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Mural artists Laurie Landry and Carmen Chan in front of the Lim Sai Hor Kow Mock Benevolent Association Building, the location for the upcoming Suzhou Alley Women’s Mural. (Photo by Vikki Hui)

Reclaiming space and stories: New Chinatown mural highlights women

Artists work to honour the complex history of Chinatown amid the impacts of racism and gentrification.

By Kaitlyn Fung and Vikki Hui , in City , on December 10, 2021

A new public mural in Vancouver’s Chinatown will celebrate a historically overlooked group in the neighbourhood: women.

The Suzhou Alley Women’s Mural will adorn the wall of the Lim Sai Hor Kow Mock Benevolent Association Building, between Shanghai Alley and Carrall Street.

Built in 1903, the building is historically significant for housing the Chinese Empire Reform Association, including its women-only chapter, the Chinese Empire Ladies Reform Association – one of the earliest known Chinese-Canadian women’s organizations.

The mural is one of a number of other recent efforts to recognize Chinatown history within the neighbourhood, which came after increases in anti-Asian violence in the past year caused many to feel unwelcome in their own city. Last year saw the launch of the Chinese Canadian Museum – the first in the country – on Pender Street, just a minute away from the mural’s location in Suzhou Alley. And more recently just down the block, the brand new Chinatown Storytelling Centre opened its doors to showcase interactive exhibits featuring stories about the community.

“We just wanted to honor the women that may or may not be known to the public that have played an integral part in making Vancouver’s Chinatown what it is,” says Stella Zheng, a mural artist.

Zheng says that Chinatown was often viewed as “a place for men and for bachelors to stay.” That was the case during the initial waves of immigration that shaped the neighbourhood, around the turn of the twentieth century. 

At that time, most of these men could not afford to bring their families to Canada. Racist legislation like the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, formally known as the Chinese Immigration Act, also contributed to the limited presence of women in Chinatown by banning nearly all Chinese immigration to the country.

Artists Carmen Chan and Laurie Landry pose in front of the mural’s future location in Suzhou Alley. (Photo by Vikki Hui)

With the Suzhou Alley Women’s Mural, its artists intend to show that women continue to play a meaningful role in Chinatown.

“We can carry on the stories and bring with us the legacy of the women who built a solid foundation for other women to build and thrive upon,” says Carmen Chan, another artist on the team.

The mural’s final design will integrate stories submitted online by community members. An advisory committee consisting of women from Chinatown is also informing the team’s direction.

“If we didn’t have these elders directing us, our narrative might be a bit skewed. They’re telling us pieces of the puzzle, and the history that we may not know was very important. And some of these elders lived through that time. They are participating and filling in the gaps in that story,” said Chan.

Community groups in the neighbourhood and partners such as the city’s Chinatown Transformation Team and the UBC Quan Lee Excellence Fund for Asian Canadian & Asian Migration Studies are providing additional support for the mural. 

Chan is touched by the responses they’ve already received about the experiences of women, especially elders, in the neighbourhood. One participant’s response described how “Chinatown grandmas have welcomed me generously with their care, food, and presence.”

For Chan, Chinatown is also a welcoming, familiar, and a safe space for her immigrant family. (Photo by Vikki Hui)

The team emphasized the importance of making these stories publicly accessible, and the visibility of a neighbourhood mural is a key part of that.

Having the mural “in a public space, as opposed to having it in a gallery” is crucial for Zheng, who wants to ensure that “the Chinese community in Chinatown can see it, watch it unfold as we do the painting, and can witness it after we’re done.”

The team is also mindful about introducing new art into the neighbourhood. Murals, which often raise property values or invite more expensive building developments, can displace low-income residents.

“Are you shining a light on this gentrification? Are you adding to it? Or are you resisting it? So these are the questions that we do have to ask ourselves. And with this mural, I think that’s one way of resisting the gentrification,” said Laurie Landry, another artist with the project.

Arezu Salamzadeh, a co-founder of the recent Chinatown Biennial art exhibition, cautions against the dangers of artwashingareas like this.

“There’s often this kind of artwashing that’s involved to cover up the horrors of gentrification. People commission ‘an Asian mural,’ which is actually a code that was used at a development meeting,” said Salamzadeh.

Another challenge the artists recognize in their work is understanding the complex history of Chinatown, and the different groups of people who inhabit it.

Landry hopes the project will embrace Chinatown’s complex heritage. (Photo by Vikki Hui)

Landry, who mentioned her own background as a “Caucasian and Native” person, acknowledges that it “brings a lot of complicated feelings because everything, including my presence, impacts the overall heritage of Chinatown.”

For Landry, her participation is a way to learn more about the people in Chinatown, and to document them in a public space.

 She says that engaging with this complexity can strengthen neighbourhood relationships, including between different groups facing marginalization within it.

 “There was a time where Indigenous people, the Musqueam, the Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish people, were often denied service in many shops and restaurants in Vancouver, except for in Chinatown where they were welcomed into their shops and cafes,” says Landry. “Perhaps because Chinatown knew too well the same racism experienced.”

Artistic resistance in the face of discrimination

That same racism is still evident today, and includes the resurgence of anti-Asian xenophobia driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a survey conducted across Canada between March 2020 and February 2021, over 1,100 cases of anti-Asian racism were reported. Half of all participants experienced harassment in a public space, park, street or sidewalk. Women represented nearly 60 per cent of all reported cases.

Another recent expression of this anti-Asian sentiment includes the vandalization of existing murals in Chinatown, including just a block away from where the Suzhou Alley Women’s Mural will be located.

Graffiti portraying graphic violence against Chinese-Canadians was visible this past summer on the “Snapshots of History” murals by Shu Ren (Arthur) Cheng, at Columbia Street and East Pender Street. Red paint was splashed across the figures depicted in the murals, resembling blood.

A woman walks past vandalized murals near Columbia Street and East Pender Street in Chinatown. (Photo by Vikki Hui)

Incidents like these cannot be separated from the long history of racist hardships experienced by Chinatown’s residents, including those like the women that Chan and her colleagues are now hoping to commemorate.

Chan says that, for many people, Chinatown holds “a sense of belonging for our parents and the previous generations in a world that was not really so inclusive… and the resilience, of course, that came from all that.”

Scheduled for completion next summer, the artists are hopeful that the Suzhou Alley Women’s Mural can eventually honour that legacy – while also supporting the community to reclaim their own narratives and spaces in the neighbourhood. The team is currently accepting story submissions on their website and community outreach projects including art sessions with Chinatown seniors are ongoing.

After the destruction of the Lytton Chinese History Museum by the wildfires this summer, the team felt the urgency to continue preserving their community’s stories.

“Chinese history is not included in general Canadian history, much like the Indigenous people,” says Chan. “It is obvious how history has been easily erased in the past and without people to retell the story, we will lose our own culture and history forever.”