Artist Emily Chu maps Chinatown connection in latest project

· The Pulse

Emily Chu's new Chinatown Stories Map, which she has built with several collaborators and is available on June 22, is partly inspired by her exploration of identity in Chinatown. She hopes the map helps others searching connection to find it.

Chu is a first-generation immigrant from China who came to Calgary as a child before moving to Edmonton in 2011. She told Taproot her early experiences with Edmonton's Chinatown included worries if she was "Chinese enough."

Eventually, Chinatown became a haven for Chu, particularly during the pandemic when she had a child. Later, in February 2023, Chu unveiled a mural called Dragon Dance Mural at the Edmonton Chinatown Multi-Cultural Centre. That venue also played host to Storytelling in Chinatown From Within in May 2023, when other young artists shared their work and experiences building relationships with the neighbourhood.

Chu felt the connections with Chinatown but also the desire among many around her for more of them. "A lot of us are in our 30s, and we're all trying to find our connections to these cultural spaces because it feels like something is missing," Chu said.

"I think I was trying to find a lot of identity through working in Chinatown," she added. "In some cases, I'll be very honest, working in Chinatown was an easier way for me to explore my identity than to deal with it face-on. It was easier to advocate for a neighbourhood than to advocate for myself."

The story map is funded by the Edmonton Heritage Council and Edmonton Arts Council. It rolls out with sold-out tour events that depart from the Edmonton Arts Council Shop & Services at Churchill Square on June 22 at 11am. The events will be run by Chu, who illustrated the map, and her primary collaborators — influencer and food expert Linda Hoang, Chinese historian Lan Chan-Marples (who's a research partner for the University of Alberta), and Mary Burlie's granddaughter (whom a park in Chinatown is named after), Tanika Burlie, who amplifies how Black history has shaped Edmonton.

"There's always been a lot of beautiful collaboration across cultures (in Chinatown)," Chu said. "It's not that visible in some ways … This is just a really easy and accessible visual map to get folks curious."

Chu and the storytellers she worked with on the map felt there were often too many stories to include in the project. Longer descriptions of the map's 30 destinations will run online. Some destinations are established, but others are new, and some no longer exist.

What many call South Chinatown is now a part of The Quarters district that the City of Edmonton has planned to revitalize for many years, though injecting vibrancy has been a challenge. There, the city removed the historical Harbin Gate to make way for the Valley Line LRT, though the city is working to build a new one.

"It just feels like it's a lot of erasing happening very rapidly, and not acknowledging the history and the impact that's been made there," Chu said. "We're just trying to encourage folks to really think about all of these things. What do you want to see in the future of Chinatown? What is this neighbourhood and what's happening?"

A group of people gather outdoors in front of a mural.

A 2021 Chinatown tour organized by Emily Chu stops at Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Kris Friesen. Chu and her collaborators on the new Chinatown Stories Map, which includes Friesen's mural as a destination, are Tanika Burlie, Lan Chan-Marples, and Linda Hoang.(Supplied)

Change in North and South Chinatown can be positive, Chu said. She cited Hoang's exploration of the evolution of 98 Street via the youthful energy of Van Loc and Tea Bar Cafe. Renewal is underway for Mary Burlie Park. And on June 14, the City of Edmonton officially renamed the block of 101A Avenue between 96 and 97 streets to Okîsikow (Angel) Way. It's an Indigenous-led effort to honour victims of violence and a reminder to foster safety for the future.

"I can see a lot of things starting to really happen in terms of arts, and younger folks, and energy in the neighbourhood," Chu said.

Someone stands in the right third of the frame of a photo depicting a mural where people perform a traditional dragon dance using a puppet.

Emily Chu pictured in front of her Dragon Dance Mural at the Edmonton Chinatown Multi-Cultural Centre in 2023. (Karen Lui)

Speaking of the future, the Chinatown Stories Map becomes available on June 22 in English, simplified Chinese, and Vietnamese at The Edmonton Arts Council Shop & Services. An official website with the map will launch soon. More spots to obtain the map at other businesses will likely follow, Chu said.

Chu's website is an effective place to stay tuned for the future of the map. She said there may be future iterations one day.