Chinatown activism: a moment in time

Holding up a protest sign which reads “Save Chinatown,” a group of Chinese people stand in the middle of a Vancouver street. This is one of a hundred black-and-white images from the current exhibition Jim Wong-Chu Photographs 1973-1981: People, Place, Politics, held until Oct. 18 at Centre A Gallery. The exhibition reveals the history of Vancouver Chinatown protest in the 1970s, a time and place that many younger Vancouverites have forgotten.

Those days are the darkest moment of Chinese-Canadian history,” says Jim Wong-Chu, who captured the images featured in the exhibition.

Born in Hong Kong in 1949, Wong-Chu arrived in Canada in 1961 and took the photos while he was a student at the Vancouver School of Art, now known as Emily Carr University.

“At that time I was too young to realize the significance of these images. Later, when I looked back in history, I realized those are the pivotal moments in our history,” he says.

The exhibit shines a light on an important period in Vancouver’s history, according to Centre A executive director Tyler Russell.

“These photographs capture a moment in time in Chinatown and it is still relevant today,” says Russell.

Jim Wong-Chu talking about the Chinatown history at the exhibition opening.| Photo courtesy of Centre A.

Jim Wong-chu talking about the Chinatown history at the exhibition opening.| Photo courtesy of Centre A.

Struggle to preserve the Chinatown community

If you were a Chinese, you were different. You were seen as an outsider,” says Wong-Chu of his experiences at the time.

He moved to Chinatown, seeking an identity and a sense of belonging. There he witnessed and recorded the struggle of his community to protect their properties from those “insidious” forces that “would like to see the Asian kicked out,” in Wong-Chu’s words.

According to Wong-Chu, such incidents include the proposed Quebec-Columbia Connector Freeway, a massive eight-lane freeway project that would have occupied most of Chinatown and destroyed the entire neighborhood had it been built. The closure of BBQ Pork stores was another campaign against the Chinese community, through rigid food regulation that ignored Asian culture sensitivity.

Wong-Chu puts these incidents in the context of anti-Chinese sentiment that had existed since a 1907 riot when the entire Chinatown neighborhood physically attacked by whites, resulting in many Chinese businesses being destroyed.

Writing as a means of activism

Wong-Chu joined in the fight as well as documenting it. Writing was one way he expressed this activism.

“Publication in English is important for us. When people can see your writing, they will get to know you and things start to change,” says Wong-Chu.

Wong-Chu has been instrumental in the literary scene in Canada. He became the first Chinese-Canadian to publish a literary book in English, founded the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop to help young writers to find a publisher and created Ricepaper Magazine to feature Asian writers. His efforts have helped create the Asian-Canadian genre of literature.

“[Wong-Chu is] an undeniably important figure in the contemporary Vancouver cultural scene,” says Russell.

Know the past so as to work for the future

Decades have passed since the exhibit’s photos were taken and Wong-Chu acknowledges that blatant acts against Asians could not happen today. However, his activism continues and he views the current exhibit as a part of it.

“It is meant to be educational. We need to educate younger generation about the history. Without the fight of the 1970s, there would be no Chinatown today, and many Chinese foods such as BBQ Pork would not exist today. Young people have to know the past so that they can work for the future,” he says.

To this end, Wong-Chu finds the combination of photographs and writing most effective. Alongside the photographs hung on the gallery wall of Centre A, Wong-Chu puts up a small write up about the story behind the scene.

“Photographs magnify the event in time. Writing cannot go that far. But without the context from writing, you cannot see it,” says Wong-Chu.