December 5th, 2010 Walking Home Projects presents Ken Lum Ghost walk in Chinatown

December 5th, 2010 Review
By Samantha Knopp

Today’s walk began with a large group gathered at the 221A Artist Run Centre for a rare opportunity to go for a walk with Ken Lum, one of Canada’s most internationally recognized contemporary artists. At home in Vancouver, Ken is most well-known for his numerous public artworks adorning the city. Today’s walk was particularly special because it was the pilot for a series of walks in 2011 organized by Walking Home Projects and 221A Artist Run Centre that will feature artists, designers, and architects.

Ken made it clear from the start that we were in for something different – this wasn’t going to be one of John Atkin’s rigourously historical tours. Instead, Ken’s approach to the city would be comparable to the Situationists, a group of artists (and thinkers) from the 1960’s who were famous for their exploration of the “constructed nature of various situations”, and the urban environment in particular. Riffing off of these ideas, Ken’s walk would be a personal meandering through Chinatown and Strathcona rather than a linear historical narrative. We were all eager for Ken’s perspective; he was, after all, born and raised in the area, so this was a very genuine experience of “walking home”!

Ken Lum introducing us to his childhood neighbourhood (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

After exiting the gallery, we made our way west, and Ken pointed out how much of the infrastructure around us had been repurposed or removed: buildings that were once hotels accommodating immigrant workers; dim sum restaurants; and original tracks from Interurban Railway were all still visible between the pavement cracks. Ken explained that for much of Vancouver’s history Strathcona and Chinatown were neighbourhoods populated predominantly by immigrants, making them the areas of contention and debate. For many Vancouverites in the first half of the 20th century, foreigners were seen as a threat, and popular slogans like the “yellow peril” were used to propagate racist attitudes. Ken then recounted the numerous threats of gentrification these neighbourhoods have faced. For instance, McLean Park, a housing development and the start of a demolition-style urban renewal program proposed by Vancouver’s city council in the late 1960s, was designed to clean up Strathcona’s (and potentially Chinatown’s as well) “blight” problem, “block by block”. In the end, there was enough opposition that only McLean Park itself was developed, keeping Vancouver’s oldest residential neighbourhood preserved. But, as Ken was eager to point out, many Strathcona residents at the time (including Ken’s mom!) lined up eagerly to get a place at McLean Park, which offered running water and new stoves, an anomaly for the impoverished area. For many of us who know of other deteriorating housing projects (modelled after the now infamous inner city projects in the United States), it is easy to be grateful that the proposal was never fully realized and that Strathcona has maintained its architectural heritage, yet for struggling people at the time, Ken showed us that perhaps this historical preservation was the least of their concerns.

Ken explaining Chinatown's long struggle against racism (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

Issues of identity – and especially race and class – are essential components in most of Ken’s practice. As Ken described the Chinatown of his youth, it was apparent that Vancouver had been a very segregated city, and while these divisions are perhaps less evident today, Ken stressed that they do still exist, and that this ongoing problem guides his art. In order to show us some of the inspiration for his artwork, Ken took the group across Main Street into a lonely business courtyard. We were all confused by this stop: an unkempt building and ragtag assortment of small immigrant shops with paper signs and confused displays. It was almost depressingly banal, and yet this kind of setting has inspired much of Ken’s work. He explained that this space interests him because it stands as a testament to the struggle (and all too often the failure) of individuals (and immigrants in particular) who have tried to make a living in Vancouver’s DTES.

We then continued along Main Street before heading east onto Keefer, enjoying the fragments of Ken’s past, which seemed to resurface in no specific order, but certainly didn’t lack in detail. In fact, most of us suspected that Ken must have been a very observant child because of his ability to explain his childhood experiences in remarkable detail. One example was the outdoor live chicken market that once lined this section of Keefer. Similar to the outdoor markets in the many eastern countries, live chickens were kept in cages on the street where shoppers could come along and choose one to be butchered on the spot, right on the street! This set-up didn’t last long in Vancouver though, as it was deemed unhygienic and was shut down (one example of cultural prejudice that had many of us struggling to (want to) gather any righteous anger).

Outdoor chicken markets? Things were a little different back then (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

We then turned onto Gore, and then west on Pender to find that Ken’s picture of Chinatown was dominated by the many restaurants and cafes – and their brilliant neon signs – that once lined this street. Up until the early 1960’s, Vancouver was well-known for having the most neon signs in all of North America – one for every eighteen people! One of the infamous dining establishments with an electric display was The Hong Kong Cafe, owned by the grandfather of one our fellow-walkers, the executive-director of 221A, Brian McBay. Ken spoke with fondness of Brian’s grandfather, one of the few Chinese-Canadians who spoke fluent English at the time. Because of this, he helped many in the Chinese community, including Ken’s grandfather, file citizenship papers and enter the country. With almost equal fondness, Ken also reminisced about the apple-tarts at the Hong Kong Cafe, which were regarded as the best in the whole city! Brian still has the family recipe, although it only makes 100 dozen! Ken went on to describe the interior of the restaurant with its long bar and upstairs Mahjong parlour, an extremely popular, although semi-illicit gambling den.

Instead of a chicken how about a roast duck? Ken Lum shows us a few of his favourite restaurants and shops in the area (photo credit: Julian Hecht)

With the day coming to an end, we slowly made our way back to 221A and Ken recounted more stories about the neighbourhood as we walked, pointing out some of his new favourite spots for all kinds of things (roasted duck, cheap sandals, beautiful straw woven bags, and on it went). The walk provided us with an amazing chance to get an artist’s perspective. But perhaps more importantly, it also gave us an insider’s perspective on the city, and as such, a unique glimpse into the particular places and events that comes only through the eyes of experience.

Where We Went Map – December 5th, 2010:

Participant Reviews

Ken Lum Walk – Walking Home Projects
By Maia Rowan

Ken Lum’s Ghost Walk through Chinatown explored the area through the eyes of a man remembering his childhood. I have experienced similar tours with my own family members, where they have brought me to places they used to live and told me about the way things used to be. The walk with Ken was engaging because of this aspect of intimacy, though odd since he is not someone I am not close with. The way that Ken spoke about the area, from memory, differed from the way a historian might speak of Chinatown. He brought personality to the individual restaurants, streets, shops, places, as he told stories of his childhood experiences.

As a design student the walk had a lot of impact on me. Ken delivered a balance of intimate and personal knowledge of Chinatown, along with a critical viewpoint from his professional life. The amount of detail that he could remember from such a young age showed his curiosity as a person; he absorbed a lot of information and experience as a child. This attention to detail inspired the notion of noticing, it reminded me to look when I travel through the city.

Ken Lum is Walking Home (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

This walk was different than many artist talks because of the movement that was incorporated through the action of walking. The artist was not exclusively in his intellect, and the audience was constantly engaged – in fact involved – by the continuity of our movement. Our bodies helped reveal the story and preserve it. I am sure that each participant will tell stories from Ken’s walk to their friends and families when they next walk through Chinatown and Strathcona.

Maia Rowan

Ken Lum takes us on a walk through Vancouver's Chinatown (Photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

March 25, 2011
Transforming Authority
Brian McBay

As a precursor to this project, I was invited to The Twister, a symposium of Vancouver-based artists, curators, and directors hosted by Centre A at the Wosk Centre for Dialogue where I reconnected again with artist Catherine Pulkinghorn.  In the past, we had spoken about her most recent work, Walking Home Projects, a program that offers youth aged 15-25 a way of attaining knowledge through experiencing areas of Vancouver.  However, rather than simply attaining knowledge, it became quite clear that these youth (with little voice in the matter of urban planning) were given an opportunity to ‘inscribe’ their own dimension on Vancouver. Walking Home Projects presents a fascinating opportunity for youth (many who are new to the city) to a much-needed local dialogue around this city shaped by international spectacle over the past twenty years.  How do we activate local histories in this post-expo, post-olympic city notorious for an urban schema that seeks international recognition?

The Twister conference asked participants to form a wish list for the city’s next ten years. This included artist Ken Lum, who’s talk centered around his walk through Chinatown to the symposium site.  Lum discussed 304 Days, a gallery that occupies his childhood hairdresser, and the Rennie Collection Gallery that was once his Chinese elementary school.  Lum trenchantly called upon the symposium participants to “stop colonizing my past”.  Fortunately, he failed to mention 221A Artist Run Centre, as we are also located on a well-used and historic street of Chinatown.  In that regard, it made sense to approach cultural producers like Lum as a starting point for a new program called Artists Walking Home, a co-production between 221A and Walking Home Projects that seeks to re-figure histories of Vancouver’s surrounding infrastructure that shape our social and lived experiences in public spaces.  In this text, I wish to discuss my experience from this first pilot walk and its relation to the spatio-temporal conditions of present Chinatown.

Ken Lum at The Twister symposium. (Photo credit: Phoebe Jin)

On December 5, 2010, we strolled through Lum’s history of Chinatown, circumventing a short two blocks teeming with memories from his childhood 45 years ago.  Considered a ‘ghost walk’, Lum focused on exposing various ethnocentric urban planning changes over the years that ‘haunt’ us today.  Lum gave us a primer for discussion, explaining the efforts of the municipal government in ‘revitalizing’ areas deemed unhygienic or uncivilized by finding convenient ways to demolish or displace these ethnic areas.  Lum notes the construction of the Georgia Viaduct through Hogan’s Alley, just south of 221A, once Vancouver’s largest black community.

Lum lead us off Georgia Street onto Main Street, peering into the windows of an empty three-story building that he said was Vancouver’s first Chinese supermarket.  According to Lum, it was ‘all the rage’ for his mother in its glory days.  Throughout the remaining one and a half hours, Lum continued teasing out history from the area – Keefer street was “the chicken street” and the Dollar Store was the only Chinese bowling alley.  I didn’t expect to speak during the walk, but we came about 149 E. Pender St., where Hong Kong Café[1] existed since the 1940’s operated by Victor and Vernon Lum, my grandfather and his brother, for nearly 40 years.  I spoke briefly about my experience growing up to stories from my family about the café’s famous apple tarts and, more recently, hearing tales from Chinatown residents who say that the oxtail soup was fantastic.  It was interesting to hear Ken Lum’s viewpoint about the café, as he was a customer for many years.  He described some of the fixtures for us: the drawer full of used coffee-grinds, the beautiful, long wooden bar, and the hatbox at the end of each booth.  Unexpectedly, he also explained that my grandfather, Victor Lum, who could speak English fluently, helped his family with their immigration. I am a maternal descendant of the Lum family, but I didn’t imagine my path would cross with Ken’s in such a way.  Through this conversation, it could be seen that 221A possesses a vague sense of authenticity because of my personal history within Chinatown.

What concerned me, however, was that Lum’s words both at the conference and during his walk seemed to allocate racial authority to areas of Vancouver; I hope that his intent was more complex.  While we expose histories of racial discrimination we must be careful not to demarcate zones of authority but instead recognize that all public space is as Chantal Mouffe might suggest, a ‘pluralistic battleground’.  221A has to reconcile with views that the organization is alien to the area.  Is it ok for 221A to be in Chinatown?

In the back of the Hong Kong Cafe, Left to right: Victor Lum, Doug and Brian McBay. (Photo credit: Paul McBay)

The pilot walk by Ken Lum opened a discourse around the built environment and all its latent issues. It asked us to consider how immigration, policy and ownership shape the way we experience the city.  We must learn to recognize the generative views of citizens and their conductive understanding to our perception of the city.  Over the coming months, Artists Walking Home will offer artists, designers, and architects with a forum for enquiry into the complexity of the city.

Brian McBay

[1] In the Neon Eulogy: Vancouver Cafe and Street, Keith McKellar describes some of the issues that Chinatown cafes had over the years, explaining that “[d]uring the 1930s, the district of Chinatown, stunned by stagnation following the years of rising head tax and the Expulsion Act of 1923, suffered from isolation and stigma.” The area was “[l]ooked upon as vice-ridden and dangerous” to the point that “there was a campaign to not allow white women to work in Chinese cafes in Chinatown by a moral faction at the City Hall.” The government stipulated, “Chinese restaurants are said to be associated with ‘loose’ women, and are not allowed to have ‘curtained booths, narrow passageways or screens that obstruct view.’”(93) Later in 1937 licenses were cancelled at three popular Chinatown cafes, including Wing Toy’s B.C. Royal Cafe at 61 East Pender, Gee Kong at 168 East Pender and the Hong Kong Cafe for refusing to let go of their white waitresses.  The Chinese Benevolent Association sued the city and lost. Then “sixteen waitresses from the three cafes, expressing rights to choose where they work, marched on City Hall to protest the ban, to no avail. In 1939, the powers at be allow the waitresses to work only if they serve English meals to the English customers.”(95)

Click below to hear Ken Lum’s Ghost Walk in Chinatown: