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We Were Here: Stories of Early Chinatown exhibit at the Lougheed House in Calgary.

The 130-year-old Lougheed House hosted a temporary exhibit from July 1 to Oct. 17. We Were Here: Stories of Early Chinatown recounts the lives and tales from Calgary’s first two incarnations of Chinatown.

Along the walls of this Victorian mansion hang photos, some older than the building itself, while velvet couches serve as perfect seating to read stories from a bygone time.

According to the Chinese Cultural Centre of Calgary’s website, the first Chinatown was established around 1890 on the eastern edge of the city centre. As more Chinese settlers moved to the city, the original Chinatown was unable to expand.  

By 1901, a second Chinatown had appeared on the other side of the railway tracks along 10th Avenue and 1st Street S.W. However, this Chinatown did not last either. 

We Were Here: Stories from Early Chinatown exhibit at the Lougheed House in Calgary. (PHOTO: TAYLOR HOLMES).

New developments were planned for the area, including City Hall and the Palliser Hotel. As a result, property values in Chinatown soared and many residents were evicted. It was after 1910 that the third and final iteration of Chinatown was established.

Featured in the exhibit are five written stories from local artists, each telling a story inspired by early Chinatown. Accompanying the stories are historical photographs and vibrant illustrations by mixed-media artist, Jarett Sitter. 

Sitter is a Calgary-based freelance artist known for his colourful, comic-style illustrations and was chosen to illustrate banners displayed throughout downtown Calgary in 2021.

Illustration by Jarett Sitter depicting the first woman in Chinatown. (PHOTO: TAYLOR HOLMES).

One of the writers is Dale Lee Kwong, whose story, His Gift, was inspired by the life of Jimmy Smith. Smith was a Chinese-Canadian businessman living in Calgary in the late 1800s. In 1890, he died alone of Tuberculosis. 

Included in Smith’s will was the first donation that would go on to build the city’s first general hospital. 

“The story that I wrote isn’t actually Jimmy Smith’s story, it was inspired by Jimmy Smith. Because there was so little information about him, I kind of imagined and it’s actually, now that I look at it, quite romantic,” said Kwong.

Calgary lawyer, J. C. Brokovski, with his Chinese cook and houseboy, Wing Lee. (PHOTO: Glenbow Archives NA-3186-1, date and photographer unknown).

Holleay Rohm, manager of programs and volunteers at the Lougheed House, says that it was difficult to find information about the first two iterations of Chinatown because of a lack of available records.

Instead, the Lougheed House sought help to paint a fuller picture of the history.

“It was a challenge for us to collect enough information to talk about this community,” Rohm says. “That’s why we wanted to bring in authors from the community so that they could personalize these stories.”

This exhibit is part of the Lougheed House’s initiative to share a more diverse record of history with the public. The exhibit relies on locals to tell the stories of their communities. 

The exhibit is finished now, but parts will be displayed on an ongoing basis at the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre.

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