Exploring the evolution of Calgary’s Chinatown at a new Heritage Park exhibit
Good fortune was bestowed upon Heritage Park on Saturday ahead of the opening of a new exhibit.
We Were Here: Stories From Early Chinatown opens to the public on Jan. 14 and explores the history of Chinatown—which is currently in its third location.
During a sneak preview event, members of the local Chinese community performed a traditional lion dance.
Three colourful and energetic lions—with two dancers donning each of the costumes—put on a show for the crowd, spreading joy and good luck.
An emotional moment
It was an emotional moment for Dale Lee Kwong, who co-curated the We Were Here exhibit.
“I cried through the whole lion dance, just to see my culture represented,” Kwong says.
“When did you ever think you would see lion dancers at Gasoline Alley at Heritage Park? It’s just super exciting and it’s a thrill and I’m so glad that I got involved with this.”
Clothing that once belonged to Kwong’s grandmother is part of We Were Here, and there is a nod to her father’s Food-Vale Store #2, which is now Sunterra Market in Britannia.
Kwong was also one of five writers chosen to write a story for the exhibit.
Not many records
Lougheed House first created the exhibit in 2021 and put out a call for artists to imagine Calgary’s first and second Chinatowns, as records are few and far between.
Kwong wrote a fictionalized story about Jimmy Smith, a real-life Chinese Calgarian who lived in the town in the 1880s.
Smith had tuberculosis and before his death, he updated his will to include a donation that contributed to the building of Calgary’s first general hospital.
Kwong says it’s sad that we don’t know Smith’s real name.
“In the history books, it says Jimmy Smith was happy to be called Jimmy Smith. That’s a colonial interpretation. So I wanted to reimagine that story, that narrative,” she says.
Sharing important stories
Kwong ended up imagining and writing a romantic story about Smith, which includes a woman who is a character in her Chinatown walking tour.
However, Kwong admits the timeline of her fictional story is wrong as there were no Chinese women in Calgary at the time Smith lived here.
Regardless, Kwong says it’s important to share stories about Chinatown.
“History is changing,” she says.
“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.”
Collaboration between heritage sites
Kwong worked with Heritage Park’s chief curator, Kesia Kvill, to add more to Lougheed House’s original We Were Here exhibit.
“The original had history panels and a lot of really fantastic images from archives, and then some art that was created to accompany some stories that were written by the Chinese community,” Kvill says.
“We were able to add some artifacts from Heritage Park that we had in our laundry, as well as some that had never been taken out since we had them donated in the 90s.”
After the exhibit closed at Lougheed House, Kvill says it had a stint at the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre before moving to Heritage Park.
“It’s really exciting that we can work together as a community of heritage sites and feature each other’s work.”
We Were Here will be housed inside Heritage Park’s Gasoline Alley until April 30.
Kvill hopes those who attend will discover something new about Chinatown and be inspired to learn more.
“And to themselves then go explore Chinatown and have interactions with people in a different area that they may never have been to,” she says, adding the evolution of Chinatown is significant.
“Originally, it was a kind of a place of segregation, it was a place where they had to go. But then eventually, it becomes a place where they are thriving in their culture and their community, which is a really wonderful way that Chinatowns have changed from places of a difference to places of cultural celebration.”
The area continues to evolve through three city projects known as Tomorrow’s Chinatown.