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Why Creating a New Mural in Chinatown Is Complicated

The artists seek to honour women. They are asking for input from a community facing anti-Asian racism and gentrification.

Kaitlyn Fung and Vikki Hui 10 Jan 2022The Thunderbird

Kaitlyn Fung grew up in the Cantonese diaspora on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səlilwətaɬ nations. She is interested in stories about how cities and the people living within them shape each other. Find her on Twitter @kaitlynfungi.
Vikki Hui is a freelance journalist who grew up in Hong Kong and has a passion for arts and culture. Find her on Twitter @huivikki.

A new mural in Vancouver’s Chinatown will celebrate a historically overlooked group in the neighbourhood: women. The planning, which includes reaching out to community members for ideas while taking seriously concerns about “artwashing” in a part of the city facing gentrification, says much about the complex considerations that come into play when creating public art with a political and historical message.

The Suzhou Alley Women’s Mural will adorn the wall of the Lim Sai Hor Kow Mock Benevolent Association Building, between Shanghai Alley and Carrall Street. Built in 1903, the building is historically significant for housing the Chinese Empire Reform Association, including its women-only chapter, the Chinese Empire Ladies Reform Association — one of the earliest known Chinese-Canadian women’s organizations.

The mural is one of a number of recent efforts to recognize Chinatown history within the neighbourhood, which come as increases in anti-Asian violence cause many to feel unwelcome in their own city. Fall of 2020 saw the launch of the Chinese Canadian Museum — the first in the country — on Pender Street, just a minute away from the mural’s location in Suzhou Alley. In November of last year, the Chinatown Storytelling Centre opened its doors to showcase interactive exhibits featuring stories about the community.

The mural will add its own focus to such efforts. “We just wanted to honour the women that may or may not be known to the public that have played an integral part in making Vancouver’s Chinatown what it is,” said Stella Zheng, a mural artist.

Chinatown was often viewed as “a place for men and for bachelors to stay,” noted Zheng. That was the case during the initial waves of immigration that shaped the neighbourhood, around the turn of the 20th century.

At that time, most of these men could not afford to bring their families to Canada. Racist legislation like the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, formally known as the Chinese Immigration Act, also contributed to the limited presence of women in Chinatown by banning nearly all Chinese immigration to the country.

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Carmen Chan finds Chinatown a welcoming, familiar and safe space for her immigrant family. Photo by Vikki Hui.

The creators of the Suzhou Alley Women’s Mural intend to show that women continue to play a meaningful role in Chinatown. “We can carry on the stories and bring with us the legacy of the women who built a solid foundation for other women to build and thrive upon,” said Carmen Chan, another artist on the team.

The mural’s final design will integrate stories submitted online by community members. An advisory committee consisting of women from Chinatown is also informing the team’s direction.

“If we didn’t have these elders directing us, our narrative might be a bit skewed. They’re telling us pieces of the puzzle, and the history that we may not know was very important. And some of these elders lived through that time. They are participating and filling in the gaps in that story,” said Chan.

Community groups in the neighbourhood and partners including the city’s Chinatown Transformation Team and the UBC Quan Lee Excellence Fund for Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies are providing additional support for the mural.

Chan is touched by the responses the mural team has already received about the experiences of women, especially elders, in the neighbourhood. One participant’s response described how “Chinatown grandmas have welcomed me generously with their care, food and presence.”

Displaying the mural “in a public space, as opposed to having it in a gallery” is crucial for Zheng, who wants to ensure that “the Chinese community in Chinatown can see it, watch it unfold as we do the painting, and can witness it after we’re done.”

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A woman walks past vandalized murals near Columbia Street and East Pender Street in Chinatown. Photo by Vikki Hui.

The team is also mindful about introducing new art into the neighbourhood. Murals have been tied to rises in property values, paving the way for more expensive building developments that can displace low-income residents.

“Are you shining a light on this gentrification? Are you adding to it? Or are you resisting it? So these are the questions that we do have to ask ourselves. And with this mural, I think that’s one way of resisting the gentrification,” said Laurie Landry, another artist with the project.

Arezu Salamzadeh, a co-founder of the recent Chinatown Biennial art exhibition, cautions against the dangers of “artwashing” areas like this.

“There’s often this kind of artwashing that’s involved to cover up the horrors of gentrification. People commission ‘an Asian mural,’ which is actually a code that was used at a development meeting,” said Salamzadeh.

Another challenge the artists recognize in their work is understanding the complex history of Chinatown, and the different groups of people who inhabit it.

Landry, who mentioned her own background as a “Caucasian and Native” person, acknowledges that it “brings a lot of complicated feelings because everything, including my presence, impacts the overall heritage of Chinatown.”

Landry said her participation is a way to learn more about the people in Chinatown, and to document them in a public space. Engaging with this complexity can strengthen neighbourhood relationships, including between different groups facing marginalization within it.

“There was a time where Indigenous people, the Musqueam, the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish people, were often denied service in many shops and restaurants in Vancouver, except for in Chinatown where they were welcomed into their shops and cafes,” said Landry. “Perhaps because Chinatown knew too well the same racism experienced.”

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Laurie Landry hopes the project will embrace Chinatown’s complex heritage. Photo by Vikki Hui.

Racism persists, and includes the resurgence of anti-Asian xenophobia driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A survey conducted across Canada between March 2020 and February 2021 gathered over 1,100 reported cases of anti-Asian racism. Half of all participants experienced harassment in a public space, park, street or sidewalk. Women represented nearly 60 per cent of all reported cases.

Another recent expression of this anti-Asian sentiment includes the vandalization of existing murals in Chinatown, including just a block away from where the Suzhou Alley Women’s Mural will be located. During the summer, someone splashed red paint resembling blood on the “Snapshots of History” murals by Shu Ren (Arthur) Cheng, at Columbia Street and East Pender Street.

Chan said that for many people of Chinese descent, Chinatown holds “a sense of belonging for our parents and the previous generations in a world that was not really so inclusive… and the resilience, of course, that came from all that.”

The artists said they hope the Suzhou Alley Women’s Mural, which is scheduled to be completed this summer, will honour that legacy and support the community to reclaim their own neighbourhood narratives and spaces.

The team is accepting story submissions on their website and community outreach projects including art sessions with Chinatown seniors are ongoing.

When wildfire swept through and devastated the B.C. town of Lytton on June 30 last year, the flames destroyed some 1,600 artifacts within the Lytton Chinese History Museum. That loss added to the Chinatown mural creators’ urgency in seeking to preserve their community’s stories.

“Chinese history is not included in general Canadian history, much like the Indigenous people,” said Chan. “It is obvious how history has been easily erased in the past and without people to retell the story, we will lose our own culture and history forever.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Thunderbird, the student publication of the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.  [Tyee]

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