concept of juxtaposing the past and the present in the same physical space is well-tread ground, but I did not find any other projects that used reduction printing to represent palimpsestic time.

Reduction printing process. Photo credit: Tracey Yu

Reduction printing involves creating multiple layers of a print on one block – you carve out the first layer, and print as many copies as you plan on. You then carve out the next layer out of what remains of the same block, and repeat the process for as many layers as you wish. Each layer is also printed on the same paper, producing one final image for your desired number of copies. Just as the palimpsest contains multiple different texts, with the previous ones erased but still partially extant, each successive layer of a reduction print necessarily and permanently takes away from/prints over the previous layer, leaving only traces behind – but leaving traces nonetheless.


I truly loved doing this project. It was a very emotional process for me – encountering the Marvellous Grounds project was the first time I realized there was a history that I could access, and I was incredibly moved just from reading Richard Fung’s and Alan Li’s recollection of gay Asian activism and community in the decades past.

As I carved out my linoleum blocks, I loved imagining them carving out space in a city that is antagonistic to them in more ways than one. On top of that, this was a history that happened on streets that I regularly walk down, decades later. Creating this project was one of the most powerful ways I have ever felt a sense of belonging, and I can only hope that I can share this feeling through my prints.

I like the way that the prints turned out, but I do feel that the final images were not as convincing as I had hoped. I liked the metaphorical resonance of reduction printing, but the technique does by definition limit the amount of layering that I can do. If I had used one block per layer, another common technique, I could have evoked a more drastic difference of the past and the present, and created a clearer visual result.

Another change I could have made in retrospect was the order of the inks. Reduction prints usually go from lightest to darkest inks, and that was the process I followed, but reversing it might have produced the effect I desired as well – darker inks will obviously cover lighter inks better, but in fact I wanted the reverse in order to represent how the past ends up peeking through. Still, I enjoyed how much the process itself becomes part of establishing meaning, and it may simply be a matter of refining my technical abilities.

I feel that it could be worthwhile to expand on the project of capturing these palimpsests, given more time and perhaps an ethics review. I would love to interview queer Asian elders about moments and locations that they remember, perhaps sketching out thumbnails and basic ideas during the interview, such that they could provide active input on the final image. Interviewing queer elders would also allow me to learn about locales that usually are not recorded in history at all, following in the spirit of Rio Rodriguez’ alternative mapping project. I think it would be fascinating not only to go through this process of co-creation, but also to note what memories people focus on, what details remain.

How much do people pay attention to the physical spaces, as opposed to impressions of emotions and internal states? Is there a different type of recollection when you know the goal is to create a visual image?

It is also possible that the prints would take on a more abstract character, reflecting the amorphous-ness of memory. I would like to find out.


My project, which I called Palimpsests: Queer Asian Toronto, Then and Now, built on the queer of colour counter-archives curated by Haritaworn, Moussa, Ware, Rodriguez, and many more by creating visual representations of historical queer Asian spaces in Toronto. I created a series of linocut prints that evoked the palimpsestic nature of these counter-archives by using the reduction print method, layering the present over the past in such a way that the past was hidden but never entirely erased. My project was grounded in Tuck’s principles of desire-based research, and brown’s concept of pleasure activism, although I tried to be careful to acknowledge the specificity of their scholarship.

The process of creating the prints was deeply emotional and fulfilling to me, as I felt a profound connection to both a rich lineage of beautiful joyful defiant queer Asians, and to the city that I hope to become a part of. While there were many imperfections to my project, I believe that it would be worthwhile to expand on it, especially by actively consulting queer Asian elders.


brown, adrienne maree (2019), Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, Oakland, Ca: AK Press.

Haritaworn, Jin, Moussa, Ghaida, Ware, Syrus Marcus (eds.) (2018), Marvellous Grounds: Queer of Colour Histories of Toronto. Toronto: Between The Lines.

Catungal, John Paul (2014), For us, by us: political geographies of race, sexuality and health in the work of ethno-specific AIDS service organizations in global-multicultural Toronto [Doctoral thesis, University of Toronto].

Choi, Alvis (2018), ‘Introduction’. Marvellous Grounds Issue 2. Available online: (accessed 31 May 2022).

Haritaworn, Jin, Moussa, Ghaida, Ware, Syrus Marcus, with Rodriguez, Rio (eds.) (2018), Queering Urban Justice: Queer of Colour Formations in Toronto. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Haritaworn, Jin, with Fung, Richard (2018), ‘It Was a Heterotopia: Four Decades of Queer of Colour Art and Activism in Toronto,’ in Haritaworn, Moussa, and Ware (eds), Marvellous Grounds: Queer of Colour Histories in Toronto, Toronto: Between The Lines.

Li, Alan (2018), ‘Power in Community: Queer Asian Activism from the 1980s to the 2000s,’ in Haritaworn, Moussa, and Ware (eds), Marvellous Grounds: Queer of Colour Histories in Toronto, Toronto: Between The Lines.

Panag, Amandeep Kaur and Rodriguez, Rio (2016), ‘Introduction’. Marvellous Grounds Issue 1. Available online: (accessed 31 May 2022).

Tuck, Eve (2009), “Suspending damage: A letter to communities,” Harvard Educational Review 79(3): 409-428.

Tracey Yu was born in Beijing, grew up in Ottawa, and now lives in Toronto. They are constantly renegotiating what their connections to these places mean, what histories and cultures they have claim to, and what responsibilities they have inherited. They are an immigrant settler who has an embarrassingly earnest desire to be part of the struggle to create more just and liveable worlds. 

At the time of writing, Tracey is an MES/JD student at York University. Their research interests lie somewhere at the intersections between climate justice, abolitionist thought, and queer theory. In particular, They are interested in finding ways of achieving climate justice that is transformative, rooted in practices of collective care, and exist outside of/in opposition to the state. More than anything, they are guided by Mariame Kaba’s saying that hope is a discipline. 

Outside of academia, they love picking up new hobbies and listening to the Weakerthans.