Vancouver’s Chinatown in Focus

Early twentieth-century photographs document the lives of marginalized Canadians.

Written by Kaitlin Vitt

July 15, 2019

Two adults sitting in chairs, and a child on each side.

Yucho Chow arrived in Canada from China in 1902, a time when Canada imposed a head tax on Chinese immigrants.

Chow, who was in his late twenties when he immigrated, operated a photography studio in Vancouver’s Chinatown from 1906 until his death in 1949. He captured the lives of Canadians who were often dismissed and faced discrimination because of their race.

After Chow’s death, his sons took over the studio. But when they closed it they also discarded their father’s negatives, not realizing the value of these images of Canadian history.

A group photo

Today, however, Chow’s photos are coming to light, thanks to Catherine Clement, curator of Chinatown Through a Wide Lens: The Hidden Photographs of Yucho Chow.

“Despite the name of the neighbourhood, Vancouver’s Chinatown was not just for Chinese. It was a place of refuge for many other marginalized communities,” Clement said.

“The photographs that emerged are evidence of acceptance: one group — one man — accepting and welcoming others.”

The exhibition was held in May at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver; Chow’s legacy will also be showcased in a forthcoming book and a digital archive.

Clement learned of Chow’s work while interviewing Chinese-Canadian Second World War veterans. “They would pull out their photo albums, and I kept seeing these beautiful photos with an interesting silver seal stamped on them and the catchy name Yucho Chow.”

With information about Chow scarce, she began her quest to learn more about him.

Clement soon found photos in family belongings or at thrift stores, and slowly gathered enough images to create the exhibit.

At first, Clement thought the project would focus solely on early Chinese in Canada. But it transformed into a story that included other marginalized communities — including Sikh Canadians, black Canadians, Indigenous peoples, and Eastern Europeans. 

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Visit YuchoChow.ca to view the photo gallery; you can also learn more about the photographer and how to recognize his work.

This article originally appeared in the August-September 2019 issue of Canada’s History.

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