British Columbia

Artist paints Vancouver Chinatown's historic buildings to shed light on once 'thriving' neighbourhood

Artist Donna Seto paints the images based on archival photos, and says she hopes her work could create dialogue around ways to revitalize the neighbourhood, which has seen increasing crime and vandalism. 

Seto says paintings have sparked conversations with people who have fond memories of the neighbourhood

Artist Donna Seto is pictured here working on a painting of one of the historic buildings in Vancouver's Chinatown. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A local artist's watercolour and ink paintings of historic buildings in Chinatown are creating a splash on social media.

Donna Seto's illustrations are based on archival photos to show what the buildings looked like when its businesses were flourishing.

The paintings have received hundreds of likes on Twitter, and Seto says her work has sparked conversations with people who have fond memories of the neighbourhood.

The Vancouver-based artist says the project is a way to shed a positive light on Chinatown and to create dialogue around ways to revitalize the area, which has seen increasing crime and vandalism. 

"It's an opportunity for us to kind of really rethink what it actually looks like and how we can actually preserve these buildings," she said.

Fred Mah, president of the Chinatown Society Heritage Buildings Association, says he has seen a few of Seto's pieces, which remind him of when the neighbourhood was thriving.

From the 1950s to 1970s, he says, the streets were packed with people visiting the shops, restaurants and nightclubs in the area. 

"We really, really enjoyed going down there," he said.

Seto has painted some of the 12 historic buildings looked after by the Chinatown Society Heritage Buildings Association, including the Cheng Wing Yeong Tong Society Building and the Chin Wing Chun Society Building. 

Seto says she hopes her art sparks conversation about how to revitalize Vancouver's Chinatown, which has been on the decline in recent years due to high rates of crime and vandalism. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Mah says business owners who used to rent retail spaces on the buildings' bottom floor have left in the last few years because they didn't feel safe in the neighbourhood.

A few weeks ago, the gates at the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden were locked and the courtyard was closed to the public after the exterior walls were vandalized. The windows at the nearby Chinese Cultural Centre were smashed as well.

Mah adds that it will take all levels of government to address the mental health and substance addiction issues many people in the area are facing, but he has hope the neighbourhood will be able to bounce back.

"I'm still very hopeful that we will get Chinatown thriving again. But it's not going to be easy."

Connection to Chinatown

Seto's connection to Chinatown stretches back to her childhood. Growing up, Seto says her family would visit her grandmother who used to live near Oppenheimer Park.

In her early 20s, Seto volunteered for the Chinese police in Chinatown. While patrolling the area and talking to business owners, she says she learned about the neighbourhood's history in depth for the first time. 

Seto also shops for groceries in the neighbourhood when she can.

Seto says her strong connection to Chinatown goes back to her childhood. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Seto, who is also an author, says she hadn't made art in 10 years until the pandemic. Initially she copied images of buildings in Japan, then pivoted to painting local architecture in July 2021, when she started her series on historic buldings in Chinatown. 

She has completed 18 paintings so far, some of which feature different versions of the same building to show how it has changed over time.

Seto says her long-term goal is to compile her artwork into a book that will also include personal stories of Chinatown, and the conversations she's had with others through her project.