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COLUMN: Chinatown Storytelling Centre offers window into proud Chinese-Canadian history

‘We don’t call ourselves a museum’ says Susanna Ng

ADVENTURES — with Ursula Maxwell-Lewis

“We don’t call ourselves a museum,” says Susanna Ng.

Ng works at the Chinatown Storytelling Centre. It’s in the red brick building (former Bank of Montreal) at 168 East Pender Street in Vancouver.

Ng, the head of interpretation and content development, gently, but firmly, emphasized the distinctive cultural role the Centre has created.

“We’re not just about history, but about the people in Chinatown and their stories. We think we are in a special place to do that.”

Over cups of fragrant Chinese tea, Ng eloquently expounds on the Centre’s focus, the ongoing importance of Canadian Chinese nation building, the Centre’s critical connection to the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, and the shared cultural goals aimed at preserving and revitalizing what once was one of the Western Hemisphere’s largest Chinatowns.

Quick to explain that although suffering and expulsion are indelible backdrops to this Chinese cultural story, Ng and her associates take a broader view.

“What about the other side of the story? The other parts of the stories? Collectively these stories reflect the heart of the community. We are very good a finding the small ‘people’ stories and social history.”

Personal reminiscences, photographs, mini films in the in-house Rogers Theatre, a replica residential apartment facade and artifacts dating back to the Vancouver Chinatown’s 1880 roots demonstrate colourful, often heartrending, tales.

On July 1, 1923, when Canada celebrated Dominion Day (Confederation). For the Chinese community, however, the date coincided with the day the1923 Chinese Exclusion Act came into effect. To Chinese Canadians it was Humiliation Day, a day of shame in a country where many felt unwelcome. Vancouver Chinatown shops closed in protest.

Chinese communities refused to acknowledge the national holiday until the act was finally repealed in 1947. This is highlighted by a quote accompanied by a black and white family photograph:

Some moved back to China saying, “I don’t want to live in a place where I’m not welcome.” A lot left with their families to go back to China, but (my father) always said how happy and glad he was that he didn’t. “I was born in Canada, but it wasn’t until 1947 that we were finally classified as Canadians.”

I also note more than 600 Chinese Canadians volunteered in Canada’s 1939 armed forces Second World War recruitment drive. Most were rejected (all in B.C.) or recruited and sidelined.

Welcomed instead by the British,150 Chinese Canadians were deployed to Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia as undercover intelligence agents in Force 136, a branch of the British Special Operations Executive. Their orders were to support and train covert local resistance movements to sabotage Japanese supply lines and equipment. On display is a waterproof silk map (noiseless unfolding) and jungle survival training booklets issued to recruits. The original kits included a cyanide pill in case of capture.

When Canada’s recruitment policy changed in 1944, Chinese men and women signed up for assorted military roles. The community’s civilians enthusiastically supported the war effort at home. Included in the display are the late RCAF bombardier Quan Louie’s medals which include the 1939-1945 Star.

Of particular interest to me was a tribute to Chinese Canadian aviator Annie Lee Chong. Born in 1886, Lee Chong is believed to be Canada’s first female pilot. Around 1918 she trained at Saskatoon’s Keng Wah School of Aviation which operated until 1922. The school was a Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (famous as modern-day China’s Father of the Nation) initiative to train pilots for China’s emerging air force. Eventually her flying included aerobatic instruction from WW1 flying ace Wop May. Well done, Annie, I say!

The notorious Head Tax is, of course, well documented. To discourage Chinese immigration the Canadian government, under Sir John A. Macdonald, passed the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which had brought 17,000 labourers to Canada in the late 19th century. They were paid approximately $1 per day.

Every Chinese person over the age of 12 was taxed $10 every three months, netting the Canadian government approximately $23 million from an estimated 81,000 Chinese residents, all of whom were required to carry an ID card. The Chinese Immigration Act was finally repealed by Canada’s government in 1948.

A prominent Last Spike photo display proudly commemorates the enormous sacrifices and critical role Chinese labourers played in establishing Canada’s legendary rail history.

A photo studio, textile businesses, arts and food culture history are highlighted as proud reminders of the Chinese culture, past and present. A charming table holograph educates visitors on the respectful use of chopsticks, what each dish represents, and that fish eyes and lips are delicacies served to the oldest woman at the table. That may be an entire column for another day.

The Vancouver Chinatown of years ago has changed. Like thriving family businesses in many communities, today’s offspring have moved into other lucrative, less arduous, university-trained professions.

Ng tells me that support for retaining picturesque historic buildings on Carrall and Pender Streets is growing. Landmarks such as the Chinatown Storytelling Centre are reminders that family stories remain relevant integral cultural tourism components, but could the subtle emergence of increasing nightlife—in which new pubs and restaurants are opening after 6 p.m. to upscale multigenerational clientele—be the keys to retaining Chinatown’s history by updating its dynamic?

In this traveller’s opinion, Chinatown, our Chinatown, should garner the support and recognition it deserves to remain a viable, vibrant, and unique landmark in Vancouver’s eclectic, inspiring multicultural bestselling story.

Visit for more information and to check out their full slate of special programs.

Combine your Chinatown daytrip with a stop at elegant Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. It’s within easy walking distance of the Chinatown Storytelling Centre. Details at The nearest Skytrain station is Stadium/Chinatown.

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is the former owner/managing editor of the Cloverdale Reporter. Contact her at




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