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The New Gallery: More than 90 years of Chinatown’s history mapped in 3D

A new online visualization combining art and architecture is giving Calgarians a new way to explore the rich history of Chinatown.

Reflective Urbanism: Mapping Calgary Chinatown connects the history of Calgary’s Chinese community through a 3D map and renderings of buildings, past and present.

The project by New York-based artist and architect Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong was created as part of the Calgary Chinatown Artist Residency with the City of Calgary and The New Gallery.

Viewers can see oral histories of the community, portraits, photographs, and a variety of other media going back to 1910. That’s the year that Chinatown was forced to relocate for a second time when the Canadian Pacific Railway proposed to build its rail station and the Palliser hotel.

“I think this project, just like the history of Calgary, Chinatown is not straightforward. It’s complex—there’s so many layers of information,” said Wong.

Wong began the project while doing her two-month artist residency in early 2020. During that time, she met with community members and studied the history and architecture of Chinatown.

“It was really crucial for me to meet with different Calgary Chinatown community members. Being able to walk around the buildings and listen to the stories, to document the building in person, to kind of understand the rhythm of the building, the rhythm of the site, and the vicinity of buildings to each other,” she said.

“Even just taking these portraits of people in front of their building was super, super important.”

The map is available at www.reflective-urbanisms.com.

The New Gallery is also hosting a virtual launch of Reflective Urbanism: Mapping Calgary Chinatown at 4 p.m. on Jan. 27. Tickets are free, and are available through Eventbrite.

Wong will be discussing the project with her collaborators at the virtual event. Community members Carol Poon and Doug Wong will be sharing stories about Chinatown.

Turning history into digital art

Wong said that although she has done many more physical art installations, this is one of the few that she has done that is completely digital.

“My background is I’m an artist and a trained architect. So my practice is really at this intersection between the two,” she said.

“In my practice, I use a lot of 3D modeling, and these kinds of tools to work through my design process, so I think it made sense to put the buildings online.”

She said bringing that kind of accessibility to the web was new for her. It offered an opportunity to push the boundaries on how people could explore history.

“That tells us a story about these changes in ownership, changes in era, and these social and political changes,” said Wong.

One of the examples of the ownership, social, and political changes was the transformation of the land where the Harry Hays federal building is now.

“I think with the Harry Hayes building, that was a very difficult experience for the Calgary Chinatown community,” she said.

Using fire insurance maps from 1911 and 1965 she was able to piece together what the community looked like before the federal building was built there in the 1970s.

“All of these little residences, shops, and buildings were demoed to make way for this city building that in the end, the city decided to put their entrance riverside which sort of put the buildings back towards Chinatown.”

She said that history is reflected in feelings among members of Chinatown’s community to this day.

“There’s a lot of this kind of like weird sentiment, discomfort that happened with this building being put in place.”

The importance of history

Wong said that it’s important for visitors to Chinatown to understand the rich history of the area.

“I think people often will come in and say, ‘Hey, I’m just going to get something to eat,’ and then they leave,” she said.

“But there’s so much more to it. And it’s not just about the buildings. And it’s not just about Chinatown as a place, but it’s about a community.”

Wong said she was fascinated by the people she met and the stories they told. One example is the history of the Linda Mae building. It’s now the Visions Eye Care building on Centre Street and 3 Avenue SW.

“I met with a community member named Carol Poon, and her family basically built the Linda Mae’s building,” she said.

“If you look at old photographs of Calgary Chinatown back in the 50s and 60s, the Linda Mae’s coffee shop is one of the most iconic buildings … back in the day, that was a restaurant/coffee shop, and it was the heart of Chinatown.”

Georgina Poon Lee, in an interview with Wong that’s available on the Reflective Urbanisms: Mapping Calgary Chinatown, talked about that experience as a community hub.

“Anybody walked in, like employees from Calgary Power, or local Chinese folks. Everyone came, including Caucasians and Chinese. All were welcomed,” she said.

Poon Lee was the daughter of Arline Koo and Chong Him Poon, the owners of Linda Mae’s.

Memories come to life

Wong said that during her interview with Carol and Jasmine Poon, the trio sketched out the floor plan of cafe.

“This is a diagram that’s actually on the website, under the Linda Mae building. We started sketching the route through the building where the kitchen was, where she remembers the soda fountains and the pie case being, and these small spatial details triggered all of these memories,” said Wong.

“It was a community hub, it was more than just a structure. And I think that story starts to come out when you’re looking at the interview, and the renders of the building changing over time, how the family put in money into renovating it putting a larger sign up. It talks about changes of the time, like neon becoming a trend at the time,” she said.

“So there’s all these small little things that that add to this bigger picture of the Calgary Chinatown story.”

That interview can be viewed on Wong’s YouTube page.