a visit to Chinatown, Strathcona, Hogan’s Alley, and Gastown with Socials 10

**NB: A long post, because while I can say a lot, these students’ insights are much better!

Last Friday, April 8th, our socials 10 class had the opportunity to spend a beautifully sunny day down in Vancouver’s Chinatown, Strathcona, Hogan’s Alley, and Gastown.

For a lot of students, they remarked that this was their first time in any of these places. I forget that a lot students who are born and bred in Richmond, quite often only stick to Richmond! So while the fieldtrip was organized to visit various neighbourhoods, I was conscious of not inundating students with too much information. Rather, it was enough for me that they had an opportunity to get out of Richmond, walk around the streets of Vancouver, and become a little more familiar with the land that they’re walking on and the communities that intersect and make up our beautiful city.

For this fieldtrip, we were lucky to have the support of community organizations and allies.  hua foundation hosted a sustainable dumpling workshop and talked about food security with students. Where do folks in Chinatown get their groceries? How do local business support the needs of its community both in Chinatown, Downtown, and the North Shore?

Believe it or not, some students hadn’t had dumplings before, or even knew what they were! Whereas some had participated in making dumplings at home with their grand/parents during the weekends or important festivities and holidays. From what I heard back, the students’ really enjoyed having an opportunity to prepare, cook, and enjoy eating dumplings (all while singing as they did so. Singing is a big thing with this class!).

My favourite part of the day was without a doubt the dumpling making workshop. Not only did we get to make delicious dumplings, but we also got a chance to learn more about Chinese culture.”

“By far my favourite part of the day was making dumplings with my fellow Explorations classmates as we belted to Disney songs.”

My favourite part of the day was the dumpling making. I learned how to make a dumpling on this trip and I was surprised by how good they were (I have never had a dumpling before). This trip was very insightful into a world that is foreign to me and it was inspiring that so many people are embracing their culture.”

While some of us made dumplings at hua, some of us went on a walking tour of Vancouver’s Gastown. Students had learned about Vancouver’s origins and settlement during/after/ the Gold Rush era. As we departed Chinatown and walked down Abbott street, students remarked about the stark differences in the aesthetics of the neighbourhoods. The cobbled streets, the lamp lights, the brick buildings of Gastown all construct a certain “vibe” to the space. One student even thoughtfully reflected on the smells he encountered that distinctly made each space unique. How do tangible aesthetics create an intangible feeling or connection to space?

How do places such as SFU Woodwards intersect with the local community space? We stumbled upon the community piano, and of course made  a stop for a few songs!

During the afternoon, we were joined by Hayne Wai (Chinese Canadian Historical Society/ Dr. Sun Yat Sen Gardens), and June Chow and Jeffrey Wong (Youth Collaborative for Chinatown). Hayne walked us through Strathcona- one of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods and stopped outside the local church, pointing out that its named has changed so many times over the years as a reflection of the demographics in the neighbourhoods.

Prior to the fieldtrip, students were introduced to the 1907 Vancouver riots as an intersecting part of the city’s migrant history (a post for another time!). In our discussion about ethnic neighbourhoods, we chatted about what makes up an ‘ethnic neighbourhood’? Is it the people? The businesses? The feel of the place? Students watched a documentary: “To Build a Better City” commissioned by the city through the National Film Board, which excessively noted areas in Vancouver that were full of “blight”. Notably, the blighted areas were on the fringes of Vancouver’s core, Strathcona, Chinatown, Japantown, Hogan’s Alley, and what would become the DTES. We talked about the emerging freeway that would later cut into Hogan’s Alley, to really get a sense of the life of an area that was truncated from its fullest potential. How does racial discourse impact the lives of individual in top-down systems?

“I never realized that Chinatown, Gastown, and Strathcona are where they are for specific reasons. The residents of these communities were all people who were considered different, pushed out from the pristine, urban, downtown, into the “slums” of the city. Although these neighborhoods were considered the “blight” of Vancouver, they developed into beautiful communities filled with culture.” 

“For so many, Strathcona was a place that they felt accepted and safe, where they were not isolated for their ethnicity, and a place that allowed them to embrace their heritage and roots. Yet to have this one safe haven be taken away from you, subject to urban development projects, and to be displaced without a home, in a country where you don’t feel accepted, is unthinkable. The story of Strathcona is one that is so significant to Vancouver’s history. It is the tale of the banding together of outsiders, against the powerful, fighting for their community. It is the tale that tells the stories of so many families, and their fight to keep their home away from home.”

” I feel like the relationship between the development comity and the historical preservations isn’t as good as it should be. Instead of fighting over what buildings to keep or tear down they should be working together on how to enhance the community while still keeping the heritage and history woven through the streets.”

So grateful to have members of Chinatown’s community join us and share what Chinatown’s neighbourhood means to them, both from a historical perspective and from a more youthful viewpoint. Often times, the question I still grapple with in my work (as an educator and researcher) is how to make community issues relevant to those who may not necessarily feel connected to said community? YCC begins the conversation around bridging intergenerational and intercultural understanding in and around Vancouver’s Chinatown through their youth-led initiatives that are meant to spur a general interest in the space. They spoke to students about their monthly public mahjong afternoons. As we walked the streets of Chinatown, our guides ran into folks into the community that they knew, and the students were keen to pick up on that.

The way I saw our leaders interact with the community around them, especially with the elders, showed how it was not just a small little area, but a large community. In Vancouver’s core, you often don’t see people talk to each other on the street, but in Chinatown it was like our leaders knew everyone that they met.

“Something that surprised me about the trip was how large Chinatown actually was and how busy it was.”

In classes leading up to the fieldtrip, I showed students the video that a few colleagues and I made a few years ago around Vancouver’s Chinatown (4 Reasons Why You should Care about Vancouver’s Chinatown).

Students were hung up on “Ms Bautista, you dropped the f-bomb!!”, but well-worth it in conversation about how buildings are representative of the community’s response to racially-charged government action. The “F-you building” or Chang Toy’s building, the thinnest in the world, was a big must- see during our tour.

“One site that was of notable significance was the 1.5-meter wide building that was once home to a store. This site captured my attention because of how it represented the perseverance of citizens during the persecutions of non-white races. This site was important to the community back in the day because it was a symbol of hope even in the bleakest situations and in present day, a reminder of what can be done even when given limited resources.”

I think the one that most shocked me was the Sam Kee building which is currently the thinnest building in the world. I mean anything that holds a world record has got to mean something. The architect, Chang Toy was left 1.5 metres of land which was thought to be useless, although he made it into something, so I applaud him. What more do I have to say. He didn’t take crap, and this is why it is important.”

The site that I believed had notable significance in the area was for me the F-U building. Though not a ton of history, I think that it represents the Chinese-Canadian communities standing in Vancouver. The city can do all it wants to try to minimize Chinatown, but they’ll always stand up to them and make it work.”

As we walked through Chinatown, our guides pointed out the different clan association buildings. Some of the students realized that they might have belonged to some of these groups!

“Something new that I learned from the field trip was that I didn’t know there were communities for last names (e.g. The Wong Community). I thought this was really neat that you could meet other people who share your last name, and build a community from there.”

In fact, as Hayne led us through the SYS Gardens, there were some stragglers who stopped to smell the flowers and take it all in. A lot of students instagram-ed photos of the garden, apparently! Just outside the SYS Garden, we stopped  at the war memorial plaque for the Chinese Canadian soldiers who fought and fell for their country. One student took a photo of the plaque and later reviewing at home with her father, found out that her great-grandfather’s name was actually listed! She excitedly recounted this story in class the other day, curious as to why her father had never told her this before.

We of course ended the day at New Town Bakery. I couldn’t resist, and neither could the students, apparently!

I liked the walking tour. The guide was very knowledgeable and there were many interesting areas. And of course I will long remember the bakery.”

Thank you, to all those who supported and helped make this fieldtrip magic possible. Hearing from students and chatting them throughout this fieldtrip instills such a great amount of promise in our next generation. It’s incredible. I could go on, and it’s so tempting to showcase every single students’ response to the field trip, but a few last closing comments that really incapsulate the day.

“I really liked this field trip. I now feel like I can understand (and love) ethnic neighbourhoods, rather than just know about them. My new favourite way to learn about a place is the smell. Chinatown smelled of spice, Strathcona smelled floral and fresh, the East Side smelled smokey and sketchy, and Gastown… Didn’t really smell. (Is this a sign that it is becoming too touristy?!) I think these smells represent their respective areas really well. My favourite of the smells was the Chinatown smell. It added to the very human feeling.”

“Before this field trip, ethnic neighbourhoods felt foreign to me. I understood what they are, but not how they feel. This isn’t really something that I realized until this field trip. The smell of Chinatown, the tangible borders of the neighbourhoods, and the people going about their daily business really are what the neighbourhoods are made of – not facts.

“The most memorable part of the day was to tour the whole area as I’ve never been before and it was refreshing to learn in a non school environment once in a while. Something that I learned from the field trip was the history of the Strathcona area. Experiencing the sense of being connected to many individuals that started from scratch just like me when they immigrated to Canada was surprising to me. It’s not everyday that you get the opportunity to immerse yourself in such diverse cultures and neighbourhoods.

My understanding of ethnic neighbourhoods was truly broaden by this tour, I was surprised by the background of the Strathcona area and many other places on the tour. There is so much history concealed in that part of Vancouver that its incredible we aren’t taught this at school.”

Hey kids, just so you know, this trip is exactly the reason why I love teaching. Thank you for one my favourite moments to date!

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