The exhibit highlighting the role of food in the Chinese-Canadian community
Emma Mendez (she/her/they/them) // Culture Editor
Currently at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) and Chinatown, A Seat at the Table is part of an inaugural temporary project in collaboration with the Chinese Canadian Museum. Which explores the stories and perspectives of Chinese Canadians in so-called B.C, through both a contemporary and historical lens. The exhibit focuses on the challenges and struggles of belonging experienced by Chinese Canadians as well as the importance of food on a cultural and community level.
Denise Fong (she/her) is one of three co-curators along with Viviane Gosselin, Henry Yu and is currently a PhD candidate at UBC. Her role ranged from overseeing the research, historical input on development of content, working with students from UBCs Chinese Canadian Studies program and the Center for Digital Media, language translation, as well as a portion of the curation.
The exhibit this year, although multidisciplinary, has a strong focus on oral history videos. Fong highlighted, because “there’s very little in terms of what museums and archives collect… to tell the story of Chinese Canadians,” she said. While Fong explained that most of the collections found in museums are focused on waves of Chinese immigration from the 1960s and earlier, there’s a lack of documentation and content on recent waves of immigration, post-sixties and their experiences in so-called BC. She sees the oral history video portion of the exhibit as playing an important role in filling this gap.
Fong explained, “working with different community members of the Chinese-Canadian community was essential in telling the community’s stories.” She elaborated, “I think a lot of the content that we have really helps us understand more about Chinese Canadian experiences in the present day,” said Fong, “especially given that we were curating the exhibition in a time of strong anti-Asian racism and COVID.”
The topic of food in relation to the Chinese-Canadian community is front and center this year, and was significant historically as well as still is today. Not only because of the relationship between food, family, culture, tradition, and identity — although Fong expressed that aspect was extremely important. But also because the relationship to the exclusion and discrimination of Asian Canadians, in particular Chinese Canadians in this case.
Due to the rampant racism and discrimination in many places around the province, having your own family business was the only way Chinese Canadians could have stable work or work that was not under an employer, where discrimination and racism was accepted and normal. Having one’s own family business “was also an integral part of supporting the Chinese Canadian community,” said Fong.
Food continues to be an important part of the Chinese Canadian community. Chinatown, Fong pointed out, “is still going through a very tough period [of being stigmatized],” Fong continues, “when the pandemic just started, a lot of businesses suffered, Chinatown businesses too…it’s been a huge struggle to see them trying to survive also saddening to see a lot of important restaurants and cafes close down,” Fong said, pointing out the loss of Chinese Canadian restaurants as important community spaces. “That was one of the discoveries for me, the legacy of culture, especially for immigrants,” she shared.
Although a temporary exhibit, the power of community storytelling is what Fong hopes will be the legacy of A Seat at the Table. She shared that there are parts of the exhibit where community members can write notes, or record their own story. “We’ve actually seen that people are excited to have a space that they can feel represented, that their stories are important,” she pointed out, “people don’t often recognize that their stories are important… folks from immigrant communities don’t feel their lived experiences are of any value.”
Fong hopes that A Seat at the Table can contribute towards making Chinese Canadians and other racialized immigrants recognize their importance, while also emphasizing the importance of documenting and sharing stories and memories that community members and elders have.
To book your visit at the Chinatown location and MOV, you can visit their websites. The exhibit will run until January 2023.