When Jeanette Lee was a child, she loved sneaking into the living room and opening the drawer where some old family pictures were stacked. She especially loved a portrait of her father taken in the 1940s.
In a softly lit studio, Harry Lee sits with his shoulders tilted slightly, wearing a formal peaked-lapel suit and a gentle smile. There’s a dimple on his right cheek, and a note written on the photo to her mother: “Dearest Rose,” Mr. Lee – founder of On Wo Tailors in Vancouver’s Chinatown – wrote on the top corner. “Love Harry,” he wrote on the bottom.
Ms. Lee explains that her father gave Rose the photo when he was courting her. At the time, Rose’s family had arranged a marriage for her to an older, wealthy man. But she refused. She chose Harry.
“We always knew that they married because they loved each other,” says Ms. Lee, their daughter.
The photograph is included in a new exhibition at Vancouver Chinatown’s Chinese Cultural Centre of pictures shot by Yucho Chow – Vancouver’s first and most prolific Chinese photographer. Chinatown Through a Wide Lens: The hidden photographs of Yucho Chow displays about 80 photographs, and is remarkable not just for the pictures themselves, but for the stories they tell.
The exhibition is curated by Catherine Clement, who became fascinated by Mr. Chow’s work several years ago when she was interviewing Chinese-Canadian men who fought in the Second World War for a project. As those veterans were showing her their old photos, she noticed many had something in common: they came from the studio of Yucho Chow.
Her curiosity piqued, she started researching Mr. Chow and his work.
What she learned is that he was not only the go-to photographer for many Chinese families in Vancouver in the first half of the 20th century, but he also took pictures of individuals or families who may not have been welcomed at other photography studios, including Sikh-Canadians. He photographed newly-arrived Europeans, black Canadians, mixed-raced couples and families, and Indigenous people. Mr. Chow’s lens chronicled thousands of faces of all skin colours, religious and cultural backgrounds.
Ms. Clement said he was taking photographs during a remarkable yet tumultuous time in Vancouver’s early history—the Chinese head tax, the Pacific Coast race riot, the First and the Second World Wars, the Great Depression and the Chinese Exclusion Act.
“It’s important that we knew where and what we’re building on … I also think it’s important for us to honour those who came before us,” Ms. Clement said.
About a year ago, former B.C. attorney-general Wally Oppal was shown a family portrait of his parents, his brother and himself at about four years old. It was the first time he had seen this photograph. The picture, dug up by a researcher at Simon Fraser University, was also shot by Mr. Chow.
“I was quite taken by it,” said Mr. Oppal, who showed the photo to his mother, now 103.
“It was quite emotional … My dad died when I was about 10 or 11,” said Mr. Oppal, whose family lived in South Vancouver, but travelled to Mr. Chow’s studio in Chinatown to have their picture taken.
Mr. Oppal was too young to remember that day more than seven decades ago, but his mother does – despite suffering from dementia.
She framed the picture and it now hangs in her care home.
Cultural researcher Naveen Girn calls Mr. Chow “an unofficial photo documentarian” of South-Asian Canadians. Mr. Girn says it was hard for him to find archival photos or documentation of the early South Asian community in B.C. because, he says, the stories of non-white Canadians were ignored.
Mr. Girn looked for family photos to fill in the gaps, and he also noticed that many had the Yucho Chow Photo Studio imprint on them.
“Everything from the annual gatherings and the first Sikh temple in North America, Yucho Chow was covering those stories,” he said. “Without him, I would say we had almost no photographs of the early South Asian community.”
The exhibition sparks many memories for the families whose photos are included. But it is particularly emotional for Leonard Chow, Yucho Chow’s grandson, who spent almost every day in the studio with his grandfather between the ages of four and six, usually sitting on a small chair in a corner while his grandfather took photos.
“He was always a jovial guy … and [greeted] people all the time,” says Leonard Chow, 79, who recalls that the business was always busy, and the day was long; the studio often did not close until at least 8:00 p.m.
Leonard’s aunt cooked lunch and dinner at the back of the studio, out of the fresh ingredients Mr. Chow and Leonard shopped for in the morning. Sometimes during their breaks, Mr. Chow liked to take Leonard to the nearby Cantonese bakeries for fresh-out-of-the-oven barbecue pork buns, pies and hot drinks.
His memories of that time are sometimes blurry, but he distinctly remembers a momentous event in 1947: Chinese-Canadians were granted an essential right. “I just remember them all saying that we got a chance to vote now.”
Two years later, in 1949, Yucho Chow died of a heart attack. Leonard was nine.
Leonard Chow was at the exhibition’s opening, explaining to people what he remembers from that time – and clearly excited about the exhibition honouring his beloved grandpa.
“It shows how a person that comes over here, working very hard, built [a] life and family and [was able to] be successful … It just goes to highlight a life of an immigrant.”
Chinatown Through a Wide Lens: The hidden photographs of Yucho Chow runs until the end of May.