Windows into the Past

Storefronts tell the story of Vancouver’s Chinese community.

Written by Marianne Helm

April 1, 2018

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.”

Most of the murals are still in windows in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

Learn more about the Chinatown History Windows Project

Learn more about the Governor General’s History Awards.

This article originally appeared in the April-May 2018 issue of Canada’s History Magazine. 

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