Chinese visitors to Debaj sample Ontario tourism

Wikwemikong hoop dancer Katryna Wemigwans performs a dance with Jiajia of Beijing, an 11-year-old Chinese visitor to Manitoulin Island. photos by Michael Erskine

MANITOWANING—Debajehmujig Storytellers hosted a Chinese family that is travelling through Ontario sampling family-friendly tourism products and opportunities, learning about Canadian culture, blazing a trail for Asian tourists and blogging about their experiences under the auspices of Tourism Ontario.

Jiajia, an 11-year-old girl from Beijing and her parents Chen (father) and Hongxing (mother), are crisscrossing the province on a whirlwind 10-day tour and their stop at Debaj was tailor made for exploring Anishinaabe culture, art and traditions. Jiajia’s mother keeps a Chinese language travel blog and her father works in the travel industry in Beijing.

The family was taken on a tour of Manitoulin Island high points before settling in at the Debajehmujig Storytellers Creation Centre in Manitowaning for a tour of the upcoming exhibition of the ‘Portraits of Spirit Island: The Manitoulin School of Art Comes of Age’ that is currently being hung at the centre, a storytelling session by Debaj’s own Tabitha Peltier and a hoop dancing workshop set up specifically for Jiajia.

While Chen speaks English, the rest of the family does not, so much of the conversations were facilitated by Ontario Tourism consultant Michael Zhang, who explained that the itinerary for the family was set up by the provincial tourism agency Tourism Ontario. That itinerary began in Toronto and will include that other seminal Canadian tourism experience, Niagara Falls.

“The blog belongs to the little girl’s mother,” explained Mr. Zhang. “The young girl is travelling with her.” Also following the family is a photographer from National Geographic Traveler, he said, and the family’s experiences will be featured in a special edition of that publication focussing on Ontario. National Geographic Traveler is the world’s most widely read travel magazine and each print (or online) edition is packed with “insider tips, fascinating stories and you-are-there photos.”

Jiajia is definitely living the dream, as part of her parents’ world spanning odyssey, she has visited numerous countries in Africa, Europe and different parts of Asia. But Italy and Manitoulin are her favourite places so far. Small wonder, considering the up close and personal experiences she was able to take part in while visiting Manitoulin.

Wikwemikong youth hoop dancer Katryna Wemigwans took Jiajia into the main hall at the Debaj centre for a couple of hours’ instruction on the art and history of the dance, and the young Chinese girl proved an apt student. Following the feast, Katryna and Jiajia entered a women’s circle in the grounds above Burn’s Wharf to perform their stories.

“I can’t believe how fast she has picked it up,” said Katryna’s mother Diane. “Katryna has been doing this for years, she spent two hours teaching Jiajia and look how well she has done.”

After the applause from their dance performance had subsided, Katryna spread a blanket from her spirit bundle and took Jiajia aside to explain the various sacred medicines and their uses, how to prepare a smudge and the important role that offerings of semma (tobacco) plays in Anishinabe culture, as well as the intricacies of the Sun Dance ceremonies.

Interpretor Michael Zhang, Jiajia’s mother blogger Hongxing and her travel industry father Chen learn about Anishinabe art with Debaj Artistic Director Joe Osawabine.
Interpretor Michael Zhang, Jiajia’s mother blogger Hongxing and her travel industry father Chen learn about Anishinabe art with Debaj Artistic Director Joe Osawabine.

Jiajia seemed tentative heading into the lessons, but Katryna and the singers’ open and welcoming approach soon had her not only at ease, but by the time the young Chinese girl entered the impromptu dance arena her poise and confidence reflected that of a far more experienced performer.

Mr. Zhang explained that Manitoulin Island is one of the focus destinations being promoted by Tourism Ontario due to the wealth of family-friendly experiences that abound here.

The family was staying at the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre and were scheduled to travel south to Tobermory this past Monday.