We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.

How Yucho Chow’s Photos Reframed Vancouver History

A researcher’s mission to collect the photographer’s work continues. But we still don’t know much about this fascinating man.

Christopher Cheung 29 Dec 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung writes about the sociology of the city for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung or email him.

Dad had been dead for almost four decades, leaving the Chow brothers with a dilemma: what to do with 79 years’ worth of prints and negatives?

Peter and Philip Chow had decided it was finally time to close the family photo studio on Vancouver’s Main Street. On the surface, their departure from the neighbourhood seemed just like another Chinatown business calling it quits. It was 1986, the year of the World’s Fair, and Vancouver was in the middle of reinventing itself.

It was very different from the Vancouver of 1907 when their father, Yucho Chow, opened his photo studio. For the next 42 years, until his death in 1949, he photographed portraits of hopeful immigrants and their children, Vancouverites who endured a pandemic, two world wars and a racist society that did not want them around. Some of the pictures he took for his Chinese peers were used for numbered identity cards issued by the Department of Immigration and Colonization.

A trove of this visual history had been piling up at the studio. “We keep all negatives” had been dad’s policy.

But the brothers wondered, keep for whom? Surely they could not claim ownership if it was the customers who commissioned the images?

And so, when Yucho Chow Studio closed its doors in 1986, five trucks carried the prints and negatives documenting so many Vancouver families to the dump.

It wasn’t until 2019 that the images would come together again, bringing the full extent of Yucho Chow’s legacy to light. Researcher Catherine Clement patiently gathered portraits to piece together a picture of the prolific photographer.

Clement had first come across Chow’s name in her work interviewing Chinese Canadian veterans. When she flipped through their family albums, she noticed that many of the portraits were accompanied by playful seals bearing Chow’s name.

“I was pulling on a thread and a tapestry was attached,” said Clement, who hunted down over 500 of Chow’s images in a decade.

Clement had initially thought that Chow was Chinatown’s photographer. But when she put out a call for Chow’s works, in came portraits of Punjabi Sikh, Black, Japanese, Indigenous and European families. These people trusted Chow, an immigrant himself from Hoy Ping in southern China who paid the head tax to enter Canada. Unlike Anglo white photographers, they knew Chow wouldn’t turn them away.

The exhibit of Chow’s photographs last spring opened to acclaim, arriving as Canadians grew more interested in the parallel histories that existed alongside the colonial narratives taught in schools for so long.

Vancouver was home to many cultures from its earliest decades. But Clement says the city’s archives are missing the personal stories of everyday life from people outside the white Anglo group.

The glimpses of other cultures are treated as novelties. A photo of four dapper Sikh men strolling downtown Vancouver in turbans and three-piece suits in 1908 has been a popular share on social media, marvelled at by those unaware of the city’s diversity at the time.

Yet the photo is simply described as “Sikh men crossing the street.” This namelessness is common in archival documentation of Indigenous people and people of colour, said Clement, with descriptions such as “Indian children” and “Chinese boys.”

Clement’s method of crowdsourcing information about Chow’s photographs reached people who had names and stories to share.

After writing about the exhibit last year, I began spotting Chow’s work everywhere and sharing my finds with Clement.

His signature art deco portrait backdrop was a big giveaway. In the hallway of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Mount Pleasant, I noticed it in a photo of the confirmation class of 1944. In an archival photo of a room in the Downtown Eastside’s Balmoral Hotel, I spotted two framed photographs with the backdrop and Chow’s unmistakable seal on the bedside table.

On the left is the confirmation class of 1944 at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. In the middle is a photo of a room in the Balmoral Hotel, taken in the 1940s. On the right is the room’s bedside table up close, with two photographs unmistakably done by Chow, whose studio was a five-minute walk away. Church photo by Christopher Cheung. Balmoral photo from the City of Vancouver Archives, AM1184-S1-: CVA 1184-3341.

I wasn’t the only one excitedly emailing Clement about new finds. Someone dining at the Ranch Restaurant in Keremeos noticed a photo of a cowboy by Chow, tacked to a wall. Families who had Yucho Chow photos in their possession would google the name and come across Clement’s research.

The Trca children were among them, born to Czech parents who had their picture taken at Chow’s every time a new sibling was born.

“The parents had a tumultuous relationship,” said Clement. “They would break up, and every time they got back together, they’d bring one more kid. In the end they split up for good, and the children ended up in orphanages.”

582px version of YuchoTrca.jpg
The Trca children visited Chow’s after each new sibling. Yucho Chow Community Archive.

Clement continued the hunt herself, signing up for search alerts on eBay. “Every once in a while, something squeaks up,” she said.

One curious find came from outside Canada. It was a picture of a tired-looking man in a U.S. Navy uniform with a cigarette dangling from his lips, likely taken during the Second World War. It came in a scruffy frame, and Clement wondered about the print’s journey and the man himself. Was he was just stopping by for a rushed visit to Vancouver? Does he look tired because he caught a late show at one of the clubs near Chow’s? Did Chow suggest the cigarette?

582px version of YuchoNavyGuy.jpg
1940s: Navy guy, rescued from eBay. Yucho Chow Community Archive.

Those kinds of questions are part of the fun of examining Chow’s works today. Anyone can play the role of a historian.

“You can see trends and patterns that tell you something,” said Clement. “They reveal what’s happening in the time period. I love that. Little clues.”

This real-life game of I Spy might lead you to notice the giant goggles that children wore in some of the photos, hinting at heroes like Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh who might have inspired youngsters during the age of aviation.

851px version of YuchoGurdasSinghJohalFamily.jpg
1934: The Gurdas Singh Johal family, with the eldest child Bunt donning an aviator cap and goggles. Yucho Chow Community Archive.
582px version of YuchoLeonardChow1942.jpg
1942: Yucho Chow’s grandson Leonard in an army outfit. Yucho Chow Community Archive.

But perhaps the greatest mysteries concerning Yucho Chow are about the man himself.

We don’t know where he learned his skills, though his living grandson says he worked as a photographer’s apprentice. Chow might have been a commercial photographer, but he was by no means the run-of-the-mill Walmart or department store variety. He would go above and beyond in his commissions, venturing outside his studio for portraits, offering illustration and calligraphy to accompany photos and even doing some pre-Photoshop tricks to bring loved ones separated by death or distance together in one frame.

It’s a lot of artistry for someone who was recorded as a labourer on his head tax certificate. One clue from 1906 that hints at a more learned background: a newspaper ad posted by Chow himself offering translation services, promising “good” handwriting and “proper style.”

582px version of YuchoBisinessCard.jpg
Yucho Chow’s business card featuring one of his many self-designed logos. Yucho Chow Community Archive.

The photos we have of Chow — a cigar in his mouth, a Panama hat on his head, a coin held between his fingers like a magician — are traces that there is “a bit of a showman to him,” said Clement.

Chow’s grandson, a retired dentist, remembers walks in Chinatown with his grandfather being greeted by all. Yucho Chow wasn’t the only photographer in Chinatown, yet he was the one who photographed Sun Yat-sen, who led the revolution that overthrew China’s Qing Dynasty, on his fundraising tour of North America. Whoever brought Sun Yat-sen to town must have known Chow was the one to go to.

The diversity of people photographed by Chow raises the question of whether he knew the importance of what he was doing in capturing the images of newcomers who came to build a life in Vancouver.

One idea is that he was just doing what he could to “put food on the table,” said Clement. An image of Chow’s studio storefront in the 1940s shows a dizzying number of messages to attract business: “Rain or shine,” “Anything, anywhere, anytime” and “Passport photos a specialty.”

582px version of YuchoStudio.jpg
‘Everybody knows.’ Chow moved his studio a few times over the years before settling at 518 Main St., where he photographed from 1930 until his death in 1949. Yucho Chow Community Archive.

It is similar to signs on many immigrant-owned businesses that try to offer everything possible to attract customers. Think of Chinese Canadian restaurants of old offering eastern and western breakfasts, lunches and dinners, or today’s Filipino convenience stores that advertise everything from frozen fish, watch repair, video rentals to money transfers — anything to get a customer in the door.

Could it be that Chow was just a smart businessman? He even put “Chinese photographer” to signal that he was not Japanese, due to the wartime racism in Canada.

Because Chow died in 1949, very few of his subjects were alive by the time Clement began her research. Most were children who didn’t remember being taken to his studio. But one woman — one bride among many Black Canadian couples who had their wedding photos taken by Chow — did pass on a few details to Clement before dementia clouded her memory.

“He was very friendly, but it was very down to business,” Clement recalled. “He took her coat and said, ‘Let’s get down to it.’”

The fact the Chow had so many customers among so many communities meant that he was polite and respectful enough that people were willing to recommend him. In those days, if you were a Punjabi Sikh and a Chinese photographer gave you good service, “that word of mouth gets around,” said Clement.

That relationship building was key to Chow’s success. He was invited by Italian families to photograph them at their homes, by Russians to document donations to wartime refugees back home and by the Sikh community to take group photos at their Kitsilano gurdwara. Chow was also the one to document an important moment in local Sikh history: the 1915 funeral procession for the larger-than-life figure Mewa Singh, who was hanged for killing an immigration inspector. The killing was retaliation after one of the inspector’s spies killed two Sikhs inside the Kitsilano gurdwara.

“What I find fascinating about this man, searching for the story of one, I found this story of many,” said Clement.

582px version of YuchoIsharSinghGill.jpg
Ishar Singh Gill around 1918, who was called 'Hindo #10' by the government in tax documents despite him not being of the Hindu faith. He owned his own company called Patterson Wood Yard, which delivered wood fuel to homes, and customers called him Patterson. He was a known for being stylish, and when he purchased a fancy brass bed all his neighbours visited his home to see it. The dog on the marble pedestal is named King and accompanied Gill on all his deliveries. To this day, Gill’s descendants always give their family dogs the name of King. Yucho Chow Community Archive.
851px version of YuchoOrchestra.jpg
The Jack Williams and Rhythm Band playing at the Mandarin Gardens. At first Clement thought the Chinese man in the front might’ve been the maître d’ or the host. Thanks to Eleanor Collins, 'Canada’s First Lady of Jazz,' he was identified as Won Victor Cumyow, part of the band and billed as 'the crooner from Shanghai.' Won’s granddaughter later confirmed this. Won is the child of Won Alexander Cumyow, the first Canadian-born Chinese. Courtesy of the Neil Whaley Collection.

Clement is about to stop her crowd-sourced efforts to learn about Yucho Chow photos next month as she begins to look for an archive to house the collection. Looking back at her decade-long project, she believes the discoveries have “adjusted our sense of history.”

Government advertisements in Chow’s time urged people from other countries to “Get your home in Canada” in a bid to populate the west.

But immigrants who weren’t Anglo whites were not truly welcomed, she said. And yet, they found acceptance among one another.

Those who want to see more of Chow’s legacy might be disappointed by his sons’ decision to chuck the negatives that had been carefully kept for almost 80 years. But Clement says the information she has collected from so many people ensures the remaining photos are more than just an image.

“These are all private photos,” she said. “Whoever gave them usually had a connection to them. You’re getting to see these stories of ordinary and everyday people who existed here, who made a contribution here, and were brave enough to come. They suffered in many ways, endured discrimination and found success. These photos provide their home with some story of who they were.”

Clement is taking submissions for the Yucho Chow collection until Jan. 30. Think you might have one in your family albums? Check out the identification guide and contact her at yuchochow.ca.

Dear Tyee readers: comments are closed until Jan. 4 to give our moderators a much-needed holiday break. Best wishes to you and yours.  [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free.


The Barometer

Tyee Poll: Who Do You Think Should Get the Job as New Governor General?

Take this week's poll