History

Amid a violent year for the Chinese community, a push for a Chinatown museum

In Canada's oldest Chinatown, a community that has faced discrimination since its inception reckons with it today

By Tim Ford
March 22, 2021
History

Amid a violent year for the Chinese community, a push for a Chinatown museum

In Canada's oldest Chinatown, a community that has faced discrimination since its inception reckons with it today

By Tim Ford
Mar 22, 2021
James MacDonald / Capital Daily
History

Amid a violent year for the Chinese community, a push for a Chinatown museum

In Canada's oldest Chinatown, a community that has faced discrimination since its inception reckons with it today

By Tim Ford
March 22, 2021
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Amid a violent year for the Chinese community, a push for a Chinatown museum
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

On a sunny afternoon, standing at the corner of Fisgard and Government, music drifts out overtop of the buzz of traffic. The scene is reminiscent of a time early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when people would play music in isolation to support a sense of community.

This music, though, is on a pentatonic scale, the distinct tones we have come to associate with Southeast Asia. This is Victoria's Chinatown, a community within a community.

Chinatowns formed in the 19th and 20th centuries as enclaves of immigrants. Denied equal rights in their new homes, including Canada, Chinese workers would band together for a sense of community and for a common purpose. In the case of Victoria, where the first Chinatown in the country was established, that meant fighting discriminatory legislation like the head tax, disenfranchisement, and racist immigration and hiring practices.

The area remains vibrant today as a popular tourist attraction and artistic hub. Yet its place within the broader fabric of Canada's Chinese community and history has waned, with immigrants moving to larger cities like Vancouver.

A new project by community leaders is seeking to reinvigorate interest in Chinatown's history. The fledgling Victoria Chinatown Museum Society, formed just last year, aims to bring a permanent museum to the city.

"There is so much history here in Victoria," says Alan Lowe, the chair of the Victoria Chinatown Museum Society. 

"Not only will people look at a museum of Victoria as the four walls that create the museum inside, but once you get outside that museum door, the living museum is actually in front of you, which is our Chinatown."

The society was recently given the green light through a memorandum of understanding with the Vancouver-based Chinese Canadian Museum Society, which is, in turn, being funded by the province for the construction of multiple museums across BC.

Lowe, an architect and former mayor of Victoria, says he and his group had to step up to make sure the city was put on the map.

"We fought from the Victorian perspective that if a museum was going to happen in BC, that there needed to be a presence in Victoria," he says. 

"Victoria is the oldest Chinatown in the nation—and actually, the oldest intact Chinatown in North America, because San Francisco's Chinatown, had the big fire and earthquake [in 1906] and had to be rebuilt."

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Lowe is of Chinese descent himself and says that it's important to recognize the ancestors of the community and to share those stories with the public.

That storytelling aspect, according to Lowe, has become important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"With the COVID pandemic right now, and the racism that has occurred throughout the province, I think that it never hurts to provide history and stories to the public," he says.

The former mayor added that in his tenure as an elected official before the pandemic, he didn't feel discriminated against on the basis of his race.

That sentiment stands in stark contrast to today, with anti-Chinese racism spiking across BC and North America. Anti-Asian sentiment has been pushed to the surface this month following the mass murder of women of Asian descent in Georgia.

Last month, the Vancouver Police Department released statistics showing a 717% increase from 2019 to 2020 in anti-Asian hate crimes. A spokesperson for the Victoria Police Department did not make similar data available, but said that trends indicate BC's capital city has not seen the same kind of spikes in anti-Asian hate crimes. 

Statistics Canada data tracking annual hate crimes showed that Greater Victoria had an incident rate of 4.2 per 100,000 people in 2019, below the national average of 5.2. In that same year, Vancouver's incident rate was 8.2 per 100,000 people. However, that data does not specify the victim's ethnicity.

Part of this apparent discrepancy between the two cities may be tied to demographics. Vancouver has a large ethnic Chinese population, with nearly 20% of the city identifying as such in 2016. 

In the same census year, Chinese people were the single largest visible minority group in Greater Victoria, but still only accounted for just 4.5% of the population. 

It's a significant shift from a century ago, when 3,158 Chinese workers filled the city's Chinatown, accounting for 10% of Victoria's population of 31,660 in 1911. In that era, it was Victoria that was the epicentre for anti-Chinese sentiment in Canada, with the BC legislature being the first in Canada to disenfranchise Chinese and Indigenous voters, in 1874.

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Victoria Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe has been pushing for a Chinese museum in the city for years. She agrees that Vancouverites of Chinese descent are seeing more frequent and more intense incidents of racism.

In Thornton-Joe's view, however, this does not indicate less need for a museum dedicated to Victoria's Chinese-Canadian history. If anything, it's the opposite.

Chinese-Canadians received federal voting rights in 1947, and the right to vote provincially and municipally in 1949. These achievements came in part through the efforts of prominent Chinese Victorians, like World War 2 veterans Gordon Quan and Andrew Wong.

Thornton-Joe says these issues, and the stories of immigrants who came to Victoria specifically, are indicators of why this museum is vital.

"Vancouver is going to have the main [museum], and we're going to have a small satellite one," she says.

"Instead of duplicating Vancouver's, I think we need to be more specific to those [immigrants] that came to Victoria... what was their hope? And was that achieved? And what were the struggles along the way?"

Thornton-Joe's grandfather was one of those who chose Victoria as their home.

Her father, born and raised in Chinatown, was an employee of the city's oldest Chinese restaurant, Don Mee, and president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, a group started in Victoria that fought for the rights of Chinese-Canadians.

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

These are the stories that Thornton-Joe says deserve to be shared and told in Victoria. She personally has amassed a huge amount of material, collecting items from the community that would otherwise have gone to waste. She hopes that she can collaborate with the Royal BC Museum to archive these pieces.

Victoria mayor Lisa Helps sees these efforts as part of a bigger push to combat growing racism and division.

"There's kind of two Victorias," she says. "There's a Victoria that [has] this real kind of deep understanding of racial justice. And then there's this other kind of undertone. People who have come here from elsewhere, particularly people of colour, describe that it's very difficult to get employment, to find a place in the community.

“I think it's those more subtle things that are more difficult to address."

Helps is cautious to speak for any specific racialized community in the city, but says she can relate to feelings of discrimination in her role as a female politician.

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She says that the criticism directed towards her is frequently accompanied by gendered language or outright misogynistic sentiments.

However, she stops short of saying these issues are directly parallel, stressing that this is why educating the public with things like a Chinese museum is important.

"I think more than that, everyone needs to be engaged in the creation of a welcoming and diverse Victoria," Helps says. "Right now, Coun. Dubow and I are chairing the Welcoming City Task Force, to make Victoria deliberately more welcoming and less racist. It's more than just education, it's changing behaviours and norms."

The people behind the push for the museum, including Lowe and Thornton-Joe, are eager to be part of that change. They are hoping to begin fundraising efforts with the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But between that fundraising, location scouting, and construction, it could still be a few years before the museum is a reality.

"Now, the hard part is, what we can achieve and where we can get the funds," Thornton-Joe says. "It's been a dream of mine for a long time."

The music that plays out from Chinatown is ephemeral. It murmurs of history, and culture. But one day there may be a place to hold onto that culture with permanency, and to sing with the voices that built Victoria's Chinese community.

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