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New neon art in Chinatown pays tribute to Vancouver's Cantonese immigrants

Neon sign spells out 'Saltwater City,' what Vancouver's Chinese community once called the city
Artwork located at 475 Main Street spells out 'Saltwater City' in tribute to Vancouver's Cantonese migrants. Photo: City of Vancouver

From a boy who grew up in Vancouver’s Chinatown, to an accomplished artist who came back to honour its Cantonese migrants – Paul Wong has lit up the laneway of 475 Main Street with his latest work.

The neon sign was unveiled Thursday. It spells out “Saltwater City” in red Cantonese characters.

“I grew up in Chinatown when it was ablaze in bright neon and big colourful signs and at a time when the Chinese community commonly called Vancouver ‘Saltwater City’,” Wong related.

“The piece is designed to promote discussion around the significance of, and challenges to, Chinese language, culture and preservation of heritage assets in the neighbourhood,” the City announced in an Aug. 27 statement.

Wong created the work during his residency at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, commissioned by the City of Vancouver’s Public Art Program in 2018.

The launch of Wong’s placement happened to coincide with the City's formal apology for its historical discrimination against Chinese residents in Vancouver.

For acts including barring Chinese residents from voting in municipal elections from 1886 to 1948 and from civic employment from 1890 to 1952, a 2017 report commissioned by the City acknowledged.

“Paul’s ‘Saltwater City Vancouver’ neon inspires conversations about the importance of understanding and appreciating both the tangible and intangible heritage assets when we celebrate the significance of Chinatown,” said executive director Vincent Kwan of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.