Inside Chinatown: Ancient Culture in a New World
By Robert Amos and Kileasa Wong
TouchWood Editions, 160 pages

Reviewed by David Chau

Published in 14.4

ROBERT AMO’S AND KILEASA WONG’S book, Inside Chinatown: Ancient Culture in a New World, reveals how architecture can be as much a tribute to time and place as the captured image of a photograph.

Cleverly art directed and clearly written, this collaboration looks deeply behind the unassuming facades of Chinatown’s family associations and cultural societies in Victoria, B.C.  The authors, frequent collaborators who are involved in the city’s Chinatown community, culled from their own experiences, other books, and the British Columbia Provincial Archives to assemble this look at Canada’s oldest Chinatown.  Pages filled with numerous photographs, both archival and contemporary, were all carefully selected and supplemented by informative, non-academic passages.  The result is an accessible cultural memoir—written in English and accompanied by Chinese translation—with the glossy look of a coffee table book.

The Palace of the Saints, an elaborate altar and shrine housed on the third floor of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, is a fitting and striking cover image.  Arriving in Victoria from Southern China in 1885, this relic symbolizes heritage, endurance, reverence, history: much like Chinatown’s buildings and societies and those who both founded them. The numerous altars and shrines that appear in this volume are tangibly cherished and it is a credit to the authors that these intimate spaces have been presented with respect.

The book progresses smoothly and the early text provides context for some of the legacies established by the initial wave of Chinese in Victoria.  An easy to follow overview of the Chinese Diaspora—the scores of young men who migrated to the goldfields of the New World in the mid-nineteenth century, escaping civil and economic unrest in China’s Southern Guangdong Province—is presented.  The subsequent struggles and injustices they endured are also described including racial violence, marginalization and head tax.  Chinatown’s infancy as well, is included in this portion of the book.

Following this historical introduction, there is a noticeable increase in the number of images illustrating the third person narrative.  Black and white photographs are offset by bursts of colour from contemporary images on the same or adjacent pages.  The contrast between then and now is stark, yet familiarity remains.  This technique is employed throughout and the results are complementary, poignant reminders of progress and identity.

The book then introduces the reader to the majority of its content; surveying the various buildings and associations, new and old, that comprise the community today.

Inside Chinatown leads the reader to including: The Tam Kung Temple, which is Canada’s first Chinese temple, built in 1877, and located on the top floor of the Yen Wo Society building. Amos and Wong also offer access to the Chinese Freemasons Association, which was founded in 1876, and the Dart Coon Club, an affiliate which was established in 1915.  Members of both parties formally meet once a month and serve the Chinese community both locally and abroad.

Since its establishment in 1884, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) has concerned itself with the welfare of the Chinese in Canada.  A neighbourhood leader, the CCBA has built a school, hospital and cemetery to serve the community.  When Chinese children were barred by the Victoria School Board from attending public school in the early twentieth-century, the CCBA purchased land to build a new school that would accommodate the influx of students.  Huaqiao Gongli Xuexiao, Overseas Chinese Public School, opened on August 7th 1909.  Its first graduation ceremony occurred in February 1915, the graduating class consisting of a dozen students. The school continues to operate today with a student body of nearly 250. Inside Chinatown’s skillful curatorship juxtaposes a black and white archival photo of the CCBA’s original location against a panoramic, colour shot of the building today.

Though these buildings and associations figure prominently, the reader also sees the evolution of the Chinese in Victoria, witnessing them venture out of marginalization to become a part of the larger civic community.  In a black and white photograph from the 1950s, the CCBA’s float sails in the Victoria Day Parade—a sign reading “1st PRIZE” stuck to its side.  Later on, the reader sees the smiling Miss Victoria Chinatown finalists in a coloured photograph taken over thirty years later, posed next to their float at the same parade.

The organizations established by subsequent waves of immigrants are also included in the book like the Hong Kong Chinese Overseas Association, a social group which was formed in 1986, and the Chinese Canadian Cultural Association, which started in 1971 and assists new immigrants from China.

Amos, who is a professional artist and art writer, and Wong, who is the principal of the Chinese Public School, have composed a book of collective nostalgia.  More than a thoughtful catalog of the well preserved historical architecture of Victoria’s Chinatown, Inside Chinatown: Ancient Culture in a New World is a record of a community’s development, and its people—past and present.