MAPPING CALGARY CHINATOWN
Through transformations in its architecture
REFLECTIVE URBANISMS is an interactive web project that maps Calgary Chinatown through its architectural changes. Here, transformations that have occurred in its buildings, since Chinatown was established in its current location in 1910, are visualized and investigated alongside community stories about the histories and activities that took place in, outside, and around these buildings. REFLECTIVE URBANISMS is a project by artist and architect Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong, as part of the Calgary Chinatown Artist Residency with The City of Calgary and The New Gallery.
HOW TO USE THIS SITE
Discover more about the individual buildings in Calgary Chinatown using the interactive map feature, or select a building from the building index page.
Learn more about each building through visual projections of the architectural transformations, read transcriptions of building memories from community members and look at photographs of building details from today and the past.
As an artist and a trained architect, my creative practice explores how we share space together and how spaces can change over time. I’ve had a longstanding connection to Chinatowns in the U.S. and have seen each one transform over the decades. In New York City, I live in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Growing up in Los Angeles, my parents brought my sister and I on monthly pilgrimages to LA’s Chinatown.
In early 2020, before the reaches of the pandemic could be felt and before the US-Canada border was shut down, I completed several months of the Calgary Chinatown Artist Residency on the ground. I was fully immersed in Calgary Chinatown, living at one of the local senior residences, utilizing The New Gallery’s Resource Centre in the Canton Block as my studio, and simply learning about and speaking to members of the community. My community engagement work included open-call engagement sessions, documentation of the buildings, research of old architectural floor plans and photographs, and intimate interviews with community stakeholders.
The first part of my research was just to observe the buildings of the neighborhood by walking and moving around each structure, studying its details, and photographing it from different perspectives. I was often invited inside and able to interview the building steward or owner. In some cases, I spoke to community members who had grown up in buildings, now demolished, in the mid-1900s. Drawing from this research conducted onsite in Calgary, my process involved recreating 3D digital models of each [known and more notable] building’s exterior transformations, connecting these iterations to tell a story about how the architecture has changed over time. Identifying these building transformations has involved piecing together clues from archival floor plans, photographs, oral histories, as well as the city’s 1911 and 1961 fire insurance maps.
A building facade communicates so much; this is how a building faces the city and how it represents itself to the world. What does a facade say about who the building is catering to? About ownership? How are we meant to enter the building? How do we see inside it (or not)? How do the materials used tell a story about the era in which the building was built? How do ornamental features of a building communicate stories about culture? Is signage a major feature or just a subtle whisper upon the building? How does the building declare itself as part of Chinatown?
Each page that’s dedicated to a specific Chinatown building hosts an interactive visualization of these architectural transformations, a selection of current-day photographs of the building, and if possible, architectural drawings, historic photographs or relevant interviews with the community members, architects, and residents tied to its walls.
There are gaps in what we can piece together, and much information remains missing. Yet, the intricate layers of stories about shared spaces, structures, childhood sweets, and generational relationships weave together to form a clear vision of the community resilience of Calgary Chinatown.
BACKGROUND ON CALGARY CHINATOWN
Calgary’s Chinatown has been forced to relocate several times; the current site is its third location. From around 1888 to the early 1900s, the first Chinatown in Calgary was established by several Chinese laundry workers on 8th and 9th Avenue SE and Atlantic Avenue. When a smallpox outbreak spread through the city in 1892, blame was put on the Chinese. An angry white mob of other 300 men destroyed the Chinese laundry buildings in this first Chinatown. A second Chinatown formed around the Chinese Mission on 10th Avenue SW in the early 1900s, but was forced again to move out after the Canadian Northern Railway announced plans to expand into the area in 1910. Fed up, several Chinese merchants purchased what is today the Canton Block, at 2nd Avenue SE and Centre Street, with the intention to create a new Chinatown once again. These merchants faced opposition from local residents, including James Short, the educator and lawyer for the Anti-Chinese league, for whom the local school (now demolished) was named. Ultimately, at a public hearing with city commissioners, the Chinese representatives were granted the right to purchase the property and to establish this third Chinatown.
In the 1960s, the City announced a plan to construct the Downtown East-West Penetrator (what a name!), a freeway through Calgary’s downtown that was slated to demolish the bulk of Chinatown. Community organizers rallied to oppose the plan and were able to successfully stop it from moving forward. In the 1970s, the City moved forward with the construction of the Harry Hays Building, a federal structure that forcibly relocated many Chinese residents and demolished their homes. In recent decades, the Chinatown community has once again rallied to protect Chinatown from more high-density developments that would greatly change the character of the neighborhood, along with plans for public transportation lines that would run through the area.
Like the other Chinatowns across North America, Calgary Chinatown is an ethnic enclave founded upon a history of exclusion. These communities have persisted, grown, and flourished into vibrant hubs, but today, these Chinatowns continue to be threatened by gentrification, major infrastructure and high-density development. The effects of the pandemic and racist, anti-Asian rhetoric continue to cast a long shadow on our Chinatown communities. Yet, in the face of these challenges, Chinatowns across North America remain resilient. We have seen the rise in Chinatown community groups organizing to protect our elders, to innovate new ways of conducting business for local mom and pop shops, and to nourish our Chinatown communities. Throughout all of these transformations, it’s crucial that we listen to and preserve our Chinatown community stories.
CALGARY CHINATOWN ARTIST RESIDENCY +
REFLECTIVE URBANISMS COLLABORATORS
The Calgary Chinatown Artist Residency residency, presented in partnership with the City of Calgary Public Art program, is a standalone project which takes place during the development of and is complementary to the City’s Tomorrow’s Chinatown project. Tomorrow’s Chinatown will oversee the creation of the community’s first cultural plan, which will be implemented alongside a new local area plan.
This project could not have come to life without the amazing collaborators I worked with over the past year.
Website programming: Tommy Gonzalez
Residency coordinator / Translation / Onsite support: Christina Yao
Videography & Editing: Gabriel Yee of Lotus Media Group
Rhino models completed with: Anagha Patil, Xuefei Wang and Caleb Hildenbrandt
SPECIAL THANKS to:
+ Calgary Chinatown community members!
+ Alice Lam of I Love YYC for all of her onsite support in Calgary
+ The New Gallery Staff, including Su Ying Strang, Nivedita Iyer, Brittany Nickerson, Christina Yao
+ The City of Calgary staff, historians and researchers from the Public Art program and the Planning Department, including Randy Niessen, Fazeel Elahi, Alastair Pollock, Marilyn Williams, Harry Sanders and others.
+ Robert Claiborne of Dialog Design for extending resources to assist with the last stretch of building modeling.
+ Anagha Patil and Caleb Hildenbrandt for all of their digital modeling work