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There are many ways to tell a story. Some are passed on by grandparents over summer break, others are learned from books either at school or during trips to the library. For Catherine Clement, author and curator of Chinatown Through a Wide Lens: The Hidden Photographs of Yucho Chow, a photo exhibition showcased at the Chinese Cultural Centre in May 2019, and now published into a 344 page book, it took a lot of research and countless volunteer hours to uncover and share the tale of one Vancouver man that encapsulates resilience, strength and cultural significance.
The discovery of Chow’s story started when Clement was interviewing Chinese-Canadian veterans of the Second World War. As those men began to share old photographs, Clement immediately noticed many had something in common: they all came from the studio of Yucho Chow. Curiosity piqued, Clement began to research Chow’s story.
There was not a lot when I googled Yucho Chow’s name back in 2011. It took five years before I found a photo of him. At first, I thought he was just a photographer for early Chinese. But through my research, I discovered he was the preferred photographer for early South Asian and black immigrants arriving from the United States, Central America and Africa, as well as First Nations residents and newly-arrived Eastern Europeans. Basically, Chow was the favoured photographer for many of the early-marginalized communities in Vancouver.
Chow’s Chinatown based studio operated from 1906-1949, a highly tumultuous period in Canadian history. In addition to the global impact of two world wars, and the Great Depression, Chow’s subjects were often the victims of anti-immigrant sentiment and legislation, including the Head Tax imposed by the Federal Government on Chinese immigrants, which levied a fee from each Chinese person entering Canada, as well as the 1907 anti-Asian riots, which reflected a common underlying anti-immigrant attitude within the city, that resulted in extensive damages to Asian-owned property. Yucho Chow also witnessed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923, banning Chinese immigrants except merchants, diplomats, and foreign students from entering Canada.
Upon Chow’s death in 1949, his sons took ownership of his studio until its eventual closure in 1986. Unfortunately, upon closing, 80 years of negatives were lost, and with it, the story behind a lifetime of work. Yucho Chow’s work was everywhere, yet nowhere. Whatever remained of his photographs were hidden away in family albums belonging to people from the various cultural communities with whom Chow had worked.
The people Chow photographed came from all four corners of the earth. They were of different backgrounds, religions, languages and races. But what became obvious through his photographs, is how much all these different people had in common. That was really evident in the exhibition when the photos hung side by side.
Little did Chow know that, over a century later, his work would be part of Vancouver’s cultural legacy, acting as a platform for numerous cultural communities to connect with the narratives of their ancestors, who, back then, had no voice.
Through the story of one man, I was able to discover and tell the story of so many others: everyday people, from many communities, whom Yucho Chow photographed, but whose stories would have otherwise been forgotten.
The public’s response has been overwhelming, and what started as a collection of 80 photographs has grown to over 500.
During the exhibition at the Chinese Cultural Centre in 2019, people started to look into their albums for Yucho Chow’s photos. About 90 per cent of the time, when people gave me a photo, they would tell me a story about someone in the image. Both were important to share.
Clement’s work in gathering and sharing Chow’s images shines a light on the fact that a picture truly is worth a thousand words. Yucho Chow’s photographs are a snapshot of a person’s life. His photographs share the story of a Chinese Canadian World War II hero showing his love for Canada; a young family who have used a month’s savings to commission a photograph; or a recently arrived immigrant who borrowed a suit to look his best for a picture they would send to their families a thousand miles away. Chow’s photographs tell the universal story of life, the story of all of us.
Chinatown Through a Wide Lens: The Hidden Photographs of Yucho Chow is now available as a limited-edition, hardcover book, which can be found at the Eight Treasures Gift Shop at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, or online here.
Images courtesy of Claudette Carracedo and the Yucho Chow Project 2019