In this conversation critic Brandon Leung discusses with photographer Morris Lum the political and historical resonances of Chinatown for diasporic Chinese in North America, focusing on the significance of a vernacular form of representation.

Everywhere that Chinese diasporic communities have taken root, chances are that one will come upon a Chinatown. While Chinatowns predate the advent of photography—the first Chinatowns were established in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries in southeast Asia, at Binondo in Manila, Hoi An in Vietnam, and Glodok in Indonesia, respectively—these ethnic enclaves have featured prominently in photography from the nineteenth century onward in works made by amateurs and professional artists alike. Notably Singapore-based photographer Zhuang Wubin follows the paths of Chinese migrants in Southeast Asia in several notable projects.1 Indeed cultural critic Ien Ang observes that Chinatowns are a global phenomenon with multiple meanings.2 As such local contexts need to be examined carefully when considering the visual tropes of these spaces. Ang adds that, in the contemporary moment, understanding the significance of Chinatowns around the world also needs to take account of discourses of threat and opportunity that have become entrenched in response to the ascendance of China as a world power. Chinatowns' meanings are as varied as the diasporic Chinese communities who inhabit, traverse, and remember these spaces.

In Canada and the United States, Chinatowns were ethnic enclaves that emerged in the nineteenth century out of necessity. Not only did exclusion laws limit the numbers of Chinese who were permitted to come to Canada and the US, but discriminatory practices also restricted where diasporic Chinese could live and where they could work. Many early Chinese immigrants were pushed to the margins of cities by white settler society as a form of segregation.3 Yet they became cultural hubs for these immigrants and for the generations after them. Businesses, restaurants, and community organizations that clustered in these Chinatowns provided opportunities for the diaspora to share resources, make a living, preserve heritage, and establish a sense of belonging. Chinatowns were a means of providing support and survival. But just like the unceded Indigenous lands these diasporic Chinese communities occupy on Turtle Island, Chinatowns continued to be displaced; many Chinatowns faced threats of demolition and are now affected by gentrification.4

Though often perceived by tourists as exotic and photographed through an Orientalist lens, Chinatowns have also inspired photographic projects that draw attention to their shifting meanings for the Chinese diasporic communities themselves. In many images a common visual style can be discerned. No doubt some of this is due to a stereotypical rendering of Chineseness. However, these visual tropes operate in more complex ways. They attest to a “Chinatown vernacular,” defined here as an aesthetic that invokes Chinese signifiers to suit the needs of diasporic communities. In North America this aesthetic grew out of the nexus of discrimination, the need to belong, and the desire to retain culture. Thus a Chinatown vernacular is not merely the documentation of a time and place but also takes up questions of erasure, community, and civic politics. A Chinatown vernacular is limited neither to vernacular photography nor an amateur practice of ordinary image making. Rather, in this context the notion of a Chinatown vernacular denotes an accessible style, which, as the work of Morris Lum demonstrates, is legible to diasporic Chinese community members.

For more than a decade, the Toronto-based artist Morris Lum has been photographing Chinatowns throughout North America in his series Tong Yan Gaai. Since 2012 the Trinidad-born photographer has searched for clusters of Chinatown communities built across Canada and the United States for the purpose of settlement and growth. Using a large-format camera, he has documented Chinatowns in Victoria, Calgary (fig. 1), Vancouver (figs. 2–4), Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax, San Francisco, Los Angeles (fig. 5), New York, and Boston, with the aims of focusing on and directing attention to the functionality of Chinatowns, exploring the generational context of how “Chinese” identity is expressed in these structural enclaves, and recording the rapid architectural and economic changes that communities have been facing.

This conversation took place between Morris Lum and critic Brandon Leung. It has been edited for length and clarity.

MORRIS LUM: My family arrived in Canada from Trinidad and Tobago in 1988, a year after the completion of the Mississauga Chinese Centre (fig. 6). For me the Centre, located just west of Toronto in Canada, was a city within a city. Originally opened in 1987, the Centre reflected a need for community-oriented public and commercial space during a time when Mississauga was seeing an influx of Chinese immigrants, who were mainly coming from Hong Kong. The entrance to the Centre is marked with a giant gateway built using traditional Chinese techniques, and the interior is extravagantly decorated with traditional architectural features including a Soo Chow Garden, pagoda, and pond. My early visits to the Mississauga Chinese Centre were in many ways my first experiences of visiting an Asian-centric, ethnic enclave. I have memories of my parents taking my sister and I to the Centre to attend Chinese calligraphy classes, Cantonese language lessons, and to grab groceries from the Asian grocery stores. I even remember going to the food court and experiencing my first bites of “authentic Chinese” cuisine from the Hong Kong region. Prior to this experience, what I thought was Chinese cuisine was actually a combination of Chinese and Caribbean food often cooked in Trinidad. Of course, a suburban ethnic plaza could not be complete without a traditional banquet-style Chinese restaurant. Mississauga Chinese Centre's primary venue of this kind was the Royal Dragon Chinese Restaurant. Looking back at my upbringing within the Mississauga Chinese Centre, it becomes clear that those experiences formed my understanding of the Chinese community and what it meant to be “Chinese.” But I began to notice changes.

In early 2012, after stopping in at the Mississauga Chinese Centre, I noticed that Royal Dragon Chinese Restaurant was not open for regular business hours. This gave me pause. I decided to return a few days later and photograph the facade of the restaurant, as I had a feeling that this could be the end of the Royal Dragon (fig. 7). After processing the photograph, I stored the image in my archive. Despite not really having an immediate purpose for it, I thought that it might be of some significance in the future. In the coming years I revisited the Royal Dragon site and, to my dismay, found the signage had been removed. Thinking about the photograph I took in 2012, I decided to rephotograph the location over a number of years and to document the changing of this cultural landmark.

In 2015 the Blue Lagoon Seafood Master (figs. 8 and 9) replaced the Royal Dragon. The Blue Lagoon is a Chinese seafood restaurant that specialized in a style of cooking from regions in mainland China. This shift in regional cuisine signaled a mutable socio-geography that once represented Chinese immigration that was mainly from Hong Kong and now represented an influx of immigration from mainland China. This is all to say that these restaurants are more than simply businesses, and documenting their existences and disappearances allows for a nuanced visual exploration of shifting cultural landscapes and communities.

BRANDON LEUNG: Having grown up in Vancouver, I have noticed that these shifts are also visible in your photographs featuring Vancouver's Chinatown. Lao Tsu Mural, Vancouver, 2013 (fig. 10) depicts a large, building-sized mural of Lao Tsu, the famous Chinese philosopher, which once stood at the intersection of Gore Avenue and East Pender Street.

I remember seeing this mural myself years ago. Eight years after your photograph, it is now covered by a condominium building built over the parking lot. In a moment of foreshadowing, your photograph shows that the “for sale” lot has already been sold, a prophecy of what was to come.

ML: I started to see a similar pattern of change occurring in Toronto's West Chinatown. In 2011 I began to notice that some mainstay restaurants, the Bright Pearl, Saigon Sister, and Lee Garden, permanently closed their doors. Like many others, I was saddened to see these long-standing and well-respected businesses no longer being part of the community they once helped make vibrant.

As Arlene Chan explains in her book The Chinese Community in Toronto Then and Now, the 1960s wave of Chinese immigration from Hong Kong to Toronto was split along economic lines.5 On the one hand, one group of immigrants did not have the means or opportunity to settle anywhere they chose and relied on proximity to Chinatown to provide a network to help establish a new life. On the other hand, those coming from Hong Kong who were well educated and had financial means chose to bypass the existing Chinatown community and to settle on the outskirts of the city, specifically Agincourt in Scarborough.

In the 1980s Chinese businesses began to flourish in plazas across Agincourt (a Toronto suburb), and shortly thereafter several Chinese-language churches were founded in the area. By the 1990s a community and network of Hong Kong immigrants established themselves as the predominant ethnic group in Agincourt. One of the reasons for the popularity of these suburban enclaves is the expanding variety of food options. Housing is also generally newer, larger, and more affordable in the suburbs, which is appealing for many newcomers.

Between 2012 and 2016, I produced a series of images that document the businesses coming in and out of a Spadina Avenue building as evidence of these demographic shifts (figs. 11–13).

BL: I think there is a political side to the idea of a Chinatown vernacular in North America too. As we have discussed, Chinatowns across Canada have changed much over time. This is because of demographic shifts, but they are also oftentimes the targets of urban renewal, usually at the detriment of local communities. In Vancouver's Chinatown, many cultural food assets have shuttered.6 Now grassroots organizations have appeared, such as the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, to help residents access culturally appropriate businesses and services.7

Similar organizations have sprung up throughout Chinese Canadian history. Several of your photographs, for example, depict the interiors of the many clan associations found in North American Chinatowns.8 In Lim Sai Hor Kow Mock Benevolent Association, Vancouver, 2014 (fig. 14) , we see the makings of a Chinatown vernacular. This is discernible in the old Chinese-style paintings, ancestral figures, and hanging scrolls that cover the wall. Red paper lanterns (red being the color of luck) hang in the top left corner. The auspicious red diamond with the character for “good fortune” (福 “fú”) is fortuitously pinned in the center of the photograph's frame. This photograph is not only the depiction of a recognizable style. It clearly shows a space that was made to be a second home for Chinese immigrants. This interior is not only a sign of a culture, a diasporic culture, but of the perseverance of a historically marginalized group. The photograph is devoid of people but filled with a sense of community.

ML: I do not specifically think of politics when I am making these photographs, but I am always learning about the Chinatowns I visit. Partly this is rooted in politics by recognizing an unpleasant history while also recognizing the communities born out of it. I was mindful of the fact that the expansion of Vancouver's Chinatown ran parallel with the enforcement of the Chinese Immigration Act. Included in the act was a set of restrictions in the form of a curfew where Chinese were not permitted to be out on the main roads after certain hours. Because of this the Chinese community began to utilize hidden alleyways, a network of small passages between different buildings that were often hidden from the main streets, as a necessary means to travel, gather, and socialize within their community. Many of these hidden alleyways still exist today, having been either refurbished or preserved. Many of them still remain hidden from the public (fig. 15). These images speak to the history of discrimination against the Chinese in Canada while also highlighting community resistance and ingenuity in the face of state-sanctioned racism.

BL: I think learning can be political too, learning about these areas and their underrepresented histories. I mostly learned about the Chinese in Canada later in life, and only most recently I have become aware of the history of Chinese Canadians and Vancouver's Chinatown. But this knowledge was indirect. The photographs provide greater insight into this history.

ML: My hope is that these images make clear that ethnic enclaves are evolving constructs and that there is not a homogenous Chinese immigrant community or experience.



For example, Vancouver's Chinatown was built on the once swampy, now reclaimed lands of False Creek. See Yee, Saltwater City, 35.


In Vancouver the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association (SPOTA) was formed in 1968 by Chinatown residents, business owners, and activists, such as Mary Lee Chan, to stop the city from pushing out inhabitants of Chinatown's residential neighborhood, Strathcona, in the name of urban renewal. See Mok, “The Flow of Life in Vancouver's Strathcona.” 


According to a report, Vancouver's Chinatown had lost 50 percent of its cultural food assets or fresh food stores, defined as greengrocers, fishmongers, and barbeque meat stores or butcher shops, from 2009 to 2016. Chen and Ho, Vancouver Chinatown Food Security Report, 23.


“Culturally appropriate” refers to these stores' role in supporting and transmitting Chinese culture through food—a greengrocer selling Gailan/芥蘭 might be culturally appropriate, while a vegan pizza shop is likely not.” Peacock, “What Used to Be the Marsh.” 


To re-create home in new, unfamiliar settings and to help one another within an already hostile society, early Chinese immigrants set up clan associations, modeled after the village family structures in China. These clans were made up of individuals who shared the same family name. Clan associations helped fellow immigrants find a place in their new home by providing boarding, communication with the old country, jobs, and even burial. See Harry Con et al., From China to Canada, 30–41.

Works Cited

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Photography and Chineseness in Indonesia: Reflections on Chinese Muslims in Indonesia
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This is an open access article distributed under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).