Peeking into Chinatown’s past

Photo courtesy of Chinatown History Windows

2017 is not just a special anniversary for Canada as a nation, but also for the Chinese Canadian community. While it is the 150th birthday for Canada, it is also the 70th anniversary of Chinese Canadians being granted full citizenship and the right to vote.

To acknowledge this milestone, and to celebrate the history of the Chinese community in Vancouver, the Chinatown History Windows project was created to educate passersby and showcase the bright history of Chinatown.

Uncovered connection

Catherine Clement, who is half-Chinese, has fond memories of visiting Chinatown as a six year old, joining her grandmother on trips to mahjong games followed by stops at the local meat shops to pick up a barbecue duck. However, as she grew up she stopped going and, until recently, had nothing to do with the neighbourhood. That changed seven years ago when she was introduced to the Chinese Canadian Military Museum, which celebrates the service of Chinese Canadian soldiers in our country’s military and their impact on civil rights in Canada. For Clement, it was the first time that she was exposed to the history of discrimination against Chinese Canadians.

“I had no idea of the discrimination that my own community had suffered,” says Clement. “I didn’t know really how recently they didn’t have full citizenship and the right to vote. A whole world emerged for me, a whole part of my history.”

The reason that learning about these issues was so shocking to Clement was simply because no one talked about it in her family.

“I think it was maybe a pride issue,” says Clement. “No one wanted to be reminded that they were treated that way.”

Fast forward to today, and Clement is now the curator of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum. As someone who has always loved history she has become fascinated by the stories of Chinatown and the experiences of those who have lived there.

“I’ve heard so many amazing stories,” says Clement. “It made me realize that there have been so many footsteps, lives and stories that have happened in these few spots, but they’ve vanished. Once many people could leave Chinatown they did, it’s ironic that the very thing that was great for the community ended up undermining it.”

Bringing back to life

Women on the Home Front in WWII at 227 E. Pender St. | Photo courtesy of Chinatown History Windows

Hearing those stories made Clement want to bring back some of Chinatown’s rich history, and that desire led to the creation of the Chinatown History Windows Project, which has used storefront windows –mainly empty ones – to showcase a multitude of defining or beautiful moments throughout the history of Chinese Canadians in B.C.

“The idea was that there’s all these empty windows,” says Clement. “So let’s use them to tell some of the stories that have happened here over the years.”

That was last fall, and from there the project took off quickly; work on the murals started in January and the first ones were put up in March. As of now there are 11 murals installed in eight different locations, with another ten to be put up by the end of May.

“Initially,” says Clement, “the idea was to take historical photos, enlarge them and place them. But it couldn’t just be a photo; there had to be a story. And because it can be so grey here, the last thing I thought would work was black and white photos.”

The desire for both storytelling and a more lifelike appearance led to the decision to work with the photos. They were coloured, stylized and sometimes combined with other photos to not only create a more vivid environment but also to truly bring back to life some of Chinatown’s past.

“It’s all about being true to the time period,” says Clement. “I tried to work with filters and effects until I got something both eye-catching and consistent to the time.”

Honouring the past

Catherine Clement. | Photo courtesy of Catherine Clement

Each mural is accompanied by a story panel in both English and Chinese explaining the setting and significance of the images. The murals trace the history of Chinatown starting with the Chinese railway workers who wound up in Vancouver with no money to return home, all the way to the bright neon lights and bustling restaurants of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

“There’s so much history here,” says Clement. “In the beginning, we were looking through archives, but recently people have been showing me remarkable photos in private collections. Some coming forward have not been seen before.”

Some of the murals are of more well-known events or people, but there are also stories that Clement has come across that she finds interesting or special.

“You have to ask yourself,” says Clement, “what are the stories you want to tell? What works in a particular window? For example, a hairdressing salon gave us a window to use, and I happened to know the story of a Chinese woman who was a trailblazer. [She] ran a beauty salon years ago when women didn’t usually do that sort of thing. Because that connects to the salon, we’re putting it there.”

The goal is to have the murals up until the end of the year, to commemorate both Canada’s 150th anniversary as well as the 70th anniversary of Chinese Canadians gaining full citizenship. For Clement, the windows are for people to remember what has taken place in these few city blocks, and to honour what has happened in our past.

“This project was created to commemorate the people who were there before us, what they achieved and what they endured, both good and bad. I love history, and honouring those who came before us,” she says.

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