Strathcona walking tour highlights contributions of Vancouver’s early immigrant communities

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      A walking tour that highlights immigrant communities that used to call downtown Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood home celebrates Asian Heritage Month and Canadian Jewish Heritage Month.

      What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than to embark on a 3.5-kilometre journey through the streets of one of Vancouver’s oldest East Side neighbourhoods: strolling into Hogan’s Alley, Jewish Strathcona, Chinatown, and Japantown?

      Spokesperson Carmel Tanaka, and one of the guides for the Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tour, describes it as “a trip to the gelateria. You can taste a little bit of the flavours, and then if you’re interested, you can learn more by contacting each of the [associated] organizations and see what they’re offering for the summer.”

      Carmel Tanaka leads the group through the DTES into former Japantown.
      Matt Hanns Schroeter

      About 20 local organizations partnered to make the tour possible. Each of the tour’s dozen stops has a different guide from within the community. Throughout the trip, the guides reflect on the struggles and contributions of early immigrant communities such as the Chinese, Japanese, black, Jewish, Italian, and Eastern European.

      “It’s really wonderful to be able to see what is still remaining but also learn what once was,” said Tanaka, who is chair of the human rights committee for the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens Association. The tour holds a special significance for her, as she belongs to both the Jewish and the Japanese Canadian community.

      What makes this two-hour-long expedition stand out is the recognition by all guides of the cross-cultural intersection of the communities. These early immigrants lived in close proximity, traded with one another, faced similar issues such as racism and gentrification, and their children went to school together.

      Tanaka added: “We’re using the opportunity to build awareness that many of our communities at some point faced immense discrimination and dispossession in the neighborhood. And that’s something that we do bond over.”

      The tour also emphasizes the pressure of being a first-generation immigrant child in the early 1900s, especially in Chinatown. The children would attend after-school lessons to learn their communities’ language and culture. Mon Keang School, a Chinese-language school located in Chinatown, is visited by the tour.

      Aynsley Wong Meldrum welcomes walkers to the Mon Keang School in the Wongs’ Benevolent Association building in Chinatown.
      Matt Hanns Schroeter

      Due to the exclusionary federal Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, there were impediments to employment for Chinese youth. “Chinese people born in Canada were not considered Canadian citizens,” explained tour guide Aynsley Wong Meldrum.

      Meldrum detailed these impediments, explaining that learning to read and write Cantonese became a survival tool necessary to conduct business in Chinatown.

      June Chow, cofounder of the Youth Collaborative for Chinatown, invited participants to take a “sound walk” and listen closely to the market banter in colloquial Chinese. Heritage Vancouver has listed Chinatown on its Top 10 Watchlist. “This way of life of the neighbourhood is actually at risk due to the rate and scale of development and neighbourhood change,” Chow said.

      Guiding the group through nearby Hogan’s Alley, tour guide Vanessa Richards explained how the place got its name. “There was a cartoon strip in a New York newspaper about a very poor neighborhood with a lot of chaos, and it was called Hogan’s Alley,” Richards said.

      She added: “It is divisive and derogatory”.

      Vanessa Richards of the Hogan’s Alley Society leads the tour group down the former Hogan’s Alley.
      Matt Hanns Schroeter

      Richards called Hogan’s Alley, once a bustling hub of Vancouver’s black community, “Black Van”. Referencing the limited job prospects for the community, Richards linked it with a stereotype that blacks love singing and dancing, saying: “It is actually one of the few ways we have been able to find employment. It’s not that we just love it more than anybody else.”

      The afternoon tour also touched upon contemporary issues affecting the downtown district. Tanaka, carrying a naloxone kit and leading the group around the DTES, addressed the housing crisis, homelessness, and drug addiction.

      Tanaka hopes this community-led initiative becomes an annual affair, depending upon future funding. For now, it runs on in-kind donations and ticket revenue.

      “This is something that the city needs because there’s a thirst for it, the intersectionality and the relationships between our communities,” she said.

      The Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tour takes place May 19 and 26 at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Get tickets here.