Displaying the Inscrutable at the Royal BC Museum's Chinatown Gallery
AbstractThis paper responds to David Chuenyan Lai's foundational research on Victoria’s Chinatown in the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, which uncovered a hegemonic understanding of Chinatown as a ‘forbidden city.’ While this discourse had real-world effects for the Chinese community, scholars have critiqued Lai's understanding of Chinatown as a ‘forbidden city’ for assuming the dominant discourse was the only discourse, and that nineteenth and early-twentieth century Chinatown was as sealed and fixed as that discourse dictated. This paper performs a close reading of the Royal BC Museum’s Chinatown gallery to explore the tension between two interpretations of the past: a ‘forbidden city’ narrative versus a narrative of porous boundaries and cultural mixing. It argues that Chinatown's selfconscious reproduction of the ‘forbidden city’ narrative re-inscribes a reductive view of ‘otherness’ that fails to address the nuanced cultural mixing and cohabitation in nineteenth-century social and urban spaces of Victoria.
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