The Sunday Magazine

This photographer illustrated the diversity of Vancouver's Chinatown a century ago

Yucho Chow photographed people of all backgrounds and walks of life during a period of intense racism in Canada. Curator Catherine Clement collected the photos and stories for an exhibit in Vancouver.
Chinese-Canadian photographer Yucho Chow. Curator and designer Catherine Clement went on a journey to find hundreds of the portraits Chow took in the 1900s, of marginalized communities in Vancouver. (Submitted by Catherine Clement)

Curator and designer Catherine Clement first came upon Chinese-Canadian photographer Yucho Chow's silver seal nine years ago, marked on photograph after photograph of the Chinese-Canadian Second World War veterans she'd set out to interview for her latest project.

The veterans had brought Clement boxes of images from their lives, in order to help tell their stories. But by the time she came across a sixth family whose photographs bore Chow's seal, she started to wonder who exactly the man was.

"When I Googled his name, there was practically nothing on him," she said.

"I never realized what this would turn into, but it started me on a journey to find ... his work and learn more about him, and it became much more complex and interesting than I could have ever imagined."

Chow came to Canada before 1910 and spent decades capturing hundreds of portraits of people from marginalized communities in Vancouver: Chinese, members of the black and Sikh communities, mixed-race couples, Polish and Ukranian families.

A family portrait, captured by Yucho Chow, and with his signature seal at the bottom. (Yucho Chow/Submitted by Catherine Clement)

His legacy might have been forgotten if not for Clement, who tracked down Chow's photos from people's drawers, dusty boxes and even Value Village. She displayed them in a hugely popular exhibit called Chinatown Through a Wide Lens: the Hidden Photographs of Yucho Chow, at the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver.

Now she's turning his photos into a book that's expected to come out this fall.

8-year search for photos

"He had really photographed during a very tumultuous and yet transformative time in Canadian history and Chinese-Canadian history," Clement told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright.

Chow was operating his photography studio in the heart of Vancouver's Chinatown during a time of deep racism. In 1907, a mob attacked residents and businesses in Chinatown and Japantown, after a march organized by the Asiatic Exclusion League calling for a ban on Asian immigration. 

He never turned clients away because they were not white or of high status, said Clement.

Yucho Chow's photograph of Harry and Leah Gong's wedding. (Yucho Chow/Submitted by Catherine Clement)

It took her eight years to dig up 250 of Chow's photos, which show people from all walks of life.

One, taken at a wedding, shows a man named Harry, who turned out to be the only Chinese-Canadian trained to fly Spitfire fighter planes during the Second World War, Clement said.

Another photo shows a British-born woman with her Jamaican-Canadian husband and their four children — a family composition Clement said was unconventional for the time.

On another occasion, Clement said she met a Sikh-Canadian historian who reminded her that in the 1900s, white tailors and barbers would not serve the Sikh community. But Chow welcomed members of the Sikh community into his studio and chronicled their lives, the historian told her.

A group of unidentified Sikh men pose for a photo taken by photographer Yucho Chow. (Yucho Chow/Submitted by Catherine Clement)

Clement said the process of finding Chow's photos revealed just how diverse Vancouver's Chinatown was.

It also taught her something about people.

"When we started to look at these photographs, we realized what made them so remarkable was how similar everyone was at a time of enormous racism and discrimination," she said.

"It reminds us that at our core, no matter who we are or where we came from, we're the same in essence. And we have the same aspirations and the same values underneath it all."

Click 'listen' near the top of the page to hear the full conversation.