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Reading the National Narrative


Chinatown Photographer

June 16, 2020

Once or twice when I was young my parents dressed?up my three siblings and I in our neatest clothes and hauled us off to the local photographer for a family portrait. The owner of the studio, which was on West 10th, was Mr. Pinkerton. He would attempt to keep us amused as he changed our poses,?shifted the lights and generally tried to elicit our sweetest smiles. The results hung on the walls of the family home or stood in frames on tables around the house.

I was reminded of these sessions with Mr. Pinkerton as I leafed through the pages of a gorgeous new book from the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of BC. Chinatown Through a Wide Lens: the Hidden Photographs of Yucho Chow, by curator Catherine Clement, documents the career of a?photographer, Yucho Chow, who was active in the city from 1907 to his death in 1949. Almost every image is displayed on a full page and is accompanied by a brief explanatory text with Chinese translation. It is likely going to be the most beautiful book I read this year.

There are some "famous" faces in the collection:?Douglas Jung, Canada's first Chinese-Canadian Member of Parliament;?Wally Oppal, a former provincial attorney-general;?the writer Wayson Choy. But the value of the book lies in the images of so many ordinary lives well lived: shopkeepers, athletes, bankers, boxers, soldiers, homemakers, cannery workers, tailors. A?cross-section of occupations in the city but also a cross-section of cultural groups. Along with members of the Chinese community Yucho photographed?African Canadians, Sikhs, Indigenous people, European immigrants from many different countries. They all came to his studio to make a record of their familiar family milestones: weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations.

Yucho Chow "played a pivotal role in chronicling the history of Vancouver's early immigrant and marginalized communities," writes Catherine Clement. "These photos ... are the last visual evidence that this story ... their story ... ever took place."

June 14, 2020

While waiting for my next book,?Becoming Vancouver: a New History,?delayed by the COVID?situation, to?be published next year,?I thought I would introduce the project?by telling some?"tales of the city."

Epidemic disease has always been part of Vancouver's history. The influenza outbreak of 1918-1919 was the most dramatic example -- at least until today -- but smallpox was another dreaded visitor.

Smallpox has played a tragic role in the history of British...

June 8, 2020

As I have already mentioned, my next book, Becoming Vancouver: a New History, has been delayed by the COVID?situation and will not be published until next year. In the meantime, I thought I would introduce the project?by telling some?stories from the book.

Given the wave of Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the globe, I'll begin with the story of "the Great English Bay...

May 22, 2020

People like to draw analogies -- historians certainly do -- and naturally the favourite comparison of late has been to the 1918 flu epidemic. But I've been thinking more about the Red Scare.

Following World War One and the flu outbreak, Canada was gripped by a fear of red revolution. It seems outlandish in retrospect, but at the time the...

May 2, 2020

The leftie progressive People's Co-op Bookstore is Vancouver's -- and Canada's -- oldest independent bookshop. It is celebrating 75 years in business by launching a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for its operations.

Like so many other small businesses?the store, which has played a central role in the city's literary history, has been challenged by the pandemic shutdown.

If you...