I start to put together those scattered reflections as if playing a puzzle game, naming and matching them to the objects they reflect. To my left, the murals beside the herb shop extend freely to its terracotta roof tiles. To my right, the narrow building with recessed balconies leads up to a banner. The banner is inscribed, in calligraphy, the surname of a family benevolent association.
Still, overflowing with a desire to explore and an imagination ready to run wild, I resolve to play detective for the day and sniff out anything that could give me a glimpse into that murky past. My version of it, as I am well aware.
Underneath the fresh layers of paint and stylish lampposts of Chinatown’s revitalization efforts are the bits and pieces of a past that is fast being replaced by a sanitized narrative.
Due in part to the widespread discrimination and hostility, such as the 1907 Anti-Oriental Riot, many Chinese benevolent associations were established. They provided mutual protection and facilitated a smoother transition for immigrants. This led to a community that was virtually self contained, complete with its own schools, clinics, libraries, theatres, clan associations, and other public amenities.
By the end of the century, as wealthy Chinese immigrants took up the prime neighbourhoods that were once reserved for the upper middle class Anglo-Saxons, Chinatown became less of a self-segregated ethnic enclave and more of a cultural relic, culminating in its designation in June 2010 as a National Historic Site of Canada.
Chinatown became less of a self-segregated ethnic enclave and more of a cultural relic, culminating in its designation in June 2010 as a National Historic Site of Canada.
Though the buildings themselves are visibly oriental, many feature columns and cornices built in the Greco-Roman tradition. Calligraphed Chinese banners hanged at the front-centre of the buildings, written and stamped by individuals important and respected by the community.
Bargain hunters roam while shop owners seduce passersby with their “liquidation” discounts. Glass jars cover the walls of herb shops, displaying unusual ingredients sourced from far-flung corners of the world. It is chaotic but strangely logical.
While the buildings are mostly owned by the clan associations of Chinatown, the ground floors are rented to restaurants and shops selling religious supplies, herbs, and tourist souvenirs.
Decades of redevelopment, however, has rendered it quiet and sterile. In place is a modern interpretation of the row houses that used to be here in the 1940s. The West Han Dynasty Bell monument is the only artifact linking the present to the past.
The street is alive and vibrant, accompanied by Chinese opera music, bartering cries, and steaming buns of the nearby shops. Erhu melodies and clackings of slamming mahjong swirl through the alleys as heavy smokes seep through its gambling parlours and opium dens.
To walk inside this alley and smell the aroma of herbs and concrete thousands have smelled before me provide a certain emotional linkage necessary to fill in the missing pieces of my imagination.
An afternoon in Vancouver’s Chinatown left me with more questions than answers. What exactly is Chinatown? Is it a mirror image of somewhere far away, or is it just a theme park created out of Westerner’s fascination for the mystical far East?
Or maybe it is what Chinatown used to be in Vancouver, a fusion of two cultures trapped in a time in the past? Losing its role as the de facto ethnic enclave for the immigrants, how should it redefine itself?
In a series of efforts to boost tourism and business activities, where is the fine line between trying hard and trying too hard?
“知人者智，自知者明。勝人者有力，自勝者強。” – 老子
“It takes knowledge to understand others, but it needs a clear mind to know oneself. It takes strength to surpass others, but it requires a strong will to surpass oneself” – Lao Tsu