Re-Imagining Chinatown

Donna Seto

Donna Seto - re-imagining Chinatown

‘Chinatown’ has meant different things to different people. Racially segregated from broader society, Chinatowns have developed their own support mechanisms such as clan and social organizations that served as pseudo-families providing community, accommodation, safety net, and employment. To outsiders, however, Chinatown is often distinguished as a separate space, visually represented through its architecture as well as its culture, sounds, tastes, and smells. The assumed distinction of ‘Chinatown’ has historically sustained a perception that the area and the Chinese are separate from broader society and that Chinatown’s history and the experiences of the Chinese can be compartmentalized into either Chinese or a hyphenated version of Chinese-Canadian history. Until recently, very rarely has the history of Vancouver’s Chinatown and the experiences of the Chinese in Canada been accepted as Canadian history.

The exhibition, Re-Imagining Chinatown, captures Vancouver’s Chinatown through vibrant colours cast upon the area’s unique architecture. Seto blends the fluidity of watercolour with the permanence of ink to create playful depictions of Chinatown’s historical buildings, drawing attention to the area’s tastes and sounds through splashes of colour on shopfronts and restaurants. Embedded in the paintings are questions regarding place and memory and the opportunity to create a dialogue that unravels and re-imagines a Chinatown that once was and could be. Through dreamy windows and shopfronts full of goods, Seto further depicts how buildings are more than just brick and mortar but keepers of secrets and history.

Influenced by historic photographs of Vancouver, the paintings portray Chinatown during its thriving days when businesses such as Cathay Importers, Ming Wo Cookware, Marco Polo Supper Club, and Ho Ho’s Restaurant were key pillars of the community. The paintings also celebrate the gathering places of Societies such as the Chinese Benevolent Association, Mah Society, and the Chin Wing Chun Society as well as their efforts in building a community for newcomers to Canada.

20% of all sales from this exhibition will be donated to the Chinatown Foundation.

Re-Imagining Chinatown is supported by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation – Yosef Wosk Publication Grant and the Canada Council for the Arts. The paintings featured in this exhibition are part of a larger series that will be published as an illustrated history book.

Canada Council for the Arts
Vancouver-heritage-fund logo
MEDIUM

watercolour and ink on cold press paper

ARTIST BIO

Donna Seto (she/her) is a Vancouver-based writer, artist, and occasional academic. Her art, poetry, and writing shed light on global politics, marginalized communities, layered histories, and the complexity of memory. Growing up, Seto accompanied her parents on regular ventures through Chinatown’s bustling streets where they picked up groceries, ate dim sum, purchased newspapers, and visited her poh-poh. For Seto, Chinatown provides an intimate connection to her personal history and heritage. During the pandemic, she revisited her long-lost passion for art and started drawing buildings in Vancouver’s Chinatown and Powell Street. 

Her illustrations of Chinatown are being transformed into a book to be published with the House of Anansi in mid-2025. Seto has a Ph.D. in Politics and International Relations and is a specialist on intersectional violence in war, refugee law, and children’s rights. She works at the University of British Columbia. 

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