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Centre A – Goonj! Being Brown in Chinatown

November 25th, 2015  |  Published in FEATURE, SOCIAL SCIENCES

| Centre A logoLast summer, a friend invited me to an event at Centre A, Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

I had seen Centre A years ago and thought it was a great idea, an excellent addition to Vancouver’s cultural landscape. It existed in the bottom suite of the old Interurban Railway building now the lighting store “Light Form,” at the corner of West Hastings and Carrall and opposite that mysterious, random, single stall bathroom so many of us are curious about and are too chicken to explore. Do you pay to use it? Who actually uses it? Who put it there? Really, why is it there?! Mystery.

Before I had a chance to check Centre A out at that corner, my understanding is, a victim of high rent and politics, it was moved to a more intimate space less Gastown, more Chinatown. 229 East Georgia St., in the heart of Chinatown (a more sensible location anyway given its content), is where the gallery is currently housed and has been for a while now.

The exhibit that night was about the South Asian experience in Vancouver’s Chinatown, early 1900s. South Asians and Chinatown? Something I’d never come across – not in schooling or any social setting for that matter. The only time I had heard about anything South Asian and old Canada was the Komagata Maru and there was no mention of Chinatown there. This would be new and I knew it was something I had to see.

Narrative Convenience
With this exhibit I became more wary of “convenience” as it relates to story-telling. I was reminded of the etymology of “history” and how the essence of the word traces to a single person’s point of view. That person doesn’t have to and probably couldn’t include everything about something that happened. They pick and choose what gets told. Maybe they think their readers are dumb and will get confused if too much is included. Maybe they have an agenda to systematically organize groups in a certain way as a means to better control perceptions. Only the creator knows. As a result, the danger is when someone’s story is believed by so many that something becomes accepted as the one and only truth. Sometimes when something new is revealed it’s a big deal. There being Brown in Chinatown wasn’t an Earth-shattering revelation. It is something, though, that I am glad to have discovered.

Pre-Game and the Exhibit
That evening was hot. I was grateful to be in an air conditioned restaurant for the pre-game show meetup with the same friend who invited me to the event. But the cool air was probably the best part about the place. Well, the service was good too. In short, Sai-Woo needs to step up its food game. Those cola chicken wings were wings with supermarket sauce poured over. Decor was nice. Grabbed a bun from New Town after. Leave for hipsters.

Lost track of time and arrived at Centre A late for the show. No a/c! Trying my best to be as comfortable as circumstances would allow, I was drawn to the reprints of old newspaper pasted top to bottom to a wall near the entrance. This was my introduction to the Hindustanee and Goonj! Being Brown in Chinatown curated by Community Engagement Specialist, Naveen Girn.

“Goonj,” a Punjabi word for “echo,” is basically pronounced the way it looks. It was appropriately applied to the show which featured three artists “engaged with the processes of historical remembering and re-imagining.” In respect of the past and in hope for a better future, it is important for certain stories (like those of early migrants) to be echoed. Such will give stories the permanence they need in order to be heard by future generations which will consider them in their own context and preserve and build on the cultural richness that diversity affords.

Today, we have the luxury of easily producing information. We can take advantage of this to minimize the risk of distortion that comes with the passing down of histories in an oral fashion. Indeed, it is a tragedy when the only evidence of a story is the absence of evidence. Such is the case with South Asian and East Asian and also Aboriginal relations from long ago. At the same time I was introduced to amazing archival material with Goonj!, I dreamed of what could have been known and remembered if only more had been documented.

The Title and “Brown”
It is interesting how colour markers are adopted by cultural groups to categorize themselves or others. Equally interesting is seeing who uses the terms. Growing up in elementary school I didn’t hear a lot of “brown.” I did start to though as I met a lot of those of South Asian descent in high-school. To my knowledge, many of Middle-Eastern descent use “brown” as well, although I find this less common. I almost always hear this used by group members (never really by anyone outside the group) in a way that links to solidarity, confidence, and pride. And I think this is great considering socio-political divisions that can exist within the larger group. When “brown” started being used as a categorical term is unknown. Some speculate that it stemmed from an affinity for African American pop-culture in the 80s and 90s where usage of “black” was widespread. If anyone can speak to this, send us a message!

To continue, “black” commonly references those of pan-African lineage and gets used by internal and external members in all contexts; “white,” same. However, Asians and Latinos do not use a colour term. For Asians, maybe it is because a marker was used in the past but it was negative so there was not really a good reason to continue using it. You come across it here and there, but its usage is not nearly as widespread as with “brown,” “black,” or “white.” In terms of Latinos or other groups I may have missed, I got nothing. Again, if anyone out there has some insight into how the application of colour terms to people has evolved over time, let us know! Most curious.

The Hindustanee, Hussain Rahim, Intercultural Relations
As for the Hindustanee, it was founded in the earlier part of the 1900s and was created to provide a voice for South Asians seeking change in a world where their fundamental rights and freedoms were largely controlled and limited by another group. It was one of the revolutionary papers travelling up and down the coast of North America as part of the Gadhar (Punjabi for “revolt” or “rebellion”) movement which fought for Indian independence.

Digging deeper into the demographics of Vancouver at the time, I was surprised to discover the amount of diversity back then — and I mean cultural, not gender-based. In a city of one hundred thousand, those of East Asian and South Asian descent made up about thirty thousand. I’m not sure how many were Aboriginal, but really that’s a pretty mixed bag for those times, something I didn’t expect. Husain Rahim, who founded the Hindustanee, was one of those 100,000. Rahim was a man of the world and had even lived in Kobe, Japan for 15 years as a cotton merchant before coming to Canada. Nevermind his life in Canada, how interesting for a South Asian to be living in Japan back then!

Although it’s not clear what ties he had to Islam exactly, what intrigues me about how Rahim fit into the landscape is that he presumably was a Muslim but he worked alongside a relatively large population of Sikhs as a community leader. One of his posts was head of the temple that South Asians, regardless of faith, went to worship and generally gather and socialize. Was nice to hear that religious tension wasn’t, at least in this specific time and place, what it has been at other bloodier times in history. And so we had this kind of inter-cultural collaboration. And what’s more is that this happened in Chinatown which of course precipitated even more types of intercultural exchange.

The Chinese restaurants were open to patrons from all walks of life; others, for example in Gastown, were closed-minded. The Hindustanee documented many of the reactions South Asians had to Canada including those food related. Simon Fraser University has, in their digital archives, a collection of Hindustanee issues. I’m awaiting a reply on where the other issues are exactly as I only came across the first two. I hope to discover more commentary, especially on those restaurants. Stay tuned for that.

The Rest of the Exhibit
As for the rest of the exhibit, once I got past the wall near the entrance, a few small steps later, I was around the corner and found myself in a packed room: people standing all around, people sitting all around and occupying most of the floor space. Varying degrees of sweat. I was kind of glad I came late. After hearing some brief readings, people cleared out and there was finally time to look around with more freedom.

Yule Ken Lum’s cyanotype made from several different types of blue jeans impressed me a great deal. It is special and important in so many ways:

(1) Inspired by the story of his mother who, as an immigrant labourer, sewed jeans in Vancouver for over 30 years, he speaks to labour histories evoking thoughts of the challenges that come with first generation migrants.

(2) We uncover the intercultural inclusion of South Asians in a narrative so many of us thought only involved East Asians. With South Asians being such a vital part of the cultural vibrancy of Vancouver, we can see that exchanges between them and other groups go back even further than we first thought.

(3) From a technical standpoint, he expertly utilized the different colours of denim to replicate the tones in the century-old photo that informed the work.

(4) It reminds us that there could always be more to know.

One could go on.

While the other works didn’t resonate with me on the same level as Ken’s — I would have loved to know more about them — they nonetheless had an important role in holding the Goonj! exhibit together evoking notions of identity, social justice, activism, and the fight for basic rights, equality and the pursuit of opportunity. This show has become a springboard for learning and has opened the door to a fascinating time. Please do reach out to us if you know of any stories involving intercultural exchange during this period! We’d love to hear from you.

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11214285_906167476096735_8612267101199367073_nImage Credit – National Archives of Canada


Yule Ken Lum, the Anonymous and Present Sikh Man

Jagdep Raina employs charcoal and paint to refashion an archival photo depicting Sikh men crossing Main Street, an everyday occurrence.

Nisha Kaur Sembi connects times during the Gadhar movement through pop art and graffiti styling (above and next three images).




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