'It brings back old memories': New Chinatown cultural centre to share stories of resilience against racism

After years of hard work, the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation will officially open its Chinatown Storytelling Centre in early November. As Kristen Robinson reports, the first permanent cultural space of its kind in Canada will feature more than 150 stories of early Chinese immigrants whose resilience against racism helped shape Chinatown.

After years of hard work and renovations to the former BMO building it purchased in 2017, the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation will open the interactive 4,000 sq. ft. Chinatown Storytelling Centre on Nov. 6.

The first permanent cultural space of its kind in Canada will feature more than 150 stories of early Chinese immigrants whose resilience against racism helped shape Chinatown.

The Bank of Montreal was the first national financial institution to serve the neighbourhood, and the centre’s launch will include a special exhibit to honour its Pender Street branch manager Tommy Mah — the country’s first bank manager of Asian descent.

During a recent tour, Dr. Wallace Chung was able to see his history of struggle and hope brought to life through artifacts he’s accumulated over decades.

“Do you know how many thousands of those the Chinese put in?” he recounted while looking at the spikes in a Canadian Pacific Railway display.

“It brings back old memories.”

Chung, 96, said the sight of a more-than-a-century-old mahjong set left him feeling nostalgic.

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“When we were growing up, we (saw) my parents, our uncles, sitting there playing mahjong every night,” he said.

Inspired by a framed poster of a CPR steamship in his father’s tailor shop in Victoria, Chung started collecting newspaper clippings as a child.

“After, of course, my parents and uncles have read the paper. But on occasion, I couldn’t wait. I would cut it out anyways and I got heck for it many times. But it was worth it.”

Chung, who became the first Chinese Canadian surgeon appointed to UBC Hospital and Vancouver General Hospital, continued amassing rare books, posters, prints, magazines and relics related to early B.C. history, immigration and settlement.

In 1999, he and his late wife Madeline, the province’s first female obstetrician-gynecologist, donated his more-than-25,000-item Chung Collection to UBC.

It is considered a national treasure.

“There’s a story in every one of them,” he said.

The Empress of Asia ship model Dr. Wallace Chung restored by hand over six years.

The Empress of Asia ship model Dr. Wallace Chung restored by hand over six years.

Credit: Martin Dee

His favourite is a four-metre-long model of the RMS Empress of Asia steamship, which he spent hours painstakingly restoring by hand over six years.

“The sentimental value was that my mother came over in 1919 on that ship and that cost her $75.”

Frances Lim recalled an era when merchant Yip Sang had three wives and 23 children all living in the Wing Sang building on Pender Street.

“Floor number one went to the first wife, and the second, third,” said Lim.

“The men would laugh, say, ‘Oh, I like a nice Chinese girl like you to marry me.’ I said, ‘You can forget it, one wife only!’”

Vancouver's first Chinese accountant, Bing Chew Wong, at his office in Chinatown.

Vancouver's first Chinese accountant, Bing Chew Wong, at his office in Chinatown.

Vancouver Chinatown Foundation

After serving in the Second World War, her brother Bing Chew Wong became Vancouver’s first Chinese accountant, starting in his basement and later moving to a storefront on Pender.

“It was amazing because he doesn’t speak Chinese, but I do; I’m fluent in Chinese and English,” said Lim.

The sign for the Pender Street office of Chinatown's first accountant, Bing C. Wong.

The sign for the Pender Street office of Chinatown's first accountant, Bing C. Wong.

City of Vancouver Archives

She learned Cantonese as a child and said Wong’s Chinese-speaking employees ended up interpreting for him.

“I was the youngest so I used to be very resentful,” she told Global News.

“I would like to play with my friends after school (as) soon as school was over. I ran home had a quick snack and came down for two hours of going to Chinese school, reading writing and speaking.”

As a veteran, Wong helped found the Chinese Canadian Military Museum in Vancouver.

On Remembrance Day in 2003, he reflected on the fact Chinese-Canadian immigrant soldiers were allowed to sacrifice their lives for Canada, but didn’t have the right to vote and were treated as second-class citizens.

“Very few people know what we have done,” Wong told Global News at the time. “But I noticed the young people today are more aware of it. And now, we are telling our story before it’s too late.”

He died in 2019 at age 95.

“When you look at the picture, it’s really quite scary,” said Shirley Chan as she studied a print showing demolition for the Georgia Viaduct.

Parts of the Strathcona neighbourhood were being razed in the 1960s, but Chan’s mother put up a fight.

Community activist Mary Lee Chan was instrumental in stopping plans to build a freeway through Vancouver's Chinatown.

Community activist Mary Lee Chan was instrumental in stopping plans to build a freeway through Vancouver's Chinatown.

Shirley Chan

“She was passionate, fiery, and really believed in fighting injustice,” she told Global News.

Chan and her mother, Mary Lee, helped rally the neighbourhood against a planned freeway through Chinatown that would have connected the viaduct to Highway 1.

“It was terrifying, the fight, initially,” she recalled.

By October 1967, they were organizing protests and holding community meetings over tea at their home on Keefer Street.

The Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association was formed in 1968, with Chan’s father, Walter, as co-chair.

A year later, the federal government came to their rescue.

At a banquet with representatives from all the Chinatown societies, Chan remembered then-newly appointed urban affairs minister Robert Andras telling city council he would not support any urban renewal projects that did not have the support of the people most directly affected.

“That changed the game,” she said. “We were invited as a community to sit down at the table with three levels of government to negotiate an agreement. And that was unheard of.”

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The plates from the tea they drank during the community meetings in the freeway fight back in 1967 are part of a permanent exhibit at the centre.

“With the passage of time, you see how fortunate we are to be finally accepted,” Chung said. “So let us look at the past as something that’s unfortunate, but we can forgive.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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