Win­dows into the past

Store­fronts tell the story of Van­cou­ver’s Chi­nese com­mu­nity.

Canada's History - - CURRENTS - By Mar­i­anne Helm Most of the mu­rals are still in win­dows in Van­cou­ver’s Chi­na­town. For more in­for­ma­tion go to: CanadasHis­­na­townWin­dows.

Cather­ine Cle­ment sensed that the rich his­tory and char­ac­ter of Van­cou­ver’s Chi­na­town was erod­ing — just like the empty build­ings in the neigh­bour­hood that played such an in­te­gral role in Canada’s his­tory. Both the lo­cal his­tory and the once-bustling build­ings were crum­bling be­fore her eyes.

So she de­cided to do some­thing to help to re­in­force the foun­da­tions. “My goal was to help peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate the enor­mous, colour­ful his­tory of this neigh­bour­hood: what hap­pened in some of the build­ings, who were some of the peo­ple who walked the streets,” said Cle­ment, cu­ra­tor of the Chi­na­town Sto­ries Cen­tre in Van­cou­ver.

She launched the Chi­na­town His­tory Win­dows Project in the spring of 2017 to draw back the cur­tains and of­fer a view to the past. She chose twenty-two large, his­tor­i­cal pho­tos that de­picted the com­mu­nity’s past life and times. The im­ages were en­larged and in­stalled to com­pletely cover street-level win­dows in va­cant build­ings. Each im­age was ac­com­pa­nied by a short story de­scrib­ing the scene to passersby.

As the project gained in pop­u­lar­ity, lo­cal busi­ness own­ers of­fered up their own win­dows to use.

“It was im­por­tant to us that we help the peo­ple re­mem­ber the sto­ries of this very unique neigh­bour­hood and com­mem­o­rate the mo­ments and the lives of those men and women who have gone be­fore us,” Cle­ment said. “Van­cou­ver’s Chi­na­town was at the epi­cen­tre of the early Chi­nese-Cana­dian jour­ney. It was in this neigh­bour­hood that the best and the worst mo­ments of liv­ing in Canada were keenly ex­pe­ri­enced by the first few gen­er­a­tions of Chi­nese. It was here that racist poli­cies had their great­est im­pact. And it was in this neigh­bour­hood that the long bat­tle to win equal rights for Chi­nese in Canada was fought and won, and where ac­cep­tance and in­te­gra­tion took hold.”

The project co­in­cided with Canada’s sesqui­cen­ten­nial as well as the sev­en­ti­eth an­niver­sary of Chi­nese Cana­di­ans gain­ing the rights to full cit­i­zen­ship and to vote.

The larger-than-life scenes al­lowed pedes­tri­ans and tourists to come face-to-face with mem­o­ries and mo­ments in time — many long for­got­ten, and some never seen be­fore, in­clud­ing im­ages of rail­way work­ers, Chi­na­town’s past mer­chants, lo­cal women work­ing to sup­port the war ef­forts, and in­di­vid­u­als

who fought to win the vote for Chi­nese Cana­di­ans.

“Peo­ple would not have to make an ef­fort to go into a museum to learn about Chi­na­town,” said Cle­ment. “In­stead, bits and pieces of Chi­na­town his­tory would be of­fered to them as they walked by.”

The project, which was short­listed for the Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s His­tory Award for Ex­cel­lence in Com­mu­nity Pro­gram­ming, helped to re­vive both the com­mu­nity’s col­lec­tive mem­o­ries and its curb ap­peal. It also helped younger Chi­nese Cana­di­ans con­nect with the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions’ strug­gles and achieve­ments. It set an ex­am­ple for other com­mu­ni­ties seek­ing to re­ju­ve­nate, while also hon­our­ing their past.

“We do not want the neigh­bour­hood to be­come Chi­na­town in name only,” she said. “By help­ing peo­ple to un­der­stand the area’s sig­nif­i­cance, we hope this will en­cour­age more res­i­dents to push for poli­cies that will con­serve and en­hance the unique at­tributes of this in­ner-city neigh­bour­hood.”

Store­fronts in Van­cou­ver’s Chi­na­town dis­play scenes from the neigh­bour­hood’s past. The Chi­na­town His­tory Win­dows Project fea­tures twenty-two his­tor­i­cal pho­to­graphs.

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