January 21 – June 10, 2022
A Glimpse into Chinatown
A Glimpse into Chinatown, January 21 – June 10, 2022
Photography by Angeline Simon.
The University of Lethbridge Art Gallery is pleased to present this new exhibition by Lethbridge-based artist Angeline Simon. We commissioned the artwork as part of a mentorship in social practice with Alana Bartol, associated with her project Processes of Remediation: art, relationships, nature that culminated in an exhibition in the Hess gallery in 2010. The structure of the mentorship had to change drastically due to restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Creating the relationship between Simon and Bartol took on added importance during the isolation and emotional pressure of lockdowns and lack of in-person contact.
Simon was already showing exceptional promise when she was a student at the University of Lethbridge. The rare combination of her thoughtful approach to social issues and technical skill caught my attention. Since graduating in 2018, she has continued to explore connections between historical and contemporary ideas by juxtaposing archival images with her own recent photographs.
Working with Alana Bartol as a mentor, Simon was able to take on a major new project in which she addresses anti-Asian racism in Lethbridge through her haunting images of the architecture of the former Chinatown along with archival texts and objects. Simon’s beautiful, poetic images and personal approach in A Glimpse into Chinatown creates a compelling connection for viewers to the ongoing legacy of race relations in our region.
When I moved to Lethbridge in 2003 with my Chinese-Malaysian mother, we would shop at the Asian Supermarket and Bow On Tong to purchase specialty food and household items that weren’t easily found at other stores. Although Chinatown only had one store for my mother to shop at, it provided her with the opportunity to meet other Chinese folks such as Albert Leong in a small city where she didn’t have many Chinese friends. Bow On Tong was a little slice of home for my mother; a place where she felt familiarity.
Alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen rising anti-Asian racism and xenophobia in western countries prompting many cities to protest against Asian hate. In the absence of a Lethbridge rally to protest this violence, I turned my curiosity to the beginnings of Lethbridge’s Chinese history. With the help of the Galt Museum and Archives, Albert Leong – previous owner of Bow On Tong, Belinda Crowson of the Lethbridge Historical Society and archived newspaper articles, I began collecting photographs and stories that offered a glimpse into Chinatown.
Bow on Tong and Kwong on Lung (316 and 318 2 Ave South) are two buildings central to this exhibition that were owned by Albert and his family from 1926 until 2021. Both buildings have been designated as provincial historic resources as they played a vital role in Lethbridge’s formative years. These two buildings served the early Chinese residents of Lethbridge with a grocery store, restaurant, Chinese herbal medicine shop and a boarding house. What was once a bustling block of Chinese businesses has now died down to an almost empty quiet street.
Due to structural instability, Albert’s buildings were condemned in 2013. Efforts by multiple groups and organizations had been made to try and save Bow On Tong and Kwong on Lung – but to no avail as they could not raise enough money. In the spring of 2021, both buildings were put up for sale. Not knowing what would happen to them, I was able to document both interiors in hopes of preserving some memories of the spaces. Albert Leong, described as “the last man in Chinatown” was born in the basement of Bow On Tong and graciously gave me a variety of small medicine bottles that date back to the days when his father Way Leong sold Chinese herbal medicine (1926-1960s). Although Albert never learned Chinese medicinal practices, he held onto these artifacts and curiosities, giving tours to school groups and sharing Chinatown’s history to anyone who would lend an ear. These photographs and objects formed the basis of this exhibition, allowing me to piece together moments of Chinatown’s past and present that I was searching for.
Digging through the digital archives of the Lethbridge Herald, I found articles on the 1907 Christmas Riot and Bylaw 83, two of which are included in this exhibition. Both events had an impact on our Chinese community, and shaped the development and locations of Chinese owned businesses. The third newspaper article is from The New York Times archives, reminding me that Lethbridge tends to only make international headlines when a terrible occurrence takes place. I sourced two political cartoons in this exhibition from the BC Saturday Sunset newspaper to paint a picture of the political climate of Western Canada in the early 1900’s. Between the cartoons is a Certificate of Chinese Immigration, on loan from the collection of the Galt Museum and Archives – a remnant of the head-tax imposed on all Chinese immigrants from 1885-1923, a period of almost 40 years.
With permission from the Galt Museum Archives, I scanned photographs of Chinatown from their collection to incorporate into my work. Merging these archival images with my own photographs of Chinatown asks viewers to consider the many lives and stories that have touched these places. These buildings may seem like empty ruins today, but previously, they were a place of refuge. Chinatown could provide sanctuary, comfort and familiarity for a marginal community in times of prejudice and hardship. Although much time has passed, this sleepy row of buildings on 2nd Avenue South were once intimate spaces so important to a marginal Chinese community and deserve to be celebrated and remembered as a fundamental part of our city.