a Seat at the Table, Chinese Canadian Museum and MoV

History of Chinese immigration through food and restaurant culture.

Image removed.

-- Exhibition --

In the past few months, fate put in front of me various learning moments about British Columbia history that - to my embarrassment - I had no awareness of. A visit to Sun Yat Sen garden. A visit to my friend William Liu's place of business: Kam Wai Dim Sum. The Chinatown Pride celebrations. A walk in Chinatown, and chance entry into the Chinese Canadian Museum. And most importantly - the fortune to attend the recent City Opera performance 'Chinatown' which broke my heart and opened my eyes. The love that exists in the Chinatown community, and the hardships that have been and still are, need to be told.

-- Sources for the information are listed at the end --

The Chinese Canadian Museum, opened at the Hon Hsing Athletic Association building in Vancouver's Chinatown in November 2020, the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) and the University of British Columbia (UBC) co-curated and co-produced the "Seat at the Table" exhibition which aims to explore historical and contemporary stories of Chinese Canadians with a lens of food and restaurant culture.

Image removed.

"From growing and harvesting food, to wholesale and retail distribution, to serving food in homes and restaurants to food processing, Chinese immigrants have always played a significant role in the food ecology of this province". [exhibition guide]

Image removed.

Chinese Canadians are one of the many groups that face discrimination and racism based on fear mongering which presents one group as the one entitled to resources and opportunities, and other groups as infringements. Never mind how fictional the delineation of the boundary that creates the group, the 'win-loose' portrayal triggers the tribal protectionism that is so easily leveraged for political or selfish gains. Peter Ward argues that "economic strains [...] are ultimately subordinate to the psychological tensions as the central locus or racial animosity" - the thought construct of 'The Other' comes first, and fear of the threat of 'cheap labour' the conduit to create the chasm.

Image removed.Don Kwan, "Luck / You People", 2020

The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 introduced a "head tax" to discourage Chinese immigration based on fears of competition for jobs after the deadly dangerous work on the railroad was complete. The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, banned Chinese from entering Canada, until 1947. These regulations made it impossible for Chinese immigrants to reunite with their families for many decades.

Image removed.MOV exhibition, 'Mother's cupboard and table", Paul Wong

We frown upon South Africa's apartheid, but here in our own backyard until very recently there were rules and regulations in place to create segregation, lack of voting rights, lack of right to own property, and restrictions limiting career choices for many groups. One of the first acts of the provincial legislature after British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871 was to take voting rights away from those considered "non-white".


Vancouver's China town is one of Vancouver's oldest neighbourhoods, where despite the persecution and hardships, the local Chinese merchant class grew and prospered. Its membrs kept the community together by funding schools and the benevolent society buildings that still stand on East Pender Street.

The recent City Opera's performance 'Chinatown" (libretto by award winning Madeleine Thein, composition from Alice Pin Yee Ho) vividly illustrates this by telling the heart-breaking story of two friends who cared deeply about each other, trying to survive in Vancouver's Chinatown in early 1900's, putting aside what they can out of their wages in the hope of a better life for their families - sending money home, and saving up for the head tax of their relatives - at least 2 years of wages. Following these friends across the decades, with their desperate hopes to reunite with loved ones, the long and lonely wait, and the eventual successes, bring this history to live.

Image removed.

The Chinese Canadian Museum has a great 5 minute video about the exhibition on their website.

Most [Chinese] immigrants come from farming villages in Guangdong province. Their experience with techniques such as crop rotation, irrigation and the use of fish head fertilizer produced large harvests on small plots of land. Chinese farms in the lower Fraser Valley supplied about 90 percent of all green vegetables to Vancouver consumers in 1926. [exhibition guide]


Henry Yu, Associate Professor at UBC, writes "we hoped that this exhibition would tell the stories of how Chinese cuisine and Chinese restaurants and Chinese cafes in small-town British Columbia have shaped the ways we eat and love and celebrate life together; [...] but also an acknowledgement of the long history of exclusion and white supremacy that targeted Chinese Canadians and whipped up anger and hatred against them". He continues "This exhibition is a reminder, [...] that the struggle to create a just and inclusive society has a long past that still shapes the present." [exhibition guide]

Image removed.Don Kwan, "Head Tax", exhibition in the Sun-Yat-Sen garden

Even after the 'Chinese immigration act [of 1923] was repealed [in 1947], the effects continued and as late as the 1970s, Chinatown was home to many elderly Chinese Canadian men who had been unable to marry or have a family, living out their days in single resident rooms. [Vancouver Heritage Foundation]

Image removed.MOV exhibition, Quotes from legislation and media

William Liu says in 'Chinatown Stories, vol 3', that "food security in Chinatown is [...] so precarious, and to be able to get food in Chinatown at affordable prices is becoming more and more difficult". William was therefore glad that Kam Wai Dim Sum was part of an initiative to deliver food to seniors that live at the May Wah hotel, and is determined to keep prices within reach of members of the community.

Image removed.

Like the Chinatown Opera, the MOV & Chinese Canadian Museum exhibition "is a reckoning and a recognition for those who dreamed of a better life, who remained resolute against racism and rejection, and who in their resolve and resilience, their dignity in the face of disgraceful treatment, granted redemption to us all. For those who silently struggled against exclusion but did not live to see better times, I hope that you will join us in remembering their stories, and welcome them finally, to aa seat at this table... " [Henry Yu]

Image removed.

-- Sharing food builds trust --

"People tend to think that they use logic to make decisions, and they are largely unaware that food preferences can influence their thinking," says Ayelet Fishbach, a professor in the business school at the University of Chicago. "On a very basic level, food can be used strategically to help people work together and build trust. When ordering food during lunch with a colleague or dinner on a blind date, selecting a similar type of food could build rapport", she says.

Eating together appears to install or promote a mindset that fosters cooperation.[Breaking Bread Together Leads Negotiators to Better Outcomes, December 14, 2020]

Image removed. https://vancurious.ca/2022/07/21/pride-in-chinatown/ Use the link above to read more about some of the food businesses that provide community, cohesion and care in Vancouver's Chinatown, and try the mushroom dumplings from Kam Wai Dim Sum! Image removed. Image removed.

Explore more restaurant and food options in the Scout Magazine article "Secrets of Chinatown Shops".

Image removed.

-- Chinatown - Hon Hsing building (1910) --

Enjoy the texture and layers in the Hon Hsing Athletic Association building (1910) that houses the Canadian Chinese Museum - don't forget to look up! The ceiling is kaleidoscope of colours and character.

Image removed.

Wongs’ Benevolent Association of Canada in 1939 formed a Chinatown athletic group with the purpose of raising funds through Chinese lion dancing to send back to the motherland. This new athletic group was named after one of their famous warrior ancestors - General Hon Hsing. Thus the “Hon Hsing Athletic Club of Vancouver” was creates as a new Chinatown based youth group under the patronage of the Wongs’ Benevolent Association of Canada.

The heritage value of 27 East Pender Street is derived from it being an important early example of an architecturally distinct 'Chinatown style', and for its associations with a number of economic and social activities that were important to Chinatown. Built to designs by a European-Canadian architect, R.J. MacDonald, it is an early example of a building with characteristics of a distinct Chinatown architectural style: vertical proportions; four stories high with one or more of the upper floors featuring recessed balconies and building-wide glazing facing the street. [Canada's historic places]

Image removed.

Image removed.


  • "a Seat at the table, Chinese immigration and British Columbia", exhibition catalogue, UBC/Museum of Vancouver, ISBN978-1-895817-28-7
  • Chinese Canadian Museum exhibit site: Seat at the table
  • Vancouver Heritage Foundation site
  • "White Canada Forever, popular attitudes and public policy towards orientals in British Columbia", W. Peter Ward, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002 3rd edition. Peter Ward reveals the ful extent and periodic virulence of West Coast racism.
  • "Chinatown Opera", libretto by Madelein Thien, performed by City Opera Vancouver at the Vancouver Playhouse, Sept 13-16 2022
  • "Exploring Vancouver - the architecture guide", Harold Kalman & Robin Ward, 2012, Douglas & McIntyre, Chinatown p. 28-39
  • London School of Economics podcast "Social Media and Hate",  25 October 2022, Professor Shakuntala Banaji & Dr Ram Bhat
  • Chinatown stories, vol 3, ISSN 2561-16072020

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.