Transforming Authority

March 25, 2011
Response to Ghost Walk in Chinatown with Artist Ken Lum
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 [his] 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’s walk 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 1940s 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 of 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.

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

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?

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.

[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).