Judy Maxwell: Chi­na­town’s in­sider tour guide

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS CANADA - By HATTY LIU in Van­cou­ver For China Daily

The ca­reer of Judy Lam Maxwell, owner and op­er­a­tor of Van­cou­ver’s His­tor­i­cal Chi­na­town Walk­ing Tours, proves that be­ing a good his­to­rian and his­tor­i­cal tour guide means tak­ing in­ter­est in a com­mu­nity for more than just its past.

Born to par­ents of Chi­nese and Euro­pean de­scent in Van­cou­ver and raised in Van­cou­ver, Hong Kong and Ja­pan, Maxwell has a mas­ter’s de­gree in his­tory from the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia and has been re­search­ing sto­ries of Van­cou­ver’s Chi­nese pi­o­neers.

She sits on the board of the BC His­tor­i­cal Fed­er­a­tion and the Van­cou­ver Chi­na­town Re­vi­tal­iza­tion Com­mit­tee, where she wres­tles with ques­tions re­lat­ing to Chi­na­town’s fu­ture in a fast-grow­ing city with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Her­itage Van­cou­ver and the Van­cou­ver Down­town East­side Plan­ning Depart­ment.

The rest of her time is spent build­ing con­nec­tions in the com­mu­nity, which is how she ended up be­ing the only tour guide in Chi­na­town who can take peo­ple inside the her­itage clan and county as­so­ci­a­tion build­ings.

“When I first set up the tour, which was five years ago, I asked per­mis­sion from [the clan as­so­ci­a­tions] and they were hes­i­tant at first, but they are very em­brac­ing of what I’m do­ing now,” she said. “Part of it is be­cause I’m very con­nected to the com­mu­nity. I’m on a lot of com­mit­tees, and I al­ways do­nate back a por­tion of the money peo­ple give me for my work to the as­so­ci­a­tions.”

“I’m do­ing a lot of re­spect­ful things in the Chi­nese tra­di­tion and they re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate that,” she said.

The per­sonal touch seems to make a dif­fer­ence. Maxwell’s re­views on Tripad­vi­sor praise the tour for be­ing an “in­sider” ex­pe­ri­ence, go­ing “be­hind the scenes” to see Chi­na­town from a dif­fer­ent van­tage point.

Maxwell takes her tour clients up­stairs in the clan build­ings, show­ing them the his­tor­i­cal, artis­tic and ge­nealog­i­cal trea­sures housed in the as­so­ci­a­tions’ cen­tury-old meet­ing rooms and me­mo­rial halls.

Tour guests also get unique views of the city look­ing out from Chi­na­town’s dis­tinc­tive re­cessed bal­conies, which are some of the best pre­served ex­am­ples of early Chi­nese di­as­pora ar­chi­tec­ture in North Amer­ica.

“These build­ings had a very im­por­tant role in help­ing new­com­ers to Chi­na­town, and they are her­itage sites, so no one can do any­thing to them,” Maxwell said. “But how long will they last with­out bring­ing peo­ple — the younger gen­er­a­tion — to these places, to carry on the com­mu­nity func­tion, so that they don’t just be­come a façade?”

Both on the way in and out of these build­ings, Maxwell makes a point of stop­ping to chat with the seniors who visit the as­so­ci­a­tions ev­ery day to read news­pa­pers and play mahjong.

The tour con­tin­ues into the al­ley­ways and court­yards be­hind the her­itage build­ings, some of the old­est parts of Chi­na­town, giv­ing visi­tors a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent view of how the neigh­bour­hood is con­nected be­hind the scenes.

Other stops on Maxwell’s tour in­clude the Jack Chow In­surance build­ing at 8 West Pen­der Street, the world’s shal­low­est build­ing ac­cord­ing to the Guin­ness Book of Records, and Mod­ern­ize Tai­lors, which is one of Van­cou­ver’s old­est Chi­nese tai­lor shops and still run by 94-year-old owner Bill Wong.

“Judy seems to have con­nected with her tour del­e­gates so well that they ap­pear to be her friends, so when they en­ter our nar­row­est build­ing at­trac­tion they are al­ready in a great mood and prepped for an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” Rod Chow, pres­i­dent of Jack Chow In­surance, told China Daily.

Maxwell sees her net­work as one that is ex­pand­ing be­yond Chi­na­town.

“I get peo­ple of all ages and eth­nic­i­ties, teach­ers, so­cial work­ers,” she said. “I just had a group of preschool­ers on the tour. I get lo­cals and peo­ple from all over the place — Eng­land, Bel­gium, Aus­tralia — who are all re­ally in­ter­ested in Chi­na­town and hav­ing this authen­tic his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence.”

There is one mar­ket she has yet to cap­ture. “I’ve never taken a tour of peo­ple from today’s China, and I’m not sure why, but there doesn’t seem like peo­ple know about the Chi­nese that left China in the early days and spread around the world,” she said. “Maybe they want to do stereo­typ­i­cal ‘Cana­dian’ things when they come to Van­cou­ver.”





is to con­tinue to sup­port­ing new en­trepreneurs and busi­nesses in Chi­na­town.

“I talk to peo­ple [on the tour] about new things in Chi­na­town, such as new restau­rants, what I like to eat, so they get all sorts of in­for­ma­tion on many lev­els,” she said.

The Chi­na­town Re­vi­tal­iza­tion Com­mit­tee has guide­lines for new and non-Chi­nese busi­nesses to fol­low in or­der to not change the char­ac­ter of the neigh­bour­hood, and “ev­ery­one has com­plied, and they are great, be­cause they bring a lot of peo­ple to the neigh­bour­hood who would not oth­er­wise go there,” Maxwell said.

Re­cently, Maxwell put these ideas about new busi­ness to use when she changed the ren­dezvous point of her tours from Blenz Cof­fee in In­ter­na­tional Vil­lage to The Capi­lano, a First Na­tions tea house on the bound­ary of Chi­na­town and Gas­town, which just had its grand open­ing on Feb 19.

“Since there’s a lot of his­tory be­tween the Chi­nese and First Na­tions in BC, it seemed like a good match for what I’m try­ing to do, to in­tro­duce peo­ple to Chi­na­town as a neigh­bour­hood that re­flects a lot of im­por­tant his­tory, and to sup­port lo­cal en­trepreneurs,” Maxwell said.

“This col­lab­o­ra­tion, and all the stuff I’m try­ing to do, is try­ing to re­flect all that’s good about Chi­na­town and all that’s good about Van­cou­ver: neigh­bour­hood, eth­nic­ity and his­tory.”


The Chi­nese Freema­sons Build­ing, built in 1901, fea­tures the re­cessed bal­conies that are found on many her­itage build­ings in Chi­na­town.

Some of the old­est parts of Chi­na­town are its al­ley­ways and court­yards


Judy Lam Maxwell is Chi­na­town tour guide who takes visi­tors to lit­tle-known his­toric sites. Judy Lam Maxwell, owner-op­er­a­tor, His­tor­i­cal Chi­na­town Walk­ing Tours


Visi­tors to Chi­na­town pause at the Mil­len­nium Gate.

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