Story and Photos By Deanna Cheng
At Centre A, a contemporary art gallery, three artists showcased a piece of Vancouver history rarely told by mainstream media and academia at Centre A, a contemporary art gallery in Chinatown.
Naveen Girn, curator of "GOONJ! Being Brown in Chinatown," said South Asian history in Vancouver extends over a hundred of years. The exhibit focuses on illuminating forgotten stories through three main artworks. "Goonj" means echo in Hindi.
Graffiti artist Nisha Kaur Sembi painted a mural about the history of the Ghadhar Party, an early 20th century Pacific Coast movement for Indian Independence.
Toronto-based Jagdeep Raina mined Canada's federal archives and refashioned photos in charcoal and paint. His drawings assert the South Asian presence on the streets.
Yule Ken Lum, with denim jeans, created a portrait of a Sikh man who is repeatedly cropped out of a historical photograph depicting the aftermath of the Ant-Asian Race Riots of 1907.
South Asians on Komagata Maru stands up for themselves
One attendee found the artwork were "really fresh."
Filmmaker and drama teacher Paneet Singh, 25, said, "The exhibit is re-imagining local history through a South Asian historical lens."
They are distinct from archival images like ones displayed in museums, Singh said. "It echoes through the streets we walk in and people can see how it's relevant to modern day time."
For example, in Sembi's mural, "Gharhar di goonj," Singh said, the scene where men on the Komagata Maru are throwing bricks at the immigrant officials shows the power struggle of the time.
In 1914, the Japanese steampship Komagata Maru, carrying people from India to Vancouver, was denied entrance due to a Canadian law often used to reject Asian immigrants.
"It captures the defiance," said Singh. "The ship is in a more powerful position, above the officials themselves."
In addition to giving the "victims" a voice, Singh said it also looks at the race issues.
"Often, the oppressed are seen as incapable of helping themselves. This adds a different perspective to the common narrative about minorities."
There's more to history than what schools teach
Sembi said her history textbook had one page about India and it was about the Taj Mahal. She said there's more to India than that.
In the portrait of Kartar Singh Sarabha, a member of the Ghadhar Party, Sembi painted a pen and rifle underneath. "The rifle is for the belief in armed revolution. The pen is for poetry about freedom and the independent newspaper which spread the news of what's going on to the world."
The California-based artist felt a connection to Sarabha because he studied at University of Berkeley, her school. He has a similiar spirit of rebellion which she has nurtured in herself.
"I can't read or write Punjabi," Sembi said.
However, Sembi still wants a connection to South Asian history, especially in North America. She wants youth to be brought into the gallery and learn what's not taught in school and keep the legacy alive. "I didn't know the legacy that was built in the streets she walked everyday [in Berkeley]."
South Asians fought for freedom from British colonization, Sembi said, and fought for the right to be in North America. "I'm paying my respects to them."
Curator exposes tiny nuances of historical Chinatown
Vancouver was a young city in 1914, Girn said, and it was searching for an idea of what it wanted to be.
"The premier of the province and the prime minister [of the time] were talking about Vancouver being a white man's country. A white man's province.
"In Chinatown, there was this alternate story coming out and it was the story of intercultural connections between First Nations, Chinese, Japanese, South Asians and Caucasians," said Girn.