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Mural in Vancouver’s Chinatown targeted in racist attack

Artist: ‘My mural is broken. I’m very sad. My heart is hurt’
Artist Shu Ren (Arthur) Cheng’s mural at Columbia and East Pender streets was targeted in a racist attack last week. Pictured is one of the mural’s three panels vandalized. Photo courtesy Winston Sayson
A three-panel mural that decorates the side of a building in Chinatown with visual stories of Chinese pioneers in Vancouver was vandalized sometime last week in a racist act that one observer described as jarring and disturbing.

Winston Sayson, a retired Crown prosecutor, took photographs of artist Shu Ren (Arthur) Cheng’s “Snapshots of history” mural on June 30 after noticing the people featured in the paintings were marked up with blotches of red paint.

The red paint appears to depict bullet wounds.

“They were on the faces and foreheads of children and women, too,” said Sayson, whose 30 years of prosecuting criminals, including those motivated by hate, leads him to believe the act constitutes a hate crime. “The inference can be made — and should be made — that this was indeed calculated to instil fear and to demonstrate hatred of the Chinese people.”

Police said Monday they continue to investigate but have not made any arrests.

The city has since had its contractor, Goodbye Graffiti, clean the red paint from the mural, which is located at the northeast corner of Columbia and East Pender streets.

One panel depicts the Wah Chong family in 1884, another is a reproduction of a 1905 photograph of a silk merchant in Chinatown. The third panel is of men sitting outside a barbershop in 1936.

Cheng, 79, created the mural in 2010. Reached Monday, he was saddened to learn of the vandalism done to his art. He struggled to find the right words in English to describe his feelings.

“How do you say — this brings a tear to my eye,” said Cheng, who also created the 20-foot high sculpture of a Chinese railway worker and soldier that stands in Chinatown Memorial Square. “My mural is broken. I’m very sad. My heart is hurt.”

FamilyChinaAnother one of the panels of Arthur Cheng's mural, as photographed by Winston Sayson on June 30.

Images of the vandalism circulated on social media last week and drew the attention of city councillors Pete Fry and Sarah Kirby-Yung, who ensured the graffiti was removed from Cheng’s mural.

Both councillors recently attended two meetings with Chinatown leaders to hear them out on concerns in the community, including graffiti and the fear many seniors have about living and visiting in the area.

“I found the graffiti to be extremely upsetting, the literal targeting of Chinese people with red paint bullet holes signals violent intent,” said Fry in an email Monday, adding that he was grateful for the quick response from city staff and Goodbye Graffiti to restore the mural to its original form by July 2.

Kirby-Yung said the act was beyond vandalism and clearly hateful in its message to a community that has been hit hard by anti-Asian racism since the pandemic was declared in March 2020.

Kirby-Yung said she’s heard stories of seniors who are more afraid of becoming a victim of a hate crime when going to get groceries than contracting COVID-19, noting the latest incident only reinforces that fear.

Reported anti-Asian hate crimes were up 717 per cent from 2019 to 2020 city-wide, with 27 in Chinatown since the beginning of last year. Broken windows and other property damage has also been on the rise in Chinatown, as Glacier Media reported last month in an in-depth article chronicling the community’s struggles.

Non-racist graffiti has plagued Chinatown, with dozens of storefronts and buildings vandalized with paint — an observation Sayson made in discussing the need for all three levels of government to work and fund the business community in a two-week painting blitz to remove the graffiti.

“You have to remember this — Chinatown is a heritage tourist attraction in Canada, and if you look at where it is today, it is nothing close to a tourist attraction in terms of its wonders, its culture but rather an embarrassment and an eyesore,” said Sayson, who is Filipino-Chinese and immigrated to Canada in 1981.

“We need to do this blitz so that it will properly reflect the status of Chinatown as a valued heritage site in Canada.”

Property owners are required to remove unauthorized graffiti within 10 days of receiving a notice from the city. The city offers a free exterior paint program via Dulux Paints for tenants and property owners, who can be eligible for up to two gallons in a calendar year.

But Sayson said each time a merchant paints over graffiti, the result is “a fresh canvas” for a person to vandalize it, who likely won’t get caught or face a penalty. There has to be a better approach, he said.

“If you look at what has happened to Chinatown and the hundreds of graffiti all over Chinatown, that tells you — and tells the criminal — that they continue this type of vandalism with impunity,” he said.

A city staff report going before city council Tuesday says Goodbye Graffiti logged 106,383 instances of “nuisance graffiti” across the city in 2019 and 149,837 last year, an increase of 41 per cent.

Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown BIA Society, said Chinatown has done annual cleanups and urged business owners to take advantage of free paint, but didn’t mobilize the community last year because of the pandemic.

There are plans, Eng said, to launch a combined garbage cleanup and graffiti removal event sometime in the summer, with details still being worked out. The city, he said, is expected to contribute $50,000 to help with graffiti removal but has yet to hear from the provincial and federal governments.

His reaction to Cheng’s mural being vandalized: “It’s really disappointing. You would think that in this day and age, there are more intelligent people than that. But you’re dealing with people who are just angry with the world, and we’re a visible target — we’re a visible minority.”

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