Inside Chinatown: Ancient Culture in a New World
By Robert Amos and Kileasa Wong
TouchWood Editions, 160 pages, September 2009 (9781894898911)
The first impression many foreigners took away from Chinese cities a century ago was that they could not see the people for the walls. North Americans accustomed to greeting strangers from porch or picket fence found this puzzling if not sinister. What they didn't understand was that Chinese family life was and still is sedulously protected from outsiders, not just by bricks and mortar but by the self-contained strength of the family unit, in which each member has his or her place and role in support of the greater good of the family and to do honour to the ancestors who made the family possible.
Inside Chinatown: Ancient Culture in a New World is a beautiful and moving book about what's behind the many "forbidden cities" that make up Victoria's Chinatown, the oldest in Canada and, to judge by the facts revealed here, one of the most successful in North America. With the assistance and connections of Kileasa Wong, principal of Chinatown's Chinese Public School, classical painter and go-to person for all things Chinatown, Victoria artist Robert Amos took his camera and his intense passion for Chinese culture into parts of Chinatown rarely penetrated by non-Chinese. Amos was allowed to document interiors of the private societies, clan shrines and schools that form the powerful backbone of this vibrant Chinese-Canadian community. In so doing he has created a book that is not just a celebration of one community that for its 150 years of existence has survived discrimination from the highest levels of Canadian government (Chinese couldn't vote until 1947) to the upper crust Victoria which built a genteel fiction on their uncomplaining backs yet wouldn't allow their children to attend classes with white children. Inside Chinatown also stands as a blueprint for what a healthy community of the Chinese diaspora can look like. This took all the luck Chinese-Canadians could get from the gods and goddesses enshrined in the rooms over their restaurants, laundries and grocery stores, but it also took something far more cogent: courage, a quality Victoria's Chinese-and all Chinese who left China for life abroad-have never lacked.
Using edgy collages of photographs and paintings pieced together to form shimmery mosaics of meeting halls, ancestral shrines, and tables gleaming with mahjong tiles, livened by explanatory text in English and Chinese, Amos and Wong offer what truly feels like a privileged glimpse of heretofore forbidden rooms and the personalities at work and play there. Inside Chinatown is a book whose strength comes from these moment-to-moment glimpses of the life pulsing through a neighbourhood once given up for lost, chronicling the struggles and achievements of the Chinese who came to North America. If some of the facts on the China these men and women left behind is accident-prone (Guangxu was the reformer emperor, not Puyi; the Empress Dowager Cixi was his aunt, not his mother; exiled reformer Kang Youwei was no government minister but a rebel with a price on his head; there was only one Boxer Uprising, and the foreign legations besieged during it were liberated not by the British but an allied force, etc.), it is Amos's and Wong's grasp of the magic that happens when east and west settle and celebrate their differences that makes Inside Chinatown an example to live by for all who leave their homelands for a new world and for those who, to paraphrase Confucius, cherish these brothers and sisters from afar.