Calgarians can now explore the history of Chinatown and area buildings through an interactive online map.
The map, launched Thursday, was created by artist and architect Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong. Wong is based in New York, but from January to March 2020, she roamed the streets of Calgary’s Chinatown to learn about the area’s history.
Wong was the artist-in-residence of the Calgary Chinatown Artist Residency, a position created by the city and the New Gallery.
Over the past two years, Wong has collected historic floor plans, blueprints (including 1911 fire insurance maps), and photographs of buildings in Chinatown, and has spoken with members of the community. All this with the aim of creating the project she titled Reflective Urbanism: Mapping Calgary’s Chinatown.
“It felt like a critical step, like making those connections with community members, doing in-person interviews, doing community engagement events,” Wong said in an interview with the Calgary Eye Opener.
“I just don’t think this project could have taken on the same depth without making those real connections and having those intimate in-person meetings.”
LISTEN | Map Chinatown:
Calgary Eye Opener7:45Map Chinatown
the online interactive map allows users to click on 3D models of buildings in Chinatown and see how they have changed over time, learn about their history, and read interviews with locals associated with each building. Wong said a few architecture students worked with her to help construct the 3D models of the buildings.
Wong’s map is part of a larger city project called Tomorrow’s Chinatown. The city is working with neighborhood organizations to create a cultural plan and an area redevelopment plan.
Wong visited various Chinatowns in Canadian and American cities. She said the side stories of all these neighborhoods are bittersweet.
“Calgary’s Chinatown, like Chinatowns across North America…are enclaves built on racism and exclusion,” Wong said.
“For years, Chinatown had to fight for its very existence.”
Calgary’s Chinatown has been forced to relocate more than once in its history, which begins in the late 1800s.
As Wong notes, racism and violence have plagued Chinatown’s history. During an 1892 riot, about 300 men ransacked a laundromat in Calgary’s Chinatown and attacked nearby residents and businesses after a Chinese Vancouver laundryman returned with smallpox.
Despite this violent history, Wong said Chinatowns across North America “have evolved into vibrant communities.”
“These are all places with strong community networks.”
Tony Wong, president of the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre, said Chinatown has seen many changes over the decades. He is one of many people interviewed during the creation of the map.
He was one of the founders of the cultural center when it was incorporated in 1985 and has lived in Calgary since the 1970s.
“When I walk the streets of Chinatown, I don’t see as many young people as I used to,” he said. “Our aging population…is changing the face of Chinatown.”
He hopes the virtual map of Chinatown will help young Calgarians learn about the neighborhood.
“We need more young people to come to Chinatown to do business, to participate in our activities, to rejuvenate our community.”
Resilience and the fight against discrimination
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese Canadians and residents of Chinatowns across the country said they had been victims of racist attacks.
“Chinatowns have faced a lot of racist anti-Asian rhetoric and violence that has continued to have a disproportionate impact on these communities,” said Cheryl Wong.
The cultural center president hopes that sharing information about Chinatown with those unfamiliar with the area can help prevent discrimination against the Chinese community.
“I think a lot of the hate comes from a misunderstanding and biased ideas about [a] certain race or group of people,” he said.
“So I think what Cheryl has done is a wonderful job and it’s a great tool to improve understanding.”
I believe we can build community resilience and further cement Chinatown’s cultural heritage by documenting the stories of this systematically marginalized place.– Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong
Ultimately, Wong said his project is about the resilience of Calgary’s Chinatown despite the historical and current issues it faces.
“While it does not aim to solve all of these challenges, I believe we can build community resilience and further cement Chinatown’s cultural heritage by documenting the stories of this systematically marginalized place and its people.”
With files from the Calgary Eyeopener