A group of artists is using fiction to delve into the history of the Chinese community in Calgary as part of an exhibit at the Lougheed House.
Five short pieces are based on historical fact and aim to give people a better sense of Chinatown's history and its contributions to Calgary through the stories of characters from early Chinatown — like Jimmy Smith, whose donation after his death in 1890 funded Calgary's first permanent hospital, located in what is now Victoria Park.
"The impact of the Chinese community on Calgary, I think, is as strong as the impact of any community," said Caroline Loewen, curator at the Lougheed House. "I think their story is just worth telling as part of Calgary story. It's not a separate story. It's part of the city's history."
History of Chinatown
The first Chinese people were settled in Calgary in 1885 — six years before the Lougheed House, a national and provincial historic site, was even built.
Chinatown as it exists now, straddling Centre Street on the south side of the Bow River, is actually the third iteration of the community. In the 1880s, it was located where City Hall now stands. It moved in the early 1900s to 10th Avenue S., until about 1910, when it shifted again to its current location.
"We were really interested in exploring those different places," said Loewen. "What were the buildings that used to exist or who were the people that lived in those early Chinatowns? So we asked the writers to create stories that were based around place."
Angelica Ng is one of the writers. Her story, The Disease, is an account from a fictional character about the 1892 Smallpox Riot, when 300 men ransacked a Chinese laundromat and attacked residents and neighbouring businesses after a Chinese laundry worker returned from Vancouver carrying the disease.
When writing it, Ng drew from her personal experiences as a second generation Chinese Canadian.
"I've always felt like I've existed in between two different cultures, but not necessarily belonging to either one. So I wanted to really convey these complicated feelings that are associated with belonging and identity," said Ng. "When that very identity and community make you a target for things like violence and racism and hostility … that can really affect your relationship and your sense of belonging to that identity and community."
All welcome in Chinatown
One of the hopes of those involved in the project is that it will encourage people to visit Chinatown and learn more about Chinese contributions to Calgary's history.
"We respect a lot of other neighbourhoods for their history. And Chinatown, I think, gets overlooked that way," said Jessica Szeto, author of Train Car. "I think it's an important part of Calgary. And without it, the character would be much different."
All are welcome, she said — especially after enduring the pandemic, when minority-owned businesses faced a drop-off in business.
"If you can support Chinatown in today's day and age, you should go down there and visit. It's not just for Chinese people," said Szeto. "Chinatown as a community has a lot to offer."
The exhibit at the Lougheed House runs from July 1 to Oct. 17.