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Vancouver artist explores history of early Chinese immigration to B.C.

The shards of B.C. Chinese history

Gu Xiong, a Vancouver artist, explores the markers left behind by early Chinese immigrants to Vancouver Island

Harling Point cemetery, part of artist Gu Xiong’s Between Breath series, was designated for Chinese people only in Victoria in 1903.

There are shards of history connected to the Chinese in B.C. hidden throughout the province, unknown to most locals.

The remains of a leper colony on an island near Saanich. A bone house close to Victoria that was used for decades as a storage spot for the remains of the dead while they awaited transport back to their home country. A Chinatown buried in the forest near a once-thriving mining operation in Cumberland, on Vancouver Island.

For Gu Xiong, a prominent Vancouver multimedia artist and someone who arrived here from China more than a century after the first immigrants came to B.C. from the Middle Kingdom, those almost-forgotten sites were mesmerizing – visible symbols of a phenomenon that has preoccupied him during his 26 years here.

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Between Breath focuses on the histories of Vancouver Island Chinese immigrant communities.

"All of my art is about how we, the Chinese here, don't belong to either side, but we build up our identity," said Mr. Xiong, now a professor in the arts history faculty at the University of B.C. "These Chinese historical sites and my journey from China to here are similar, the culture shock of the transformation of identity."

As a result, Mr. Xiong has explored many places where early Chinese immigrants lived and struggled to create new identities, including historic settlements in Nelson, Barkerville and Kamloops. One previous art project, called Waterscape, focused on parallels between the Fraser River and the Yangtze River.

Now, his latest photography project is focused on the three Vancouver Island-linked sites. Called Between Breath – "I was reminded of a very essential feeling here, that life only exists between every breath we take" – the series of photographs will be displayed in his hometown of Chongqing this year and in Vancouver in the summer of 2018.

For Mr. Xiong, each place represents a longing for home.

On D’Arcy Island, the leper colony that was established in 1891 after five men with leprosy were discovered in Victoria’s Chinatown, people were sent, over 30 years, to live and, eventually, die.

At the bone house, in the cemetery designated for Chinese people in Victoria in 1903, the bones of the dead were held in crates, waiting to be shipped back to hometowns, mostly in Guangdong province. (The house no longer exists, but the cemetery does, including graves for the 900 people whose bones couldn't be shipped back after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937.)

On D'Arcy Island, the leper colony that was established in 1891 after five men with leprosy were discovered in Victoria's Chinatown, people were sent, over 30 years, sent to live and, eventually, die. In exile, they could see Vancouver Island, once their home.

Cumberland’s Chinatown was once the largest in B.C.

And in Cumberland's Chinatown, once the largest in B.C. with 3,000 residents, people made a new, independent home completely separate from the Caucasian settlement.

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Many of the buildings on those sites have now disappeared.

In Cumberland, after a few of the remaining houses were moved over to the main town in the 1960s, the then-abandoned Chinatown was burned.

The photo series aims to represent the struggles of identity that early Chinese immigrants dealt with, including a former Chinese leper colony and a Chinatown that was built near a prominent mining community, now completely overgrown by forest.

It now looks like just another part of the forest, although Mr. Xiong discovered on his visit "remnants of house structures, rusted metal and enamel bowls, parts of wooden tombs and small bits of coal."

Each place also represents the power of memory, he says. The buildings are gone. But "the memory is present, waiting for people to discover, to reflect and to make new memories."

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