Vancouver Chinatown’s history woven into Chinatowns across the globe

February 14, 2018

By Joanne Lee-Young, Vancouver Sun |

A dozen or so people are gathered in the dining room of a cosy Vancouver home to look back on a special trip they made to Kaiping in southern China.

Plates are laden with food and treats of all sorts brought to share. There’s baked salmon, stir-fried broccoli, takeout boxes of barbecued pork and duck, a selection of gourmet cheeses with thin apple slices, and Ziploc bags of black sesame and peanut brittle.

Later, bottles of Scotch come out, and there is both laughter and reverence as the group chat about what they experienced and who they met.

It’s a weekend gathering just ahead of Lunar New Year, one grounded in many of the holiday’s traditional and universal themes: travel and reunion, abundant food, drink and revelry. Underpinning it all is a deep respect for one’s family and forebears.

As Vancouver aims for UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for its Chinatown, reflecting on this trip to Kaiping reveals the fascinating, long-standing connections that exist between the two cities.

Kaiping is a city in southern China’s Guangdong province known for its hundreds of crumbling “diao lou” fortress towers and villas, which were built in the early 20th century by Chinese families who returned to the area after making good on a whole new life overseas in cities such as Vancouver. They returned to Kaiping with money to invest and a love of Western styles.

The diao lou buildings, made of imported cement, feature ornate balconies and turrets like those on a medieval castle in Europe, but they are also infused with details that hark back to local village life during the Ming dynasty.

In 2007, Kaiping applied for and received UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the architectural uniqueness of its diao lou buildings and the history attached to them. Not long after, the New York Times described the dotting of diao lous in this area as being “in a tableau that is more Tuscan countryside than Chinese landscape.”

The travellers gathered in Vancouver to reminisce about their trip to Kaiping last fall recall biking through fields, traipsing through open-air markets and the sampling of local delicacies such as clay pot rice and snake soup simmered for hours.

But, for many at the dinner, the highlight was “visiting the ancestral villages,” says Geoff Wing, who was born in Kamloops, grew up in Vancouver and lived and worked overseas in Tokyo before becoming interested in his family’s ties to Kaiping.

His uncle Peter served as mayor of Kamloops in 1966, the first mayor of Chinese descent in North America. With bits of family lore, old letters and “biographies from three uncles,” Wing has been tracing the story of his family’s past back to his grandfather’s arrival in B.C. in 1901.

Wing says he joined the trip to Kaiping so he could learn more about the history of the Chinese from Vancouver’s Chinatown before they arrived in Canada.

Much of the current push to appreciate Vancouver’s Chinatown is focused on its history as a place of refuge for Chinese railway workers and bachelor societies, and the site of protests for recognition.

But there is growing awareness that Kaiping shows how Vancouver Chinatown is part of a much bigger international thread that extends from southern China to cities in the U.S., Southeast Asia, Australia and Canada, says University of B.C. history professor Henry Yu.

“It’s an extension. Vancouver Chinatown is part of the same story,” says Yu.

If there is one place in Vancouver Chinatown to look for a direct tie to Kaiping, it might be at the second-floor premises of the Hoy Ping Benevolent Association on Main Street. The connection is not immediately obvious, but Kaiping and Hoy Ping are different ways of romanizing the same Chinese characters. Simply put, Kaiping is the Mandarin spelling and Hoy Ping the Cantonese spelling for the same city. The association goes back to the 1920s as a place to support immigrants from the Kaiping area.

Read more