Displaying the Inscrutable at the Royal BC Museum's Chinatown Gallery

Elspeth Gow

Abstract


This 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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