We Were and Still Are Here: The Story of Chinatown

Down Memory Lane: Daisy Eng, left, and Carolyne Walker, right, are a mother and daughter in Calgary, Alta., who enjoy spending their time learning about Chinese history. Eng and Walker were at the Gasoline Alley Museum on Jan. 22, 2023, browsing through the museum and reliving history as they share first-hand experiences of their early arrivals in Chinatown. (Melodie Mutombo/The Press)

T he exhibit We Were Here: Stories from Early Chinatown takes Calgarians on a historic journey exploring the hardships of Chinese newcomers.

The Gasoline Alley Museum is hosting a four-month exhibition dedicated to educating Calgarians about the history of early Chinese residents in Chinatown. 

“I like that the Chinese culture is being taught to other cultures,”  said Bin Feng, a recent immigrant to Canada and volunteer at the Gasoline Alley museum. “It is not only limited to Europeans, as we all contributed to the history of Canada.”

Feng is among many others at the museum including storyteller Lexie Angelo, illustrator Jarett Sitter and staff and organizers who hope this exhibition will serve as a reminder that Chinatown and its people are a vital part of Calgary’s downtown history. 

“My mother is Chinese, growing up in Chinatown I didn’t think there was enough information out there about the history of the Chinese within Canada,” said illustrator and animator Jarett Sitter. “Despite all the early contributions they made, it was a thing that I wasn’t taught a lot—basically nothing about it in school.”

Sitter also recalls the difficulties he experienced creating visuals for the Chinese exhibition. 

“One of the challenges with illustrating events associated with that early time period, especially in relation to the Chinese community, is that there’s not a lot of photo documentation I can reference,” said Sitter. “The history of Chinatown, which is a vital part of what makes up our city and such an important piece of history, isn’t talked about enough.” 

In the midst of the challenges, Sitter hopes his visuals will encourage people to take the initiative to look into the history themselves and listen to the stories of what Chinese people had to endure.

Daisy Eng, a Chinese Calgarian, also shares a similar struggle being a Chinese Canadian, born and raised in Calgary.

I’m dealing with stereotypes, dealing with what people perceive as normal, whatever that would be for a Chinese,” said Eng, whose grandparents immigrated to Canada during the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act. “People make assumptions that because you’re not Caucasian, you must be a recent immigrant to Canada, and therefore are not familiar with social norms, societal rules and things that pertain specifically to Calgary. – Daisy Eng

Lexie Angelo, the author behind George Lam’s story, From Canton to Calgary, hopes the exhibition will emphasize the importance of educating the youth to preserve Chinatown as the older generations are retiring. 

“Chinatown is not a place that gets to be here forever. It’s always at risk of development. So having the next generation of business owners and people in that area is really important to maintain the parks, heritage, and streets,” said Angelo. 

The exhibition is located at the Gasoline Alley Museum in Heritage Park and is open to the public until Apr. 30, 2023.

About Melodie Mutombo 4 Articles
As a news reporting and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Melodie Mutombo is working as a writer for The Press in 2022-23.