“A Seat at the Table”: A living exhibition that grows on the stories of Chinese migrants

This exhibition tells stories of how Chinese-Canadians have found hope and resilience

Connect with Vancouver's Chinese history like never before. Image: Brianna Quan / The Peak

By: Kelly Chia, Peak Associate

While the first Chinese-Canadian museum in Canada has yet to find a home in BC, A Seat at the Table, its inaugural exhibition, is open to the public in Chinatown’s Hon Hsing building. Founded in 1939, Hon Hsing is a volunteer organization dedicated to nurturing Chinese culture and history for future generations, through traditional physical activities like Choy Lee Fut, a style of martial arts. 

As I entered the exhibition, I was greeted at the front door with a red pocket for Lunar New Year. After being handed a sanitized stylus to interact with the exhibits, I was off. I walked into an exhibit with lots of video screens, and smaller screens with videos that visitors could select with their stylus and watch. Everything in the museum was written in English, simplified Chinese, and traditional Chinese.

To minimize contact, the speakers were located on the ceilings with cups that projected down to the viewer. Many exhibits showed photos and plaques of restaurants that used to line Pender Street, like Hong Kong Cafe, which closed in 1992. The plaque explained that it was known for its fresh, handmade apple tarts and for serving the many bachelors off the streets of Chinatown. Also on display were signs and bowls from the old Pender Street restaurants. Seeing this made me feel nostalgic for the days I spent around Chinatown food shops with my parents; food has always felt central to telling stories about budding Chinese communities.

I set my eyes on one exhibit with a video titled “Radicalizing Intimacy.” This one stood out to me, in particular, because it was a video with Chinese-Canadian youths discussing their relationships with their queer identities. It’s not often that I get to see Chinese LGBTQ2+ stories alongside cultural artifacts and historical photos, so it made me quite happy to see it lovingly acknowledged as a part of the Chinese-Canadian story. 

Then, Patrick, an exhibit helper, showed me the VR portion of the exhibition. Visitors could see Kaiping, a city in Guangdong, China, where many of the first Chinese migrants who entered Canada had lived. As I looked at the tall towers and preserved homes of Kaiping, Patrick told me that Western architectural trends were brought home by these Chinese migrants, and could be seen in the roofing and tiling of the towers. We shared some banter over our own immigration stories — he told me he still has relatives in Kaiping, and I told him that my grandparents migrated from Guangdong. 

Our conversation reminded me that the goal of this exhibition is to hold a space for our histories and ongoing stories. To that effect, visitors could leave notes or record stories about the cultural customs they wanted to learn about or their favourite Lunar New Year memories. These stories, and a map showing where visitors had migrated from, were prominently displayed on the walls of the exhibition. 

In the back of the room, there was another interactive exhibit where visitors could practice their calligraphy, as well as shadow puppetry displaying the stories told throughout A Seat at the Table. The exhibition helpers informed me that in the afternoons before 3 p.m., a calligrapher who has practiced for 60 years is usually there to help or write something for visitors definitely something to check out.

There are so many other parts of the exhibition that make it worth a visit; the exhibit panels in the activism section talking about the history of protests in Chinatown and the head tax were especially intriguing. One story that fascinated me was Gim Wong’s, an 82-year-old war veteran who rode his motorbike from Victoria to Ottawa to demand the government to apologize and provide compensation for the head tax. Although it appeared that he failed when he arrived, Stephen Harper apologized and offered compensation a year later in 2005. His campaign, called Ride for Redress, is described as the turning point for the Chinese-Canadian community to rally together, and it was heartening to read about him. The section also reviews five different eras of Chinatown activism. 

Altogether, the experience felt like a loving dedication to both the history of Chinese-Canadian migrants in BC and their resilience as they continue to build communities here. 

Located on 27 E. Pender Street, the exhibition will be open Fridays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. throughout the spring season. For those who’d rather stay at home, a virtual tour has been uploaded on YouTube.