Centre A Gallery considers the sites of a changing Chinatown

Centre A Gallery is fairly new to the Chinatown neighbourhood, having opened on East Georgia Street in May 2013. Its location within a rapidly transforming Chinatown has prompted the gallery to contemplate the changing cultural landscape and its position in the community, inspiring its current exhibition, M’goi/ Do Jeh: Sites, Rites and Gratitude.

It is the first exhibition curated by executive director Tyler Russell, who joined Centre A in January. The exhibition, whose title includes two distinct ways of saying ‘thank you’ in Cantonese, offers a series of public programming including a community memory map, film screening, poetry readings, and Saturday language classes.

“Centre A is founded on a question mark,” says Russell. “Through all this engagement, we will learn a lot and begin to understand the posture that we can take.”

Learning the language of the neighbourhood

Considerate of the gallery’s engagement in the local community, Russell decided to provide Cantonese language classes to the public as the first cultural gesture of his curatorial role. He invited Kathryn Gwun-Yeen Lennon, a community activist and spoken word poet, to organize the Saturday classes, which will include a grocery trip and neighbourhood tour. According to both Russell and Gwun-Yeen Lennon, linguistic knowledge has the potential to change the nature of relationships within a community.

“Language learning is a tool for building relationships,” says Lennon. “I want people to think about language as site-specific and get a sense of the relationships that make up this community.”

Gwun-Yeen Lennon, who is also pursuing a graduate degree in urban planning, is considerate of how urban development has the potential to disrupt or destroy a neighbourhood.

As a member of Friends of 439 – a group seeking to save the Ming Sun-Uchida building at 439 Powell Street – she explains that the building functioned as a low-income housing unit for Chinese seniors until the City of Vancouver cut power to the building and ordered an evacuation.

“These neighbourhoods were founded because of exclusion and racist ideology. Now, we are trying to revitalize them,” says Lennon, who expresses the importance of reflecting on what might be lost as a result of urban development. “People can experience trauma as the neighborhood they live in changes.”

Members of the Ming Sun Community. | Photo courtesy of Friends of 439.

Members of the Ming Sun Community. | Photo courtesy of Friends of 439.

The history and future of Chinatown

It was a chance meeting at a teahouse in Chinatown that initiated a conversation between Russell and Lydia Kwa, a poet and psychologist. Russell invited Kwa to share her visual work and short poetry from her self-published book linguistic tantrums, and host a participatory poetry game where visitors can respond to her art displayed in the gallery.

“I saw the work as a linguistic gesture, processing a transformation from a unique, personal perspective,” says Russell.

Kwa produced the visual art after collecting a variety of foundry type from Chinatown’s oldest print shop, Ho Sun Hing Printers, which closed on March 28. Kwa started using the type to hand-stamp and create images. She considers the work to be a way of showing respect to a 106-year-old business that is a part of Chinatown’s culture and history.

“It was Tyler’s vision to express gratitude to the community, a community that is changing. And I was reflecting on these same things at the same time,” says Kwa.

vice sister by Lydia Kwa from linguistic tantrums | Photo courtesy of Centre A Gallery.

vice sister by Lydia Kwa from linguistic tantrums | Photo courtesy of Centre A Gallery.

It is apparent that Russell, Gwun-Yeen Lennon, and Kwa are involved in this project as a result of overlapping meditations, concerns and questions around Chinatown’s future. Throughout this exhibition, Centre A will serve as a site where participants are invited to reflect on similar questions and engage in the neighbourhood in a way that they may not have done before.

“How do we give thanks to the people and places before us?” asks Gwun-Yeen Lennon, who hopes that the exhibition will help to create a stronger collective memory while honouring the community and its history.

M’goi/ Do Jeh: Sites, Rites and Gratitude runs until June 14 at Centre A Gallery, 229 East Georgia Street. For more information, please visit http://www.centrea.org/exhibitions/current