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Paul Wong art installation

New public artwork in Chinatown shines a light on Chinese Canadian cultural heritage

I grew up in Chinatown when it was ablaze in bright neon and big colorful signs and at a time when the Chinese community commonly called Vancouver ‘Saltwater City’.

Paul Wong, artist

August 27 2020 –

A new neon artwork by Paul Wong honouring the history of Cantonese migrants now illuminates 475 Main St.

The piece is designed to promote discussion around the significance of, and challenges to, Chinese language, culture and preservation of heritage assets in the neighbourhood. 

鹹水埠温哥华 | Saltwater City Vancouver

The neon artwork displays the Chinese characters 鹹水埠温哥华, which translates to “Saltwater City Vancouver.” It commemorates the award-winning Canadian artist and curator’s early memories of the neighbourhood.

Speaking about the piece, Paul Wong said “I grew up in Chinatown when it was ablaze in bright neon and big colorful signs and at a time when the Chinese community commonly called Vancouver ‘Saltwater City’.”

The site, between Hastings and Pender streets, parallel to Main St on the west side, was chosen by public vote in January 2019. It has particular historical significance as a former location of Vancouver City Hall (1889-1929) where mayors and councillors used the legal power of the City to enact and expand laws that negatively impacted Chinese residents. 

身在唐人街 | Occupying Chinatown

“Saltwater City Vancouver/鹹水埠温哥华” was developed by Wong as part of his year-long residency “身在唐人街/Occupying Chinatown” at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden (2018–2019) commissioned by the City of Vancouver Public Art Program.

“Paul’s ‘Saltwater City Vancouver’ neon inspires conversations about the importance of understanding and appreciating both the tangible and intangible heritage assets when we celebrate the significance of Chinatown, its history, people, and language in relation to the City,” said Vincent Kwan, Executive Director, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.

The launch of Wong’s residency in April 2018 coincided with the City of Vancouver’s formal apology for historical discrimination against Chinese residents in Vancouver. During the residency the artist has translated and examined over 700 letters and artifacts from his late mother Suk-Fong Wong, using them as a source of inspiration to realize workshops, performances, and artworks in photography, video, and sculpture including this neon work.

淑芳你好嘛 | Suk-Fong Nay Ho Mah / Suk-Fong, How Are You? exhibition

The letters and artworks were presented as part of his exhibition “淑芳你好嘛 /Suk-Fong Nay Ho Mah / Suk-Fong, How Are You?” at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in 2019, and provided an account of China’s shifting cultural and political landscapes told through the personal perspectives of Wong’s family, offering a unique understanding of China’s transformation in the late-twentieth century.

Saltwater City Vancouver/鹹水埠温哥华 is a Public Art project commissioned by the City of Vancouver Public Art Program in partnership with Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, and is supported by The Prospero Group and the Audain Art Foundation.

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