Storytelling Centre aims to be permanent reminder of Vancouver’s Chinatown pioneers

November 6, 2021

By Vancouver Sun |

The photo shows a row of older Chinese men sitting at the counter at B.C. Royal Café in Vancouver’s Chinatown, circa 1950. They are wearing felt fedoras and have a coffee cup or a steamed bun in hand.

It’s one of many evocative pieces at the new Chinatown Storytelling Centre, which opens its doors on Nov. 6 with the goal of telling the stories of Chinese Canadians.

“It was important to have something permanent in the neighbourhood,” said Carol Lee, chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, which bought a building on East Pender Street in 2017 for this purpose.

The opening is one of several efforts in Vancouver to present historical and contemporary stories of resilience and survival in Vancouver, which has been hit with fresh anti-Asian racism during the pandemic.

The storytelling centre is in a former Bank of Montreal branch. There is a gift shop near the entrance and a hall dedicated to the story of Tommy Mah, the first ethnic Chinese bank manager in Canada in 1966.

Inside, walls are plastered with large, floor-to-ceiling photos. There are screens with one-minute videos in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, and display cases filled with artifacts to highlight several major time periods, starting when Chinese immigrants came to B.C. from China and California, seeking gold and then to build railways. There are documents from the class associations, political groups and cultural organizations started by immigrants to support each other.

In one corner, there is a space dedicated to photos by photographer Yucho Chow, who opened his first studio in Chinatown in 1906 and took formal portraits of many Vancouver families. In another, there is a pagoda pay phone booth, red with green and gold flared roofs, a re-creation of the ones that used to be in the neighbourhood.

The B.C. Royal Café photo sits on a back wall and is smaller than some of the other images. It conveys a palpable sense of loneliness even though the diner is packed. Businesses like this were a necessity in a community of bachelors, men separated from their families for years, even after Canada repealed laws preventing immigration from China in 1947, but before restrictions based on race and origin were removed in 1967.

The centre’s exhibit hall also delves into later years when there was a fuller “gathering around the table” by immigrant families and others in Chinatown’s busy chop suey restaurants, dim sum palaces, nightclubs and other businesses. There are menus and old bowls and plates.

“I take a look at this neighbourhood and think about things during all this turmoil,” said Lee. “In one generation, they were able to have (three) university chancellors. Just think about that. They had this hope.”

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