Community is Never Neutral: Placemaking in Chinatowns Across Canada
by Steph Wong Ken
In the basement of the Chinese Cultural Centre in Calgary’s Chinatown, there is a hidden museum. A sign on a stand and an arrow pointing downward, a thin metal chain blocking the stairs that curious visitors can remove and replace on their own. There’s no fee to enter and the lights are turned on as needed, revealing a large-scale replica of four terracotta warriors and a chariot, originally meant to stand guard over the first emperor of China in the afterlife. It almost feels like they also guard the objects in the basement, bordered by a red velvet rope or separated by makeshift partitions. Unlike at other museums, touch is easy—no cameras, no living guards—and there are scarcely any other patrons to worry about. A photographic timeline stretches across a wall: Chinese labourers in rural Alberta, posing in front of railroad tracks; indentured servants in uniforms; Calgary’s first Chinese restaurant and first Lunar New Year celebration. And then the lion statues pictured at either end of the Centre Street Bridge, which the community would later view with unease, calling them laowei, “white ghosts,” so opposite from the colourful traditional Chinese style. In dusty glass cases, items have been collected: a washboard, tin cups, embroidered slippers, red envelopes. Newspaper clippings have been pasted to the walls: headlines about the Chinese head tax, the Chinese Exclusion Act, destroyed storefronts, and the establishment of a new Chinatown location in 1910 due to pressure from city officials to move.
An accumulation of histories, the museum has been curated not by an institution or organization but by community members. Malcolm Chow, the president and chairman of the centre, notes that while the lower level was never intended as a museum, it slowly became a place to store things people wanted to keep safe, often personal items deemed worthy of preserving, “objects they felt they wanted to leave behind.” Hidden though it is, the space reflects not only the historical evolution of the community but also its archive, tracking the legacy left by each generation living and working in Chinatown.
Once called a “festering sore” by the local paper, Calgary’s Chinatown today feels stuck in a precarious position, facing ongoing racism, gentrification, and displacement. Many Chinatowns across Canada struggle with these challenges, striving to maintain their space and their identity as a community. As writer JJ Lee noted recently in their review of the North Vancouver Griffin Art Projects’ “Whose Chinatown?” exhibition for Montecristo, “Chinatowns can feel like sets built for the cameras of tourists, swappable from city to city. And, like a set, Chinatowns are always under threat of being torn down.”1
Chinatowns have persisted not by the grace of tourists or city officials, but through a network of family associations and grassroot organizations operating in hidden spaces behind restaurants and bubble tea shops or above grocery stores and cafes, creating systems of support that aren’t necessarily visible to visitors on the street. Among these organizations, several groups founded by artists, curators, arts workers, and community organizers have emerged: artist collectives, zine libraries, and social-justice groups—or some combination thereof—committed to keeping Chinatowns vibrant and alive. Some have been working in the community for years, while others have begun their projects as a direct result of encroaching development.
Given the many unique histories of Chinatown, groups in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Toronto are taking varied approaches to supporting the area and building intergenerational relationships, using art, performance, and events as gateways. These groups are examining how artists impact the Chinatown community, and how they might help to shape its future.
When The New Gallery (TNG) relocated to the heart of Calgary’s Chinatown in 2010, a few blocks from the white lions of Centre Street Bridge, they stuck to their standard public programming: an artist is invited to show their work, the work goes up, there’s an artist talk, and then it comes down. “Our programming was very much informed by what the artist wanted to do and centred on a white, anglophone audience,” TNG’s artistic director Su Ying Strang notes. It quickly became clear that this approach wasn’t a fit with the needs or interests of the surrounding community, and Strang began to think about how the gallery could better respond to their new context.
“Moving into Chinatown made us think more about the purpose and relevancy of these programs,” she says. “We asked ourselves, was our programming reflective of our neighbours?” They started with translating signage and exhibition texts into Cantonese with the help of a local translator, but soon realized they needed to look outside of the institution and build real relationships with the people who passed by the gallery window every day. This meant showing up for community events, from street festivals to clean-ups and galas, as well as partnering with advocacy groups like I LOVE YYC Chinatown to meaningfully welcome the public into the gallery space. Through these ongoing conversations, TNG developed the upcoming Calgary Chinatown Artist Residency, which includes three artists (Teresa Tam, Annie Wong, and Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong) from across North America with a connection to Chinatown to create new projects in collaboration with local community members—whom Strang calls “subject matter experts”—to learn about the history and lived experiences of seniors, small business owners, and artists in Calgary’s Chinatown. Several community members were directly involved in the selection of the three participating artists and will help to determine how the projects take shape during the residency.
Though community engagement has become essential to TNG’s mandate, Strang is careful of falling into the trap of the saviour narrative, where an institution tries to save a community from themselves or from the pressures of external forces. Instead, she stresses the need for a collaborative, mutually beneficial approach, where the institution and the community both benefit from staying engaged and connected to one another. Chinatowns are often framed as in need of “preservation” and “revitalization,” implying that an outside entity is needed to do this work (the city planner, the developer, or the gallery), when in fact the resources needed to address these challenges are often already present but haven’t been well-cultivated. When an art institution like TNG recognized the value of these resources, it completely shifted the way they approached programming, events, and public engagement, for the better.
“Working in the community as an institution, you are never neutral,” Strang notes. “You are, in some shape or form, taking a stand or making a statement on a specific issue.”
Community associations in Chinatowns, often referred to as tongs, family clans, or benevolent societies, are synonymous with what it means to build a community from the ground up. Dating back to as early as the 1880s, they emerged across Canada as a way for newly landed people from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Vietnam to find one another, acting as integral hubs for generations of immigrants. With deeply embedded social histories, they are still essential to Chinatowns today, having built models of mutual aid that developed organically to counteract the racism and discrimination their members experienced. Operating out of the basement or top floor of the buildings owned by members, these associations carved out a space to exchange knowledge, language, and history, acting as the de facto support networks for their membership and shaping Chinatowns as we know them today.
For 221A, a non-profit arts organization based in Vancouver’s Chinatown, these community associations were more inspirational than traditional art institutions, providing an alternative way to operate and organize. “We started to see the associations as spaces of collective power,” 221A executive director Brian McBay notes, “and we were also interested in how artist-run centres were challenging models of cultural production, beyond just objects in a room.” Operating out of Chinatown since 2008, 221A adopted a radical approach to supporting artists culturally and financially by introducing a fellowship model in 2017 where artists and designers are paid a living wage to work on a long-term project with very few restrictions or limitations—a marked shift away from more typical approaches to exhibition programming.
McBay notes how the organization sought to emulate the financial structures of community associations in Chinatown, which operate through a system of reciprocity and financial support for their membership. “Art practices are often seen as non-functional or not expected to be involved in generating economic security,” McBay says. “We want to get artists and designers directly involved in determining how society operates and to have an economic base to sustain themselves.” McBay has a family connection to Vancouver’s Chinatown and counts on his relationships with benevolent societies to keep 221A connected to the area. Given the history of displacement, development, and thus adaptation in Vancouver’s Chinatown, he sees the community as very open to alternative ways of doing things. “I think non-normativity and Chinatown are historically aligned,” he says. “As a city within a city, it has its own unique ‘zoning’—family associations, small industrial and residential buildings with restaurants and herbalists—an area not necessarily just for Chinese-Canadians, but for anyone who’s othered by dominant society.”
He notes the impact of 221A’s “Semi-Public” programming, which takes place in a 279-square-metre outdoor site in Chinatown. Emerging out of a desire to make public art more physically accessible in Chinatown, it presents work that reflects on how artists situate themselves within the community, outside the gallery. The lot is adjacent to a historically African-Canadian area, Hogan’s Alley, and some of the most expensive real estate in the world. The most recent project, x̱aw̓s shew̓áy̓ New Growth (2019) by 221A fellow T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss, is a public garden with flora indigenous to the territory that is cared for by young stewards eager to learn about Indigenous medical practices and plants. Set to exist in the space until 2025, the garden has become a welcomed gathering place for the community particularly as free, public areas in Vancouver’s Chinatown continue to disappear. “It’s been eye opening to see who’s comfortable in a garden, rather than in a gallery,” Nicole Kelly Westman, 221A’s education and learning programmer, notes of Wyss’s project. “Galleries have historically been restrictive, limiting spaces, and the garden really opens up who can engage with public art.”
For visual artist Grace Law, the 2017 removal of Harbin Gate at the entrance of Edmonton’s Chinatown signified just how precarious things were for the community. The Chinatown Edmonton-Harbin Friendship Gate was erected in 1987 as a symbol of the close ties between Edmonton and sister city Harbin, China, who provided material and expertise for the construction of the gate. It’s a cultural landmark that has identified Edmonton’s Chinatown as a neighbourhood for over 30 years. Standing at the empty space where the gate once stood, Law was overwhelmed with a sense of loss, but felt unable to mourn the missing landmark or communicate just how important it felt that it had been removed. “In that moment, I felt it was very obvious who has the power to move the boundaries of the community and determine what’s valuable in public spaces,” she says. “And I asked myself: what is the role of the artist in a situation like this?”
Together with artist Shawn Tse and several elders from the Chinatown community, Law began creating projects as aiya 哎呀! Collective. Taking its name from a common Cantonese expression that can mean “Oh no!” or “Oh wow!” depending on the context, the collective is resistant to labelling itself and prefers to sit in the grey area of social-justice organizing and art making. Inviting in elders like Lan Chan-Marples and WaiLing Lennon (Law refers to them as “aiya’s aunties”) was an important consideration as the group came together. “We’re really thankful we have an intergenerational perspective,” Tse says. “Building relationships with elders and understanding the existing infrastructure allows us to do better work.”
Recent projects include a Harbin Gate memorial event where community members left calligraphy notes and crocheted banners at the site, gathering to share their memories, fears, and anger toward the loss of the gate. In 2018, aiya hosted a gentrification party as part of Nuit Blanche to celebrate “the benefits gentrification will bring” to the area, encouraging participants to consume a “smashed Harbin Gate cake” and send “thank you notes to capitalism.” The group continues to balance sentimental projects with more satirical events as they navigate honouring the legacy of Chinatown while also speculating about its future. “As a collective we’re strategic, but at the same time we’re provocative because we’re not afraid of addressing difficult issues,” Law notes. ChanMarples, a longtime advocate for Edmonton’s Chinatown, sees the collective as a way to start “good trouble,” approaching each project with care and a desire to be more direct about the real challenges the area faces.
aiya is also interested in examining the role of land ownership in Chinatown, an area created by racialized settlers on Treaty 6 land. It’s a conversation that can be uncomfortable for the community, especially given that previous generations have had to claim, and continue to claim, the land for Chinatown. In much of the work of art collectives like aiya, there is a tension between claiming space and wanting to create a more nuanced dialogue about connecting better with Black and Indigenous communities. “I think it’s important to work against the idea that Chinatown is only for Chinese people,” Tse says. “Part of dismantling colonial structures is trying to open up the enclave to other racialized groups.” ChanMarples agrees, highlighting the risk of division within the community, where different groups are working in silos rather than collaborating.
Tse also notes how family associations can be overly conservative and guarded, particularly given their predominantly ageing membership. Prioritizing the safety and health of these groups, which have traditionally formed the backbone of the neighbourhood, can also be stifling for others working in the same space. “Elders are so important in Chinatown, but sometimes the way associations reinforce ideas of power and ownership can create lateral violence and result in a disconnection with the community,” Tse says of this conflict. “It can end up causing [problematic] intergenerational dynamics to play out and create barriers to action.” Still, he stresses how needed intergenerational connection and exchange is to the sustainability of the work of aiya and other advocacy groups in Edmonton’s Chinatown. “I think it comes back to recognizing what the point of community is,” he notes, “and realizing that Chinatown is a changing space.”
There is no official map of Toronto’s Chinatown in the public domain, though the community has existed at and around the intersection of Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West since the early ’60s due to the demolition of the first Chinatown to make way for Toronto City Hall. Unlike Edmonton’s Chinatown, there has never been a traditional welcome gate and the area has little of the overtly Sino architecture found in other cities, often designed to attract tourists. This is in part due to the displacement of the Chinatown community in Toronto, beginning in the 1800s and continuing today with encroaching redevelopment, including the replacement of local small businesses with chain shops. So, when a juice store in Chinatown Centre Mall, Xuan Hu’o’ng, became vacant in 2018, a group of art students and recent grads seized the opportunity to create a DIY gathering space.
“Having physical space, specifically in Chinatown and in downtown Toronto, felt rare and special, especially because you usually have to buy something to occupy space downtown,” says Chris Carriere, an early member of Tea Base. In the beginning, they offered tea to visitors with a pay-what-you-can model, stocked the store with locally made zines, and fundraised through a Patreon-style service called With Friends to help pay for rent and put on free programming, ranging from artist performances and readings to language classes and mahjong basics. Slowly, other people got involved, washing dishes between events, and collaborating on new programs or projects. The space also served as the headquarters for Friends of Chinatown Toronto (FOCT), a grassroots advocacy group focused on using community power to address gentrification. Carriere notes that many of the members of Tea Base are also involved in FOCT, and the two groups often collaborate on creative approaches to resist issues like condo development or security cameras going up in the neighbourhood.
One of the more recent projects by Tea Base was the creation of an “anti-displacement garden” in a vacant outdoor area by the mall. The group cleaned up the space—what Carriere describes as essentially a pile of bricks—and then planted garden beds and built a small stage. “We wanted it to be a by-the-community, for-the-community space,” Carriere says. “People would stop by to water the garden or just sit and listen to whatever programming we had that day. It made the area feel less neglected and it embodied the act of people coming together to nourish something.” When COVID-19 hit early last year, the garden became a safe space for people to participate in an event or a happening. Though the reaction to the garden has been mostly positive, Carriere is quick to note that gardening can’t necessarily solve gentrification or stop the tides of displacement completely, and that Tea Base is still reckoning with the part they play in taking up space in Chinatown.
“We definitely have an internal struggle as a group with being a force of gentrification,” she notes. “We moved into a space with a lot of history, around people who have owned shops for decades, and we’ve become a space for young people. There is also a language barrier, as a lot of us speak Cantonese, but not well enough to communicate fully with seniors living in the area.” As Tea Base heads into its third year, they continue to try to find ways to be more intergenerational, such as offering programming specifically for elders, and to provide a space for young people to reconnect with their roots and navigate the future of Toronto’s Chinatown together. “We’re always trying to program in a way that allows mutual aid to exist in the community,” Carriere says, adding, “Tea Base is made up of the people who want to try to inherit Chinatown, who have a family history with the space and are struggling to reconnect with it.”
JOSS PAPER LIBRARY
Taking its name from joss paper, the spirit money used as burnt offerings for the ancestors, Joss Paper Library (JPL) emerged in 2019 as a collaborative project between close friends Christina Lee and Y Vy Truong. Lee, an urban planning and geography student, has deep connections to Vancouver’s Chinatown, having worked closely with the Hua Foundation, a youth empowerment non-profit, and participated in organized action against the proposed condo tower at 105 Keefer Street. The protests made national news and the condo proposal was eventually struck down by a city council vote. Soon after the protest, Lee reached out to Truong and they came up with the idea for Joss Paper Library. To get the project going, Truong leaned on her volunteer work in the library at Centre A, the only public gallery in Canada devoted to Asian visual art practices, where she was involved in curatorial and archival projects. As refugees from Vietnam, her parents had gravitated to Chinatown, finding employment and a community as they adapted to a new country. Truong remembers feeling isolated watching Full Metal Jacket (1987) in class, while she was completing her degree in history, which depicted a version of the Vietnam war that felt so opposite from what her parents had experienced. “At Centre A, I was able to look at what artists were doing in terms of historical narratives and having fun with archiving and history,” Truong says. “Doing that work also brought to light another understanding of my identity.”
Lee and Truong began collecting independently published books and zines that explore place and identity from a personal perspective, telling stories that are often ignored or under-represented. By attending zine fairs and reaching out to artists online, they’ve brought together work from Hong Kong, the United States, and Canada, with the goal of sharing it with others in Vancouver’s Chinatown community through JPL. “When you interact with a body of literature that didn’t go through traditional publishing, you get this artwork that is really exciting,” notes Truong. “It allows people to think intimately about what it means to be a settler or a refugee, to go back to their personal archive and reclaim all these intricate histories.”
Forming a partnership with the Hua Foundation, they applied for grant funding to open their library up to the public at a space in Chinatown. Since then, they’ve hosted several events, including a discussion panel with local organizers to talk about how art-making can act as a way to build solidarity with migrant labourers, and have connected with other organizations working in the community. Gradually, the library became what Lee calls an “anchor point,” for people to visit and talk. “I love the way place can hold so much memory and importance, and how privately owned spaces can actually act as informal gathering places,” Lee says. She reflects on a favourite Chinatown spot, Goldstone Bakery and Restaurant, which recently shuttered due to COVID, and spending many nights there with friends after a protest or organizing meeting to continue the conversation over Hong Kong–style milk tea and egg tarts.
Because of COVID, JPL has paused in-person gatherings and moved out of their Chinatown space. The library is currently housed in Truong’s bedroom, but both she and Lee are excited about continuing their collaboration. Though they are currently occupied by other mutual aid projects in the neighbourhood, they hope to create new JPL programming that is even more accessible and community-focused. Truong is confident that the library will always exist in one form or another. “We don’t want to get into the habit of thinking we need to adopt a professional structure,” Truong says. “We’re a library but we don’t function as a traditional library or a non-profit. I think we’ve recognized that our approach can change over time.”
As these groups continue to rise to meet the challenges of Chinatown communities, they are also thinking about what Chinatown will look like in the future, and who it will be for. Chan-Marples of aiya哎呀! Collective stresses the need for Edmonton’s Chinatown to be viewed as not just a space for visitors, but a lived space. Strang, of TNG, echoes this sentiment, noting that Calgary’s Chinatown has essential street-level activity beyond bubble tea shops and gift stores such as the grandmas who sell plants and second-hand goods or the vendors who sell fresh vegetables on the corner—that she hopes will continue to thrive despite the changing area.
Some groups are looking at how they can come together and have more control over the fate of the area. FOCT recently released a report, Community Power for Anti-Displacement, that outlines the possibility of community ownership through a land trust initiative, which would give those living and working in Toronto’s Chinatown the ability to determine new development projects on their terms. Though this would constitute a positive step toward real power over land use (a key challenge many Chinatowns are grappling with), there is also a reckoning to be had with the fact that Chinatown occupants are settlers on Indigenous land. “It’s important to talk about what it means to be a racialized settler with ourselves, our parents, and our community,” says Lee of JPL. The duo has recently applied for a grant to facilitate a series of workshops about intergenerational support for land sovereignty and settler solidarity in Vancouver Chinatown.
This shift toward settler solidarity is also linked to what Carriere from Tea Base describes as “inheriting Chinatown as a generation.” Tea Base and JPL, made up of members who are primarily second, third, and fourth generation, can approach questions of land ownership and belonging from a perspective that builds on but is different from the work and knowledge of their elders. “Our grandparents were often the ones who cultivated the area, and then our parents pushed us to leave Chinatown to seek other opportunities,” Carriere says. “But then, [the question] becomes, what’s going to happen to Chinatown?” As these groups continue to sort out their place in the community, they recognize their personal growth as artists and as people is deeply linked to their connection to the area, with all its intricacies. “When I think about what it means to grow with other people in the Chinatown community, I often think about how it challenges me to think about kinship and its many complexities,” Truong of JPL notes. “I hope that Chinatown continues to be a place where people can practice building relationships with one another.”
With an emphasis on building kinship, all of these groups seem eager to dissolve the barriers between art, activism, and community building. By opening themselves up to different disciplines, they are able to access wisdom from many systems, approaches, and ways of working. It also makes them more adaptable when it comes to weathering change, a sentiment that seems deeply embedded in the past and future of Chinatown.
As for the hidden museum in the basement of Calgary’s Chinese Cultural Centre, there are plans to bring everything up to the main level for display throughout all levels of the building. Chow, its president and chairman, is excited to be working with two young artists, Kevin Chow and Jamie Mason, who have offered to help digitize the collection so it can also be accessible online, making it a little less hidden and tucked away. Through collaboration and community action, the space will be reimagined once more.
This article was revised on 17 August 2021 to reflect that the individuals caring for 221A fellow T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss’s garden project x̱aw̓s shew̓áy̓ New Growth (2019) are not volunteers but stewards.