This past year marked a pivotal time of change for Vancouver’s Chinatown neighborhood. It was the year that saw the closure of the popular long-running Chinatown Night Market and the 100+ year old Ho Sun Hing Printers letter shop, but it was also home to many community supporters actively promoting positive change.
These are just three awesome things that happened in Chinatown this year, but there are a dozen more grassroots groups and community builders who are consistently organizing intergenerational gatherings and building awareness for marginalized members of our community.
1. M’Goi/Do Jeh: Sites, Rites and Gratitude at Centre A (April to June 2014)
It took two poets with different backgrounds and different generations (Kathryn Lennon and Lydia Kwa) and newly hired executive director/curator Tyler Russell to transform an art gallery into an interactive intergenerational bilingual community hub.
Centre A is an contemporary Asian art gallery that was located on West Hastings for many years and for many, many years, I’ve never stepped foot in the space. The programming never connected to me (which is strange because I love Asian Canadian arts, I manage an Asian Canadian literary arts publication, and I work at an art gallery).
But with the recent move of Centre A to East Georgia and the new vision of Tyler Russell, there needed to be some changes. Russell saw the ever-changing landscape in Chinatown and wanted to deliver programming reflecting the community.
With new faces and new ideas, the Centre A team made something special—something new and something different—that changed the way I looked at “contemporary art” and arts organizations. The entire team used the gallery storefront and over the few months transformed it into a community hub, that included weekly Saturday school Cantonese lessons, free movie screenings about Chinatown, readings, a community mapping project, and overall created a safe space for an open dialogue about Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Many institutions with operating grants continually seek the status quo, bringing on the same type of staff, board members, and volunteers and never straying from ambitious programming because of fears it might affect funding from key stakeholders. M’Goi/Do Jeh: Sites, Rites and Gratitude was an epic way to launch Centre A’s new stance on its place in cultural community, using the arts as the platform to open discussion about their community.
2. The Choi Project launched by Hua Foundation (July 2014)
Shopping at a Chinese grocery store is awkward for many of us, due to the language barrier and the unfamiliarity of some Chinese produce. Hua Foundation wanted to change that by launching The Choi Project, a bilingual guide that explains which Chinese vegetables are in season, grown locally, and use pesticides.
These guides are free to the public on its website and at the Chinatown Supermarket. The guide makes it easy for anyone regardless of cooking or language skills to learn to cook with Chinese produce.
The entire project is awesome because it wasn’t lead by a marketing company to sell more Chinese produce but by a new youth-driven non-profit organization that is passionate about building social change in the Chinese Canadian community. The small team of three (Claudia Li, Kevin Huang, and Megan Lau) are three bad-ass Chinese Canadian youth who are stoked on building a stronger community through heritage, food, and sustainability.
Their organization doesn’t just focus on Chinese veggies; it also puts issues affecting our community at the forefront. They’ve organized an online petition that opposes the development of 105 Keefer, promoted an all-candidates debates in Chinatown to give a voice to the voiceless, and now with new office space in Chinatown, Hua Foundation wants to give youth, entrepreneurs, and community leaders a space to cultivate ideas among like-minded cultural leaders of tomorrow.
There is an old Chinese proverb, “Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself”. What Hua Foundation is doing is surrounding themselves with passionate teachers, creating a clubhouse for everyone and anyone who is interested in changing the world—and eventually changing the entire world.
3. Jim Wong-Chu Photographs: People, Places, Politics at Centre A, (September to October 2014)
The first two items reflected on the present and future state of Chinatown and its surrounding communities and residents. We aren’t able to look forward if we don’t know the history of what came before us—the photography and poetry exhibit by Jim Wong-Chu was meant open that dialogue.
Many in the community know Wong-Chu as a founding member of many Asian Canadian institutions in Vancouver, a writer, editor, publisher, and community activist. Before the decades and decades of community service, he was a regular art student taking photos of what he knew best: Chinatown.
He didn’t realize it at the time but his photographs of Chinatown in the 1970s and '80s were documenting an important era for residents. They were protesting freeways that would kill the neighborhood, street protests to save the BBQ meats that would stop the selling of a traditional Chinese dish and document many Chinese residents and their everyday life.
The exhibit presented the neighborhood of Chinatown as always evolving. One decade, residents are protesting a freeway that would cut through an important part of Chinatown and another decade they’re protesting the rezoning of a historic area to be used for high-rise development.
The municipal government will always be seeking to fulfill the demand for the growing population, but will they repeat the past and displace 4,000 residents like they did in the 1960s? What have we learned in the past few decades? How can we keep our cultural heritage alive and what is the best way to evoke positive change that is mutually beneficial for the community and bureaucrats? The photographs of Jim Wong-Chu has opened that dialogue but who is keeping that dialogue going?