Paul Wong at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Photo credit: JENNIFER GAUTHIER / STARMETRO

身在唐人街 / OCCUPYING CHINATOWN took place on the unceded and ancestral coast Salish territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), and səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) peoples.

OCCUPYING CHINATOWN was Paul Wong’s year-long artist residency at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, and at the OCCUPYING CHINATOWN studo from March 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019. During this year-long residency, Wong created a series of multidisciplinary artworks based on 700 letters in Chinese sent by 90 writers to his mother Suk-Fong Wong from 1956 to 2016, and other ephemera.

This residency has evoked memories and loss for the generations of Chinese-Canadians who built a community within a segregated Chinatown. OCCUPYING CHINATOWN throughout the seasons also featured collaborative contemporary works of art in exhibition with various artists, and has engaged visitors and the community with diverse programming, workshops, performances, and events.

The residency was a creative and transformative process for not just Wong, but for the many collaborators, partners, and the community. It reached across cultures, and across generations. The project extended well beyond the walls of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, and its impact continues on through the relationships created during this public art initiative. With the permanent placement of Wong’s neon piece, Saltwater City – Vancouver / 咸水埠温哥华 in Market Alley, and the evolution of Pride in Chinatown events, OCCUPYING CHINATOWN has ultimately been about achieving the intangible by retaining sites and places in Chinatown from when the neighbourhood was once, not-long-ago, an isolated and segregated community. For Wong, this project was conceived at a point of what was, and what will be.

The OCCUPYING CHINATOWN studio was also a focal point for presentations, studio visits and gatherings. During the residency, it hosted many meetings with artists, curators, community activists, Chinese-Canadian historians, and all three levels of government funding agencies. Many artists used the space for film productions, rehearsals, and exhibition. Some of these include visual and performance artist Catherine Dong, filmmaker Karin Lee, director Davey Calderon, filmmaker Jeffery Chong, and media arts collective Love Intersections. The OCCUPYING CHINATOWN studio is now Wong’s permanent workspace and gallery. It is part of a cultural hub of 55 studios operated by BC Artscape Sun Wah, a non-profit organization that has created longterm affordable spaces for artists.

OCCUPYING CHINATOWN was commissioned by the City of Vancouver Public Art Program through its very innovative approach to public art in which the artist gets to initiate all aspects of a public art project, such as this one, OCCUPYING CHINATOWN. The City of Vancouver Public Art Program has boldly worked to rethink what is public art at this time in Vancouver. OCCUPYING CHINATOWN has been at the forefront of envisioning what is public space and public art in Chinatown.

This was the first ever artist residency at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. It was a new and challenging initiative to embrace contemporary art practices and forms within its conventional and traditional setting and programs. It was a very successful collaboration with Wong, and an important partnership with the City of Vancouver Public Art Program. Several longterm projects are in development. 

The OCCUPYING CHINATOWN team included Jeffery Chong (studio assistant and digital production manager), Davey Calderon (administrator and project manager), Yao “Sweden” Xiao and Mark Lee (Chinese language translators), and many others who contributed to this residency’s research, production and presentation.

Special thanks to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, particularly Vincent Kwan (Executive Director), Debbie Cheung (Marketing & Communications Manager), and especially Leticia Sanchez (former Head of Arts & Exhibitions) who originally invited Paul Wong to do this residency. This residency would not have been possible without all the staff and volunteers at the Garden.

The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

Modelled after the Ming Dynasty scholars’ gardens in the city of Suzhou, China, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is the first authentic full-scale Chinese garden built outside of China. With support from the government of Canada and the People’s Republic of China, it opened in April, 1986. 53 master artisans from Suzhou and a team of local architects spent over a year constructing the garden, employing techniques nearly identical to those used centuries ago in Suzhou.

The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is a registered museum, and classified as a heritage site. The Garden is playing a lead role in lobbying for the designation of Vancouver’s Chinatown to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In this respect, the OCCUPYING CHINATOWN residency was a very important experiment that help identity what ‘living culture’, and what role contemporary art can play within an historical site. 

About Paul Wong

Paul Wong has been creating daring work for over 40 years, pushing the boundaries of conventional cultural stereotypes and art. He has produced large-scale interdisciplinary artworks in unexpected public spaces since the 1970s. His work subverts stereotypes in form and content. Many works are bilingual and trilingual, meshing English, Cantonese and Mandarin codes. His past works can be found at paulwongprojects.com

OCCUPYING CHINATOWN was a public art project commissioned by the City of Vancouver Public Art Program in partnership with the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. 

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts for the creation of this website.

We acknowledge the financial assistance of the Province of British Columbia for the development of this residency.