Just a couple blocks from the building I live in, on the corner of Columbia and Keefer, as one is walking along, they will find themselves suddenly greeted by the vision of two ebony statues flanking a tall Chinese emblem of some sort, at the base of which is a somewhat more discreet Canadian maple-leaf. The two figures are in different types of uniforms, and both are carrying equipment suitable for their particular purpose at the time in their existence represented by the monument’s depiction. Depending on the time of day, and due to the dark color of the main figures, one may have to draw quite close before actually making out exactly what it is that has captured their attention. As you get a little closer, however, it readily becomes apparent.
The first figure, to the left of the maple-leaf as one faces the monument, is obviously a soldier, and to be more precise, a Canadian soldier of the Second World War era. The second figure is that of a laborer, the shovel over his shoulder, and the old-style hard-hat he’s wearing providing the best clues to his occupation, although one may have to read one of the two plaques included upon the monument to precisely nail down the laborer’s specific job as “railway worker”. A really close look at the faces of the two subjects of the piece might possibly relieve the viewer from the necessity of having to read even more of the words on the plaques to discover that both figures are representative of Chinese men. The sculptor responsible for this wonderful piece of work is Arthur Shu-Ren Cheng, and the location of the statue at Keefer and Columbia serves quite well as a welcome to tourists and residents alike, a gentle reminder that you are indeed in the very heart of Chinatown.
As beautiful as Mr. Cheng’s sculpture is when viewed as a complete unit, much of my own enjoyment of his work came as I realized the significance of each of the individual pieces on their own. The center column is in the shape of the Chinese character “zhong” which represents “Chinese” and “Moderation” and “Harmony”. The feeling contained in these thoughts can also be realized in the words of the Chinese couplets that are inscribed on both the front and the back of the monument. The Chinese and the English translation of the original can be found on the plaques that are set on either side of the golden maple-leaf in the lower regions of the statue. The couplets read: “Rich legacies of Chinese pioneers shining bright as the sun and moon, Great deeds of noble forbears zeal entrenched as mountains and rivers.”
It was this multiple duplicity that I found so solid about the monument, and the balance and strength portrayed therein was a true source of comfort for me. There was the moderation and harmony represented by the Chinese symbol, flanked by the railway worker who helped build and unite Canada, and the soldier who both served and protected that which he had helped to build and unite. Then, in the words of the couplet we find four of the most basic, and powerful, symbols of nature divided into two more balanced units, sun and moon, mountains and rivers.
As the plaques explain, the monument has only been in existence since 2003, but I suspect it has already met with much approval both from the residents of the neighborhood such as myself, and the countless people who find themselves in Chinatown day to day either taking care of business, or doing the tourist thing that tourists do. All-in-all, Chinatown is one of my favorite places in Vancouver, and the amount of time I spend here is not always due simply to the fact that I live in the area. More often it has to do with the feel of history that permeates the air, and can still be found reflected in many of the structures if one knows where to look, and takes the time to do so. And, of course, we shouldn’t forget the dark side (Luke).
To do an article on Chinatown -and I plan to do quite a few more- without mentioning some of the darker history that surrounds this wonderful bunch of people, is possible of course, but it wouldn’t really be completely honest. To really speak openly, one has to admit that the Chinese people, when they first arrived on our shores, and when they returned after being kicked out the first time, were perhaps the most exploited peoples this country has ever known, and yes, in some ways at least, I’m including the Aboriginal peoples in that assessment. An unpopular position I know, but nonetheless, it’s my position and in future postings I fully intend to explain, and if necessary, defend it.
For now, however, before this posting turns into a book, let’s just take one more look at the monument in question. Before we do, however, I just want to point out that up above where I mentioned the artist who sculpted the statues, I included a link which you can use by clicking on his name. Then you can check out some other sites in Vancouver where Mr. Cheng has drawn a number of building-sized murals that are truly exceptional pieces of work (now you can use this new link also).
And one more thing, REALLY this time. I just wanted to mention that since I wrote the article on Vancouver’s Tent City, I have heard that approximately 50 of the people that were camped there have been supplied with living accommodations. Now I don’t know exactly what those accommodations consist of, but my way of judging things is like this. If the people in question have accepted their new digs, and no one is apparently hearing anything about them complaining, well, it must be a good thing. But I’ll keep my ears open, and pass on anything I hear. Until next time…
A special treat for anyone who made it all the way down here, a great tune by Mr. Don Henley: “The Heart of the Matter”. Enjoy.