Artist paints historic buildings in Vancouver’s Chinatown to shed light on once ‘thriving’ neighborhood

A local artist’s watercolor and ink paintings of historic buildings in Chinatown are causing a stir on social media.

Donna Seto’s illustrations are based on archival photos to show what buildings looked like when her businesses were thriving.

The paintings have received hundreds of likes on Twitter, and Seto says his work has sparked conversations with people who have fond memories of the neighborhood.

The Vancouver-based artist says the project is a way to shine a positive light on Chinatown and create dialogue around ways to revitalize the neighborhood, which has seen an increase in crime and vandalism.

“It’s an opportunity for us to really rethink what it actually looks like and how we can actually preserve these buildings,” she said.

Fred Mah, president of the Chinatown Society Heritage Buildings Association, says he’s seen some of Seto’s pieces, which remind him of when the neighborhood was booming.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, he says, the streets were full of people visiting the neighborhood’s shops, restaurants and nightclubs.

“We really, really enjoyed going there,” he said.

Seto painted some of the 12 historic buildings that the Chinatown Society Heritage Buildings Association cares for, including the Cheng Wing Yeong Tong Society Building and the Chin Wing Chun Society Building.

Seto says she hopes her art will spark a conversation about how to revitalize Vancouver’s Chinatown, which has seen decline in recent years due to high rates of crime and vandalism. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Mah says business owners who rented commercial space on the ground floor of buildings have left in recent years because they felt unsafe in the neighborhood.

A few weeks ago, the gates of the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden were locked and the courtyard was closed to the public after the exterior walls were vandalized. The windows of the nearby Chinese Cultural Center were also smashed.

Mah adds that it will take all levels of government to address the mental health and addiction issues many people in the area face, but he hopes the neighborhood can bounce back.

“I’m still hopeful that we’ll make Chinatown flourish again. But it won’t be easy.”

Connection to Chinatown

Seto’s connection to Chinatown dates back to his childhood. Growing up, Seto says his family visited his grandmother who lived near Oppenheimer Park.

In her early twenties, Seto volunteered for the Chinese police in Chinatown. While patrolling the area and talking to shopkeepers, she says she learned in-depth about the history of the neighborhood for the first time.

Seto also shops around the neighborhood when she can.

Seto says his strong connection to Chinatown dates back to his childhood. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Seto, who is also an author, says she hadn’t made art for 10 years until the pandemic. Initially, she copied images of buildings in Japan, then turned to painting local architecture in July 2021, when she began her series on historic buildings in Chinatown.

She has done 18 paintings to date, some of which feature different versions of the same building to show how it has changed over time.

Seto says her long-term goal is to compile her works into a book that will also include personal stories from Chinatown and the conversations she had with others as part of her project.

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