An invitation to learn the story of Chinese Canadians in BC

An upcoming two-part exhibition with a focus on its surrounding community, A Seat at the Table takes both a historical and a contemporary look at the stories of Chinese Canadians in BC.

The exhibition, a collaboration between the Museum of Vancouver and the University of British Columbia, aims for a more dynamic way of engaging with the public. Its title functions as a double meaning, as it examines this history through the lens of something that everyone has a strong connection with: food.

A BC story

“The title of the exhibition refers to this long history of discrimination,” says co-curator Henry Yu, University of British Columbia (UBC) associate professor of history and principal of St. John’s College. “Fighting for a seat at the table has been a crucial part of the history of Chinese Canadians in BC. And the exhibition is not just about what was done to Chinese Canadians, but also what they were doing to force BC and Canada to become more just, inclusive societies.”

Henry Yu | Photo courtesy of Henry Yu

From the start, A Seat at the Table has been a collaborative project, with three co-curators, two different locations, and the work of numerous community members and students. Yu has worked with many of his UBC students to gather stories and make videos with those in the community. All those involved have worked for the same goal: to share stories of the Chinese Canadian experience, which dates back well over a century.

Yu has a personal connection to this history, as his great-grandfather came to BC in the 1880s, later followed by his four sons. Yu himself grew up in Vancouver and jumped at the chance to work with the MOV on this exhibition. But while he holds an obvious connection to the stories told, he feels there is no reason why everyone in the province shouldn’t feel the same.

“Yes, it’s something that is personally meaningful for me…but for all British Columbians, it’s our collective past,” he says. “Just because I’m related to it by family, doesn’t mean that it should be something that is so qualitatively different in the sense of connection for anyone that lives here.”

“It’s about food, and culture” says Yu, “and why it is, if you grow up in BC, you know how to order dim sum whether you’re Chinese or not. Every small town in BC since the late 19th century has had at least one Chinese Canadian café or restaurant…It’s a BC story, it’s our story.”

An evolving experience

The part of the exhibition hosted at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) will open in the fall, and will contain a variety of multi-media elements, including some virtual reality (VR) and other immersive technologies. It will also not be a stationary exhibit.

“Because it was funded not just by Vancouver but by the province, after it’s finished at the MOV the exhibition will move to other parts of BC,” says Yu. “British Columbians are very mobile, so we hope this story of mobility resonates with people.”

The other portion of the exhibition will open this summer, at the Hon Hsing Building in the heart of Chinatown. Though the coronavirus pandemic has made its opening time uncertain, Yu is very excited to see it unveiled when conditions permit.

“It is important to have a community-engaged space,” he says, “one that is interactive – a place where you can learn the story of Chinese Canadians in BC – but also where people can leave their own story.”

The exhibition will continue to evolve past its opening. Those who visit the exhibit will have the chance to share their stories as well, adding more to the exhibition and giving themselves their own seat at the table.

“We often think of exhibitions as neatly designed, and once you open the doors it is what it is,” says Yu. “We see this space as more dynamic, transformed by the people who come in…This is important for a history that has often been excluded or ignored: you have to be open to hearing people that haven’t been listened to before.”

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