British Columbia

Vancouver artist creates 'Occupying Chinatown' project as city apologizes for historic racism

Vancouver artist Paul Wong is launching a year-long project called Occupying Chinatown, starting the same day that the City of Vancouver will issue a formal apology for historic discrimination against Chinese-Canadians on Sunday.

Paul Wong’s project is based on 700 letters written to his mother

Paul Wong will do a year-long residency at the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden while working on his project. (Vivian Luk/CBC)

Vancouver artist Paul Wong is launching a year-long project called Occupying Chinatown, starting the same day that the City of Vancouver issues a formal apology for historic discrimination against Chinese-Canadians on Sunday.

During the upcoming year of residency at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, Wong plans to create a series of multidisciplinary artworks based on hundreds of letters written to his mother over 70 years.

"This project really is centred around the translation of 700 letters that were written to her by approximately 90 people," Wong said.

"Some with one letter and then, of course. many with multiple letters from her father, her siblings, uncles and friends."

The letters that he's gone through already are fascinating in what they reveal about the life of the Chinese immigrant community in Vancouver, he said.

In one letter, his grandfather thanks his mother for sending money and details how he spent every penny of it.

"[They] are quite astonishing in their everyday simplicity," Wong told CBC's Vivian Luk.

Paul Wong's project is based on 700 letters sent to his mother between 1946-2016. (Vivian Luk/CBC)

Paying homage 

Wong's mother had four children and was widowed early on and yet, Wong pointed out, was still able to take the time to write letters and send money back to her family.

"In the Chinese tradition, you sacrifice for your children and the children will take care of you," Wong said. "I can see how that was such a burden and I suppose such a pleasure for my mother to provide."

Wong plans to translate all the letters and create exhibitions, screenings, collaborations with other artists, workshops, performances, events, a website and a book.

One of the first pieces that was approved is a bright neon sign that reads "Saltwater City Vancouver" in Cantonese, a name the city was called by some Chinese immigrants.

"That simple piece of neon above the gate at Sun Yat-Sen gardens helps demarcate and pays homage to those early pioneers of Chinatown," Wong said.

The letters also reflect the deep-rooted discrimination Wong's family, like many other families, faced in Vancouver.

"We were an immigrant family at the bottom, working in cafes and corner grocery stores," he said. "Certainly the discrimination against them was very specific and that all hindered them from being equal citizens and getting ahead."

He says the city's apology comes late but sends an important message of hope.

"As someone who is Chinese born in Canada, we get so used to accepting the way that things are," he said. "That's what our parents did."

With files from Vivian Luk and The Early Edition.