Underwater project stirs interest in Chinatown history

Working on digitizing stories. | Photo courtesy of Cinevolution Media Arts Society

Working on digitizing stories. | Photo courtesy of Cinevolution Media Arts Society

A digital storytelling workshop, Underwater Chinatown, is stirring the waters and capturing what floats to the surface. Cinevolution hopes Underwater Chinatown will open up new dialogues between newcomer communities and the established Chinese-Canadian community through a creative exploration of the symbolic meaning of Chinatown. The free event runs Sept. 26 and is already filled to capacity.

Chinatown, as a space and as a concept, is about difference, migration, belonging, survival, identity and all the complex questions that come up as a part of all that,” says Yun-Jou Chang, operations manager and project coordinator of Underwater Chinatown.

Project origins

Several years ago, the Orchid Ensemble commissioned musician/composer/performance artist Yawen Wang to create an original composition. It was a metaphor to express the tension and inner conflict second and third generation Chinese immigrants experience, and how they constantly negotiate and define their cultural identity.

After the project was finished, the idea of an underwater Chinatown lingered in Wang’s mind. In 2014, she approached Cinevolution to co-produce Underwater Chinatown, an interactive multimedia project exploring another aspect in the history of Vancouver’s Chinatown. By inviting diverse communities, particularly newcomers, to engage with Chinatown through evocative human stories Wang expects to create an experience both immersive and multi-sensory.

“We wanted to move away with more traditional forms of story documentation and fact-based education, and instead emphasize discovery and connection building,” says Chang.

Underwater Chinatown: Digital Stories includes a set of three five-week, artist-facilitated community digital storytelling workshops focused on the space and the subaltern histories of Vancouver’s Chinatown.

“The listeners experience the stories in real-time while walking the specific routes/sites related to the stories,” says Toni Zhang McAfee, museum manager at the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver.

Unlike most digital storytelling projects, which focus on visual storytelling, this project is anchored by the concept of PodPlay: a form of site-specific audio play to integrate stories and walking routes.

“Through the unique interplay of space and sound, Podplay not only serves to highlight the social, cultural and geographic particularities of Chinatown; but steers our attention away from sight as the only way of knowing, and compels us to reflect upon the other sensory input that inform our knowledge of the world,” says Zhang McAfee.

By inviting participants to research lesser-known aspects of Chinatown’s history and creating a story around their research, the participants enter the emotional space of Chinatown residents and explore their feelings and motivations.

“Thus, participants are able to map parallels between their own experiences and motivations, and that of the people who once lived in Chinatown,” says Chang.

Opening new dialogues

Chang feels many new immigrants feel no kinship or connection to Chinatown even though they are of Chinese descent.

“Instead, they see Chinatown as an outdated, irrelevant tourist trap. However, Chinatown is more than that. It is more than a tourist destination. It is more than a place you visit for dim sum on the weekends. It is more than a geographic space where the Chinese community once congregated,” says Chang.

Underwater Chinatown: Digital Stories emphasizes the diversity within the Chinese community and the particularity of individual experience within the broader context of migration.

“Differences in socioeconomic status, cultural norms and political systems often make it difficult for different subsets of the Chinese community to relate to one another, not to mention mainstream Canadian society,” says Zhang McAfee.

Underwater Chinatown: Digital Stories grew out of a desire to enhance the interactivity and authenticity of the project website.

“We wanted users of the Underwater Chinatown website to be able to participate by sharing their own Chinatown stories in addition to exploring or manipulating the content that we have created. At the same time, we realized that there are significant challenges to being able to create a good digital story. Therefore, we decided, the onus was on us to make it possible,” says Zhang McAfee.

For more information, visit www.explorasian.org