New exhibit at Calgary’s Heritage Park shares history of Chinatown

A new exhibit in Calgary will share the history of Chinatown, which has faced tragedy, racism, and relocation. Taylor Braat reports.

A new exhibit in Calgary will share the history of Chinatown, whose residents have faced tragedy, racism, and relocation.

Lion dancers dazzled guests of the sneak-a-peak unveiling of the new exhibit in Calgary on Saturday. Its called We Were Here: Stories from Early Chinatown, about the community’s persevering history.

The Lion Dance is usually performed during the New Year, the first few days of the Chinese New Year, to attract good luck and keep evil spirits away.

The dance can also be performed at other celebrations, where the dancers may be accompanied by drum musicians and flutes. To bring good luck, in some of the performances, the lions may try to bite people on the head.

It is usually made up of 10 dancers.

“When did you ever think you would see Lion dancers at Gasoline Alley at Heritage Park?” said Dale Lee Kwong, one of the curators and an advocate for the community.

Lee Kwong also wrote a story about real Chinese Calgarian Jimmy Smith as part of her contribution.

“He was dying of tuberculosis and in his will, he left a donation to the Calgary hospital fund, which had been languishing for years. Calgary was a town then, and no hospital, so that revived the hospital fund, and his donation is recognized as something that contributed to the building of Calgary’s first general hospital,” she explained.

Calgarians know their Chinatown is filled with culture, however, the history is lesser known. For example, this is the third and final location Chinatown has been in. It had to move as it faced hardship such as tragedy and discrimination.

The Chinese Calgarians formed a community, as they couldn’t afford for their families to migrate here.

The first Chinatown was set up near 8 Avenue and 2 Street, when there was a head tax placed on Chinese Calgarians — mostly male railroad workers. The tax grew from $50 to $500.

Then a fire ripped through their community, and they moved just south of 9 Avenue, but the building of the railroad displaced them again. This time they moved to the Centre Street area near the Bow River where it is now. Even that was a struggle due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was in place until 1947.

“Exhibits like these that embrace the culture is a really good thing,” said Alex So, Lion dancer and attendee.

Dozens of people walked through the preview, dazzled by the information, stories, and artifacts, including So.

“This is kind of a good taste of what we can learn from the past and then make better decisions in the future with any types of discrimination,” said So.

“The community has been here since there’s been a Calgary. They’ve been around as long as the rest of us, who are immigrants to the area. And they built that railway, and then they came and served the community in jobs that other people didn’t necessarily want to do,” said Kesia Kvill, chief curator of Heritage Park.

“History is changing, we all grew up with the colonial interpretation of history, and now there is more interest in Indigenous, Black, and marginalized communities, of which the Chinese community is one,” said Lee Kwong.

We Were Here will open on Jan. 14 at Heritage Park until April.

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