When Charlotte Zhang visited the site of Nanaimo’s old Chinatown where Pine Street used to continue west of Hecate Street, she was surprised to find the area completely grown over.
“There’s this pit a little farther down that used to have a lot of old bottles, and people still go bottle hunting down there, but otherwise there’s not much left at all,” she said. “So it is interesting that like 60 years removed it’s almost completely erased.”
Zhang, a former Nanaimo resident now studying at the California Institute of the Arts, will be presenting Pine Street Now and Again, a video installation examining the history and significance of Nanaimo’s third Chinatown, which burned down in 1960, as part of the Nanaimo Art Gallery’s new exhibition, Estuary.
An opening reception for Estuary will be held at the gallery on Thursday, July 18 and the exhibit will run until Sept. 1. The show also features video and installation work by seven other artists from Nanaimo, Vancouver, the B.C. Interior and Toronto.
Zhang is an alumna of the gallery’s Dazzle Camouflage and Code Switching youth programs and said it’s meaningful to make her return. She said it feels like a family affair.
“That’s where I got my start,” she said. “I think Dazzle really opened up a lot of avenues of expression for me, so it is really lovely to be working with people I’ve known since I was 15.”
Her film, played on two opposite facing screens, combines conversations with former Chinatown residents with scenes of reenactments that aim to “reactivate” the ideas held within the historical materials Zhang uncovered.
“I found that in my research a lot of the ways in which the Chinatown has been historicized has been in these very static ways, like in these artifacts that are really carefully catalogued…” Zhang said.
“The initial idea was thinking about each scene or segment as kind of a video or time-based artifact that resists that sort of stasis because it is a moving image.”
Zhang said she’s always had an interest in finding ways to explore her own racialized or cultural experience in Canada. She said without Nanaimo’s early Chinese presence, her experience as a Chinese person in Nanaimo would be very different.
“It does interest me to think about what that community must have been like years and years ago and what certain measures people had to take or certain communities people had to build in those circumstances,” she said.
Zhang said she hopes her work communicates the joy of being part of a community and leads people to question Nanaimo’s history and landscape.
“What kind of came out of the work in the shooting and improvising and having conversations was that it was this really pleasurable thing to have a community of friends and have people that you went to school with and gambled with and played ball in the street with and all of these different connections to be made,” she said.
WHAT’S ON … Opening reception for Estuary takes place at the Nanaimo Art Gallery, 150 Commercial St., on Thursday, July 18 at 7 p.m. Show runs until Sept. 1.