Ramona Mar gathers stories for a living.
Growing up in B.C., she was never taught about the experiences of the Chinese Canadians that came before her – not that they were forced to pay a head tax to come to Canada, not that they were banned from entering at all for 24 years, not that their hard work was what connected the country by rail and not that hundreds fought in the world wars despite being denied citizenship.
“I didn’t know that history. It’s not like I’m grieving it, I’m just saying somebody should have taught it to me to show me that my ancestors’ presence was part of the Canadian fabric.”
It’s that history that makes her efforts to capture Vancouver’s Chinatown today all that more important.
As part of the content and programming team at the Chinatown Storytelling Centre, Mar speaks with the families of those who founded the neighbourhood, those who broke down barriers, those who ran grocery stores or worked in laundromats or started tofu businesses there.
Each story is fascinating to Mar and each one informs how she presents Chinatown’s history at the storytelling centre. Opened in November 2021, it’s the first permanent physical space where the experiences and contributions of Chinese Canadians in Vancouver have been celebrated and recognized.
Around 15,000 people have been through so far, and Mar says when she runs tours she always starts them the same way: by asking visitors what their immigration story is.
“Unless you’re First Nations, you have an origin migration story.”
It’s an important reminder to offer to people, Mar says. Everyone, at some point, was a new immigrant to what is now Canada. Chinese Canadians were settlers, too.
“We want to be seen as fully Canadian, not this sort of multicultural thing of ‘Here’s your slot, here’s your slot.’ No, we were Canadian from the gold rush on, because our ancestors came here and made a difference.”
The storytelling centre’s co-founder, Carol Lee, says this kind of recognition and understanding were some of the goals of creating the space.
“Education is the way to peaceful coexistence.”
She says it’s not about making anyone feel like they need to apologize – being a Chinese immigrant was tough everywhere, not just in Canada – but about celebrating and revitalizing the vibrant community Chinese Canadians built from nothing.
“For me, [Chinatown] is really the physical legacy of that sacrifice and contribution.”
Both women say they hope the centre helps non-Chinese Canadians to get in better touch with their country’s history and Chinese Canadians to feel a sense of pride.
“I want them to know, these are the people who came before you. This is what they contributed,” Mar says.
The centre’s exhibits and events can be found at chinatownstorytellingcentre.org.