Artist reveals architectural history of Calgary's Chinatown with new virtual map

·4 min read
Artist and architect Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong created a virtual 3D map of Calgary's Chinatown. (Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong/Reflective Urbanisms - image credit)
Artist and architect Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong created a virtual 3D map of Calgary's Chinatown. (Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong/Reflective Urbanisms - image credit)

Calgarians can now explore the history of Chinatown and the area's buildings through an online interactive map.

The map, which launched on Thursday, was created by artist and architect Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong. Wong is based in New York City, but from January to March in 2020, she was roaming the streets of Calgary's Chinatown to learn the area's history.

Wong was the artist in residence for the Calgary Chinatown Artist Residency, a position created by the city and The New Gallery.

For the past two years, Wong has been collecting historical floor plans, blueprints (including fire insurance maps from 1911) and photographs of Chinatown's buildings, and speaking with community members. This was all in order to create the project she titled Reflective Urbanisms: Mapping Calgary Chinatown.

"That was like a crucial step, like making these connections with community members, doing in-person interviews, hosting community engagement events," Wong said in an interview with the Calgary Eyeopener.

"I just don't think this project could have taken on the same depth without making these real connections and having these intimate in-person meetings."

LISTEN | Mapping Chinatown:

The online interactive map allows users to click on 3D models of Chinatown buildings and see how they've changed over time, learn about their history and read interviews with locals associated with each building. Wong said she had a few architecture students working with her to help build the 3D models of the buildings.

Wong's map is part of a larger project from the city called Tomorrow's Chinatown. The city is working with organizations in the neighborhood to create a cultural plan and area redevelopment plan.

Bittersweet history

Wong has visited various Chinatowns in Canadian and American cities. She said the parallel histories of all these neighbourhoods are bittersweet.

"Calgary Chinatown, like Chinatowns across North America … are enclaves founded upon racism and exclusion," said Wong.

"For years, Chinatown had to fight for its very existence."

Calgary's Chinatown has been forced to change locations more than once throughout its history, which starts in the late 1800s.

As Wong notes, racism and violence has plagued Chinatown's history. During a 1892 riot, about 300 men ransacked a laundromat in Calgary's Chinatown and attacked residents and nearby businesses after a Chinese laundry worker returned from Vancouver carrying smallpox.

Despite this violent history, Wong said Chinatowns across North America have "flourished into vibrant communities."

"They're all places with strong community networks."

Tony Wong, president of the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre, said Chinatown has experienced many changes through the decades. He is one of the many people interviewed when the map was being created.

Monty Kruger/CBC
Monty Kruger/CBC

He was one of the founders of the cultural centre when it was incorporated in 1985 and has lived in Calgary since the '70s.

"When I walk the streets of Chinatown, I don't see as many young people as I used to," he said. "The aging of our population … is changing the face of Chinatown."

He hopes the virtual map of Chinatown will help younger Calgarians become aware of the neighbourhood.

"We need to have more younger people coming to Chinatown to conduct business, to participate in our activities, to rejuvenate our community."

Resilience and fighting discrimination

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Chinese Canadians and residents of Chinatowns across the country have reported facing racist attacks.

"Chinatowns have faced a lot of racist anti-Asian rhetoric and violence that has continued to disproportionately impact these communities," Cheryl Wong said.

The cultural centre president hopes sharing information about Chinatown with those who are unfamiliar with the area can help prevent discrimination toward the Chinese community.

"I think a lot of the hatred stems from misunderstanding and also biased ideas about [a] certain race or certain group of people," he said.

"So I think what Cheryl has done is a wonderful job and it is a great tool for improving understanding."

I believe that we can build community resilience and further cement Chinatown's cultural legacy by documenting the histories of this systematically marginalized place. - Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong

At the end of the day, Wong said her project is about the resilience of Calgary's Chinatown despite the historical and present-day issues it faces.

"While it doesn't aim to resolve all of these challenges, I believe that we can build community resilience and further cement Chinatown's cultural legacy by documenting the histories of this systematically marginalized place and its people."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener

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