By Anu Sahota
Jen Sookfong Lee's debut novel The End of East (2007) follows three generations of a family in Vancouver's Chinatown. The novel explores themes of "isolation, immigration, romance and sanity through the eyes of its narrator, Sammy Chan, a Chinese-Canadian woman in her early 20s, and through the experiences of her parents and grandparents, which she creates through memory and fantasy."
Local memory is also a theme in Wai-Yee and Wah-Hon, a 1974 documentary presented by the Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia Departments of Education. The film follows a pair of Chinese-Canadian cousins who live in the Strathcona area of Vancouver that borders the city's Chinatown. As the children gather information for a school report on the neighbourhood, they speak with their parents and residents who relate its history though photographs and recollections of street life. Listen for a group of labourers identified as coolies - an archaic term for indentured servants and, more generally, a pejorative for anyone of Asian descent.
Of course, thirty years on, the film is itself a remarkable document of the area In 1974, the mostly immigrant neighbourhood had only recently been saved from a brash 1960s civic redevelopment scheme. The proposal would have seen the area mostly demolished and rebuilt to accommodate a downtown peninsula freeway system. Undoubtedly, it would have all but obliterated the shops and back alleys Wai-Yee and Wah-Hon are shown in their father's photos and the public spaces the film privileges, for instance the park where the children play softball.
The freeway idea was abandoned after residents of Strathcona and Chinatown rallied against it and in 1971 the Province designated a number of properties, including ones in Chinatown, as historical sites. This, in the City's words, "was the only time the Provincial Archaeological and Historic Sites Protection Act was used to protect an entire historic district in an urban environment."