Chinese Canadian historian lives the cultural shift

Born in 1938 and raised in Vancouver’s Chinatown, Larry Wong has experienced the city’s changing cultural dynamics over the past 75 years. As the founding director of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia and director and curator of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum in Vancouver, Wong actively shares his own cultural heritage and experiences with others. Having lived through eras when racial discrimination in Vancouver was still evident in daily life, Wong has witnessed first-hand the shift to today’s culturally diverse city.

“I think multiculturalism has been successful,” says Wong. “Cultural differences have been accepted for a long time and many Asians can see this.”

A maturing city

Larry Wong's memoir of hs experiences growing in Vancouver's Chinatown | Photo by Kumiko Aoki

Larry Wong’s memoir of hs experiences growing in Vancouver’s Chinatown | Photo by Kumiko Aoki

When you walk the streets of Vancouver, it is no surprise to see people who trace their roots back to places all around the world. According to the 2011 census, almost half the population of Greater Vancouver has ethnic origins that lie outside North America and Europe. However, Wong says that when he was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, the city looked and functioned quite differently.

“In the early days, Chinese were restricted to Chinatown but today the Chinese population is no longer restricted and can be found in every neighbourhood,” Wong says.

Wong believes that Vancouver has matured a great deal since the days when racial discrimination was more blatantly present.

“My father very rarely went outside Chinatown because there were so many racial discriminations in those days that he didn’t really venture much outside the community,” Wong says. “What a difference in attitude [today]; it’s absolutely amazing.”

Cultural diversity in evidence

Wong believes that the city as a whole has greatly benefitted from the arrival of new immigrants who make Vancouver richer by bringing their own experiences, culture and heritage.

“[The society] is more accepting and [immigrants] become more of the fabric of society in Vancouver so it’s a very rich city” Wong says.

The changing demographics and culture of the city have also opened up new opportunities for members of different communities to pursue careers and make a living in ways that were denied to previous generations.

“The younger generations of Asians are becoming more professional than the earlier generation and, therefore, more qualified for work in their chosen profession,” says Wong.

Freedom and taking pride

In his youth, Wong struggled with racial discrimination – from being seated in a “Chinese only” corner of a movie theatre to being rejected from a bank teller job because of his race – so pervasive it lead him to try to deny his heritage and rebel against being Chinese. However, he has grown to be very proud of where he comes from and his active involvement as a historian in Chinese Canadian organizations reflects this appreciation.

“I’m very proud of my heritage because I try to find out as much about my Chinese family and my Chinese roots and of course my Chinese history,” says Wong, who has also written a memoir, Dim Sum Stories, about his childhood in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

In Wong’s eyes, younger members of ethnic communities in Vancouver also celebrate their heritage, but as the city becomes more multicultural and barriers of racial discrimination drop, they also shift their focus to other concerns.

“To some extent the younger generation go back to their roots but I think they are more involved in making a living and [being a] part of today’s society,” he says.