Off the Wall: Vancouver Chinatown’s New Murals Come to Life

Three new murals on Columbia Street at East Pender Street are close to completion.They are painted on the west facing walls of a building.  Awnings provide some cover from the sun. Each vignette depicts  life sized Chinese people in a specific year: 1884, 1936, and 1905. The use of perspective creates an optical illusion of depth, blurring the boundaries of time. It is as if pedestrians walking by could step off present day concrete sidewalks and onto the wooden floors of the past.The wooden floors unify the murals, and the plank lines create a vanishing point, further accentuating the illusion of depth and drawing the viewer in.

Human figures, garbed in historical clothes, are painted in vibrant colours and pop out from mono-toned backgrounds of yellow, orange and lavendar. Less detailed and mono-toned backgrounds evoke nostalgia for the past, similiar to the effect of seeing sepia toned photographs.

1) 1884: Wah Chong Laundry

The artist pauses to assesses his work. Check out what he’s holding in his left hand:

The artist holds a photograph in his hand.

The mural is a reproduction of a historical photograph. The artist is on site at random times and I have not seen him yet. It was J. who saw him, spoke to him briefly,  and took the above photo.

Fortuitous things happen to those born under the lucky nerd star. I happen to have the book the artist photocopied this photograph from: Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver by Paul Yee, 1988 — I borrowed it from the library last week.

Origins of the book title:

Saltwater City was the name that the early Chinese gave Vancouver to differentiate it from the older mainland city of New Westminster by the freshwater Fraser River. But that name, Hahm-sui-fau, is now rarely used; the sound-alike Wen-go-wa is Vancouver’s Chinese name. (p.6)

City of Vancouver Archives (Item Number: SGN 435.1)

The above photograph titled, Wah Chong family outside laundry business on Water Street, was taken in 1884.  Wah Chong laundry was located on Water Street between Abbott and Carrall Street. What is so special about this?

1. They were in business before the city of Vancouver came into being in 1886.

2. This was taken before 1885 when the first Head Tax was imposed on the Chinese, effectively blocking immigration from China. Family groups like the Wah Chong’s which included a wife and children would become a rare sight.

3. Laundries are a part of Chinese immigrant history. Many Chinese people in Canadian cities went into the laundry business because start up costs were low (you only needed a stove to heat water and space to hang clothes) and other professions were closed to them.

4. One of the girls pictured above is Jennie Wah Chong who was the first Chinese to attend school in Vancouver. (See Vancouver Courier online article, One family’s Struggle, April 23, 2001)

The Wah Chong photograph is the subject of a 4 page article by Peter Seixas, a professor at UBC, titled, Doing History with Wah Chong’s Washing and Ironing (Canadian Issues, October 2006). Read it if you like, but I can’t endorse it because Seixas gets puzzled by questions like:

“The family’s position suggests that they were all involved in the work of laundry and ironing. Ironing! In this frontier outpost, who sent their clothing out to be pressed into straight creases?” (p.1)

Who doesn’t like a clean, pressed shirt?  I’m pretty sure the many wealthy merchants back then enjoyed clean, crisp shirts. And a further point is that sending out laundry was not exclusive to the rich, single men with limited access to washing facilities also patronized Chinese laundries:

“In an era before automatic washing machines, doing laundry was hard work. Water needed to be boiled, clothes hand-scrubbed and shirts starched in order to be ironed smooth. Anyone who could afford it would send out their laundry to be done. In cities, single men worked in factories, banks and offices. They lived in boarding houses or apartment hotels and they too needed their clothes washed.”

(Quoted from The Early Chinese Canadians from The Library and Archives Canada)

But that’s enough about that. Let’s get back to the murals and hangout with a bunch of old guys on a corner.

2) 1936: Seated Men on Corner

This is the 1936 mural. A bag of art supplies casually left on the floor heightens the blur between real and painted space.

This mural reminded me of another photograph I saw while flipping through Saltwater City:

City of Vancouver Archives (Item Number: Bu N158.2)

The above photograph titled, Men sitting outside shallow building at Pender and Carrall Streets, was taken in 1936. Three figures in the photograph are immediately recognizable in the mural. The postures of the two seated men with crossed legs and the man standing closest to them are reproduced in the mural. The perspective is altered to give a frontal view of the men, and the glass brick floors are substituted for wooden boards.

These men are sitting in front of the Sam Kee building located at 8 West Pender Street. It was built by Chang Toy in 1913 and named after his company. It still stands today and at 58 inches wide, it is famous for being the narrowest commercial building in the world. The building is 100 feet long and sits on a six foot wide lot. The story is that Chang Toy was a stubborn man. He bought the land in 1903 as a standard-sized lot and when the city widened Pender Street in 1912 and expropriated 24 feet of the lot, Chang Toy refused to sell. Instead, he hired architects who added space by designing seven second floor bay windows and a basement which extends beneath the sidewalk windows.

In 1936, the Sam Kee building had multiple uses:  the top story was living quarters; the ground floor for offices and shops; and the basement housed public baths for men. Glass brick tiles in the sidewalk let light into the bathhouse. Many homes in the neighbourhood didn’t have running hot water and bachelors lived in rooms with limited washing facilities. Sam Kee became a popular spot where men could have a bath for $0.25.

Apparently,  as you can see, there was a food stand there too. If you ever travel back in time and want a hot dog and an ice cold Hires root beer, you know where to go.

The corner where the 1936 photograph was taken.

Jack Chow Insurance now owns the Sam Kee building.

These gentlemen await final touches.

This photo was taken July 21, 2010

A local (left) gave an enthusiastic account of the project’s progress:

I saw this old guy sketching, sketching for days and then suddenly, BAM! It was done.

3) 1905: Man in a Suit

The 1905 mural is a mystery. I do not know the origins of this scene but like the other two,  it may be based on a photograph. The background of this mural is more detailed and has a greater depth that the other two.  I am guessing that this setting is a store front with living quarters above.  The cut off Chinese characters might read 源利 which is likely a name. I will have to track down the artist to get the scoop.

On Painting Style

Close up of a girl from the Wah Chong Laundry mural.

A comparison of the same figure from Wah Chong Laundry mural and the photograph shows that the painted faces do resemble the historical people.

Close up of a girl from the Wah Chong Laundry photograph.

The rounding of this girl’s face and ruddy colouring of her cheeks reminds me of Chinese propaganda posters made during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976. Chinese propaganda art from this period was informed by social realism, an art style started in the Soviet Union in the 1930’s and popularly used in works of art in communist countries. The purpose of social realist art was to further the goals of socialism and communism, and works typically illustrated clear instructional messages.

The mural paintings are not social realist art by any means, as they are paintings of photographs. I bring this subject up only because flushed cheeks remind me of robust peasants.

We do battle in wide open space.

Note the rounded face and ruddy cheeks which symbolized the wholesomeness and vigorous health of peasants.

Women’s firearms class.

I’m including this because it’s odd and cool. Bamboo leaf guerrilla headgear is something I haven’t seen before.

On the Artist: Arthur Shu Ren Cheng

Photo of Arthur Shu Ren Cheng taken July 24, 2010.

The problem with writing a blog post over a few days is that new information has to be woven in. This afternoon I walked by the murals and saw the artist at work. I introduced myself and chatted with Arthur Shu Ren Cheng in Cantonese. Mr. Cheng is a Canadian citizen and has lived here for over 20 years.  He was born in China and originally trained as a sculptor and he is also accomplished as a muralist.  He is well known for the memorial monument dedicated to Chinese-Canadian veterans and railway workers at Columbia and Keefer Street. Another highly visible piece by Mr Cheng is the 23 x 16 foot mural by Millenium gate. The Century’s Winds of Change mural spans 100 years of history and depicts important historical figures. I will have to include photos of these two works at a later time.

Let’s get back to the three murals in progress. I asked Mr. Cheng about the 1905 mystery mural.  He confirmed that it was based on a photograph of a shop on Pender Street  owned by a man called Lee Chong. Unfortunately he did not have the photograph with him.

The mural project was initiated by the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association. Mr. Cheng worked on the idea and selected the photographs himself. His working title translates to “An Instant in History Comes to Life.” On the subject of the murals he said:

“I want to convey that Chinatown is still young. There is a long history here that is unbroken and continues on. When people walk by, I want them to think about how they fit into this history.  Reproducing a photograph is not the point. The crucial aspect behind my work is the concept of having these historical figures come to life and interact with people in the present. I create compositions based on these photographs and paint these historical figures in such a way so that they appear to come to life.”

Mr. Cheng says he will still be working on the murals for another couple of weeks. If you’re in the neighbourhood, you should go see him at work. But be warned, he is only there at random times.


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11 Responses to Off the Wall: Vancouver Chinatown’s New Murals Come to Life

  1. curiousdomestic July 24, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

    What a cool post 8) i love murals, and Vancouver has lots of nice ones. Thanks for sharing more about local history and the artist, too!

  2. Henry July 24, 2010 at 6:52 pm #

    Have walked past the artist and murals in the making … never thought to talk to the artist. Thanks so much for this informative post.

  3. Zoe July 25, 2010 at 4:59 pm #

    I’m glad you guys liked it! Mr. Cheng was very friendly. I’m thinking about interviewing him about his other works in the neighbourhood.

  4. Phanyxx July 27, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    What a fascinating article, thanks! These murals are great… I hope that people respect the artist and avoid tagging up the walls with graffiti.

  5. lilz July 27, 2010 at 2:47 pm #

    thanks for the info. sadly the city scrapped its mural program but great to have these ones in progress. I’ll have to get down to see them. chinatown needs to have its history highlighted like this. great for the city.

  6. Jonathan Shea July 27, 2010 at 3:33 pm #

    Walked past the mural today … its almost near completion.

  7. Andreas Susana July 28, 2010 at 2:37 pm #

    Thanks for this great article. I love the idea to paint walls that way. Esp I am impressed by the idea to bring the past onto the wall.

  8. Gillian August 29, 2011 at 9:13 am #

    Great article, good to get some insight on the mural and the artist. I love this work.

  9. hellaD September 22, 2011 at 8:26 am #

    Oh this is fantastic! I’am gonna have to check out these murals next time I’m in Chinatown. Thanks for all the great information and all of the images you have posted here. I really liked the one of the ladies in bamboo leaf head gear!


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