May 2, 2022

Supporting Vancouver’s Chinatown -“More than Just a Label”

Vancouver’s Chinatown is one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, and for over a century housed not only many early Canadians, but also the disenfranchised. There is a remarkable history of racism and prejudice, both institutionalized and latent. The video below produced by the University of British Columbia shows Chinatown as a place of importance for many people, not only those of Asian ancestry.

The history of Vancouver’s Chinatown and its inhabitants is one of endurance and fortitude.

While women got the federal vote in 1919, Asian Canadians were not given the right to  vote until 1947. There was also a Federal Head Tax imposed  from 1885 to 1923 for any immigrant from China. In 1901, the tax was $100 and in 1903 increased to $500, which is the equivalent of two years wages for a labourer. In 1923 all Asian Canadians including those people born in Canada had to register for “immigration and colonization” cards. Curator Catherine Clement has been researching this important and painful era.

You can also read this evocative letter to the editor from Won Alexander Cumyow, who was the first Canadian of Asian descent born in Vancouver, and who was head of the Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver. This letter written in 1920 to the newspaper shows his education and thoughtfulness. And even though he was born in Canada, he still had to carry an immigration and colonization card.

Won Alexander Cumyow

Chinatown has always been a portal for First Nations and other groups to be accepted and to find employment. But Asian Vancouverites could not find employment in “traditional” jobs: in the video Larry Wong describes how when he graduated from University of British Columbia he wanted to work at a Vancouver branch of a bank: but was turned down. And the  City of Vancouver did not employ an Asian Canadian until the 1950’s.

Jim Wong-Chu in the video describes Chinatown as a “place of comfort” and First Nations elder Helen Callbreath describes going to Chinese School and what it it was  like to be raised in  the community.

That is why the desecration of the Chinatown Mural “Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea” in the 200 block of East Georgia Street  describing how spirits can overcome adversity and addresses cultural diversity and inclusiveness was hurtful to this neighbourhood. The community came out to repaint this mural and restore it.

You can learn more about the resiliency of this community in the video below. It also describes the activism undertaken by people like Shirley Chan in stopping the third crossing of Burrard Inlet, which would have decimated this neighbourhood as well as Coal Harbour. The video also  mentions 105 Pender Street which was a residential condo development that was turned down by Council, and was identified as not appropriate by the community.


Images: CatherineClement; ViewpointVancouver

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