Chinese Canadians tell ‘small stories that make up a big history’

Chinese Canadians make up a significant part of Canada’s history, but this fact is often forgotten when people talk about Canadian heritage. To remedy that oversight, the Chinatown Storytelling Centre exists to inform the public about this important part of our past and its contemporary legacies.

Situated in the middle of Chinatown, the Storytelling Centre has been hosting exhibitions since 2021 to celebrate the power of stories in building community and bridging understanding. Currently, it is hosting an exhibition on the Chinese Immigration Act after 100 years.

The centre also chronicles the arrival of successive waves of Chinese immigrants, sharing more than 200 stories through video, audio, interactive displays, and talks about immigrant families and individuals. There are stories about immigrants who came for the Gold Rush of 1858, those who built the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s, people who experienced the Chinese Head Tax, or who experienced the bustling Chinatown in the 1950s and 1960s.

Ramona Mar, a member of the content and programming team at the centre, says that Chinese Canadian history in Chinatown is still changing, evolving, and that all its stories are organic.

“As a journalist, I’m voraciously curious about stories and people, like each of those stories fascinates me. I think the other thing is, personally, I have a stake in it because my grandparents were part of the original era,” Mar says.

Most of the people telling the stories about the legacy of Chinatown share a similar background as Mar.

“If a family goes back three generations, we all know each other, it is sort of a network. Chinatown was such a small, intense community because back then they couldn’t live elsewhere. So, everybody knew everybody. It’s a fascinating thing,” says Mar.

Mar highlights the importance of telling the stories of Chinese Canadians because the community has its own experiences and issues.

“Because we have been ignored in the history books. So, if we tell our own stories, suddenly everybody gets their glasses on to see a section of Canadian history that was never recorded in the books,” Mar says.

Torn between identities

Chinatown is only a small neighbourhood in Vancouver that tells small stories, but they make up a big history. One significant story that Mar shared was the turning point of Chinese Canadian history – the first generation of Canadian-born Chinese.

The Chinatown Storytelling Centre recreates the photo studio of Yucho Chow to interactively tell the story of a business in Chinatown. | Photo courtesy of Chinatown Storytelling Centre.

“Prior to this [generation], all the Chinese immigrants were thinking of their homeland and wanting to be buried there. But their children who were born here struggled with their identity and would wonder ‘who are we?’ We were Canadian born, but this country doesn’t accept us. We don’t really have citizenship here. So, they were very, very torn,” says Mar.

After the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act and the Second World War, the Canadian government brought a more liberal approach to the immigration policies.

“An advertisement by the Canadian Pacific Airlines actually advertises bringing your bride from Hong Kong,” Mar shares.

When the community of Chinese Canadians expanded, Chinatown became an energetic neighbourhood filled with businesses and social activities.

“Chinatown used to be like a mini-Hong Kong. It was bustling. You couldn’t find parking and you had to jostle your way through. It was exciting. You cannot picture it now, but in the 50s, it was super exciting,” Mar says.

As people started moving out of the neighbourhood in the recent 20 years, Chinatown lost its spark. Mar confessed that it is her fantasy that Chinatown will become a vibrant, commercial, cultural district once again.

For more information about the centre, visit