Someone has defaced a series of historical murals in Vancouver’s Chinatown neighbourhood.
The paintings were created in 2010 by Shu Ren (Arthur) Cheng and are located at 490 Columbia Street near the corner of Pender.
Richard Marquez, a Vancouver resident who works in the non-profit sector, noticed the graffiti over the Labour Day long weekend.
In a telephone interview, Marquez told the Straight he worries the damage to the murals is an expression of frustration about housing affordability in Vancouver and the result of anger directed at the alleged economic influence of so-called “foreign buyers”.
“You look at all the development that is going around—displacement, gentrification, the condo-ization of Chinatown,” he explained. “And I’m wondering, is this a manifestation of that? Inarticulate and brutal about it, not acknowledging that this is a historic mural by Arthur Cheng.”
A March 2015 analysis by Bing Thom Architects’ Andy Yan found 66 percent of single-family properties in Vancouver were assessed at $1 million or more. That was double the portion worth that much five years earlier. Despite there existing no solid evidence of a quantifiable link between foreign buyers and Vancouver property values, debates around affordability have increasingly focused on the supposed role of money from China.
Marquez said the way the Vancouver Chinatown mural was damaged reminds him of anti-Chinese graffiti that’s appeared this year in San Francisco in the area where he grew up. There in the Portola neighbourhood, several buildings have been tagged with the words, “No more Chinese”.
Titled “A Snapshot of History”, the Vancouver Chinatown murals stand in recognition of the history of Chinese Canadians and those communities’ contributions to British Columbia.
“One panel depicts the Goon family,” reads a description at VancouverMurals.ca. “Hung Get Goon, dreamt of becoming a lawyer, but was never able to go to law school due to discrimination. Instead, his father became the city editor of the Chinese Times while his mother, Ruth, ran a fish shop in Chinatown. The other two panels of the mural feature a reproduction of a 1905 photo of a silk merchant in Chinatown and a rendering of a 1936 photo of men sitting outside a barber shop at Carrall and Pender.
“The mural is significant because it embodies the indefatigable spirit of the Chinese to persevere no matter where they are in the world, hoping the hard work sewn by one generation will be reaped by the next,” it continues.
At the mural’s unveiling in 2010, Cheng’s son explicitly mentioned racism faced by Canadian Chinese communities in the past.
“It’s in memory of our ancestors and how they came out here and how hard it was for them to begin life here in Canada,” he said. “There was so much discrimination. It was really hard for them to get by—but they survived, they survived.”
To the general public, illegal graffiti might look as if it is created without any sort of order or respect for the law. The latter may be true, but there is a sort of unwritten code most street artists follow.
Most painters abide by a respect for larger murals that says they should not be damaged by tags. Taggers are also supposed to stay away from churches, heritage buildings, and independent businesses. In 2013, a Vancouver resident who used the pseudonym Mohinder took heat for breaking those rules.
The Straight explored graffiti culture in Vancouver in a 2010 cover story. That article discussed how public murals deter illegal graffiti because most street artists do follow their code of ethics. It found the City of Vancouver actually has data proving a sanctioned mural will result in the surrounding area seeing a decline in illegal tagging.
Marquez suggested the Vancouver Chinatown mural should be restored and somehow protected.
“It’s not the first time I’ve seen graffiti on it but it is the first time I’ve seen this level, graffiti on every single slab,” he said.