‘What happens when Chinatown goes to the suburbs?’: Markham's Varley Art Gallery wants to hear your stories of belonging

To mark the hundredth anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a group of artists and educators from Toronto’s Chinatown named Long Time No See (LTNS) was invited to create an exhibition for the Varley Art Gallery of Markham this coming summer.

The exhibition, "Longing Belonging, 100 Years, 100 Stories", asks the Chinese community to reflect on: “what is remembered?”, “what is forgotten?”, “what is our role in reconciliation?”, “how do we belong?”

The 1923 Chinese Immigration (Exclusion) Act, which deemed people of Chinese descent “unsuitable for citizenship”, had prevented people of Chinese heritage from entering Canada for 24 years. It was until 1967 that race-based discrimination was legally removed.

As a result of the Act, husbands were separated from their wives, and parents were separated from their children.

“I am a trickle-down casualty of The Chinese Exclusion era,” said Kwoi Gin, who is one of the main initiators of LTNS, and the exhibition is his homage to ancestors and all those who came before him.

Keith Lock, also a member of the project, is a descendant of one of the original 13 Chinese Canadian families in Toronto. “I remember the sad old Chinese bachelors who built the railroad and had no families because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Often when we opened the store in the morning, we would find them sleeping in doorways,” he said.

Lock thinks such an exhibition is necessary and meaningful because it gives a voice to Chinese Canadian history and identity and honours all the people in the Chinese Canadian community.

Speaking of the origin of LTNS, Gin explained it was in the depths of the COVID-19 lockdowns he and other like-minded friends came together to support Toronto’s Spadina Chinatown against the shuttering of businesses and the rise of anti-Chinese racism by inviting the community to take selfies at places of emotional attachment in Chinatown and share stories.

Each photograph with its personal story became a poster for the project titled "Long Time No See", which the collective later adopted as its group name.

Over the past several decades, immigration has increased to suburban areas like Scarborough, Markham, Richmond Hill and Newmarket. The upcoming exhibition at the Varley Art Gallery in Unionville hopes to explore what happens when Chinatown goes to the suburbs.

The LTNS Collective is a non-profit ad hoc group of friends, comprising Gin, Lock and nine other different generations and backgrounds of Chinese Canadian artists and educators.

2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the signing of the Williams Treaty in Canada, professor Richard Fung hopes that by drawing the chronological connection between the Exclusion Act and the Williams Treaties, it will foster awareness about the struggles of earlier generations of Chinese Canadians and create solidarity to help right the wrong on which Canada was founded, the violent colonization of Indigenous lands.

“Newcomers might have bypassed downtown Chinatown, but ‘food, family and ancestry’ remains the spirit of Chinatown that brings us together,” Gin said, encouraging the suburban communities to share their lives and experiences settling and growing up outside of downtown, as well as stories about their relationship to the land they live on here and now.

You can submit your story in English or Chinese. All the images and texts will be collected for the community art exhibit at the Varley Art Gallery from May to September. For more information, please visit Long Time No See Chinatown at https://www.ltnschinatown.com/.

Scarlett Liu, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Economist & Sun