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Get Ready for a Colourful, Cultural Celebration

Festival showcases ‘a real gamut’ of all the art forms in the DTES and gives everyone a chance to participate and express themselves

Rebecca Bollwitt

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Get ready for the 20th annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival (Oct. 25 to Nov. 5), featuring more than 130 events online and in person at over 40 local venues. It promises to be a colourful, culturally diverse event.

“It showcases a real gamut of all the art forms, all the cultures within the neighbourhood, all the areas of the neighbourhood,” says Artistic Producer Terry Hunter. “It’s just a really exciting festival that showcases the real talent and the voices of our community.”

Grounded in community

This year also marks the 40th anniversary of Vancouver Moving Theatre, the lead producers of the festival. Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling co-founded the Downtown Eastside-based professional theatre company, which collaborates with its home community to celebrate its artists, art forms, cultures, activism, people and great stories.

Hunter and Walling were named Members of the Order of Canada in 2023 for their visionary, communityengaged arts practise with, for and about Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

The play’s the thing

The Heart of the City started as the Community Play in 2003, which then evolved into the mutlifaceted festival. Elwin Xie worked on the Community Play, and has been involved with the Heart of the City festival every year since as an artist presenter, tour guide and or sound, lights and multimedia technician.

Xie says that in this one monumental production all of the communities that were previously in silos, that never really interacted, all came together. After the Community Play, there was a lot of energy and synergy that happened and it morphed into the DTES Heart of the City Festival.

“There are several individuals, including Terry, who just thought, ‘We have to keep this going. This is very special and people loved to participate.’ For many individuals, it was their first time performing on a public stage. It gave people confidence, and from that it has been a great foundation for people to springboard into other things — like telling their own stories and building on that.”

This year, Xie is technical support on Shon Wong’s show, Once Upon a Time on a Chinatown Night. Xie and multiple generations of his family grew up in Chinatown and his family history here goes back to the start of the City. 

The start of the City 

“There’s a reason why people gravitate Downtown. It’s the old buildings, it’s the stories, that’s where it all started. If you want to find the stories of Vancouver, that’s where you’re going to find it,” says Xie.

As K’emk’emeláý, the Squamish place name for the area for millennia, it also the home of the first city hall, a gathering place for over a century at the Carnegie building  on Hastings and Main, and where you’d catch the Interurban up Main to Kingsway and out to New Westminster.

“It’s where Vancouver started, where Chinatown started. People may have moved away but they always seem to come back, like me,” says Xie. “I just love stories, I love the community, my roots are deep, and I’ve always just kind of stuck around and helped out. I believe in the neighbourhood.”

Xie says that the history of his family parallels that of many other Chinese people living in Vancouver: helping to build the CPR railway in the 1880s, farming and selling vegetables on Keefer Street, logging in Shaughnessy and sawmill construction. Xie’s family was established in Richmond at first, and they moved into the city in 1948 when his parents were reunited after Exclusion.

“The Exclusion of Chinese Immigrants [1923-1947] was implemented by the Government of Canada after the Head Tax, and the Head Tax was implemented after the completion of the railway,” Xie says. “My parents were reunited after an 11- year separation and decided to get into business together upon their arrival.”

Xie’s parents purchased Gin Lee Laundry at 274 Union St., at the southwest corner of Union and Gore, and were there for about 20 years. Today, it’s the site of Nora Hendrix Place.

“We were expropriated, pushed out of these during the days and years when the City of Vancouver wanted to raze Strathcona and Chinatown. If you look at their original blueprints we are at ground zero of where they wanted to put that highway. It was supposed to go right in front of our door. After a bunch of protests they re-jigged it and moved it to behind us.”

During the pandemic, Xie worked with Vancouver Moving Theatre to help put together a shadow play about growing up in the neighbourhood, and his family business. The production is available on YouTube, under Intangible Treasures of the Downtown Eastside, directed by Sarah May Redmond and Cathy Stubington with more than a dozen storytellers.

Says Terry Hunter of the play: “It gives an idea of the depth that Elwin [Xie] has done in the community and how he himself has taken agency about telling his own story. That’s one of the goals of the festival is to support the community. It’s just great when people take the initiative on their own to step forward and tell their own story in their own way.”

Home is where the Heart is 

For Hunter, the heart of the city, the Downtown Eastside, is home.

“It’s where I came in the mid-1970s with my wife and we established here in the community and began to work here.

“Like other people,we were looking for a place we could afford to live and it became the home in which we raised our family and did our cultural practice. It’s a place that I’m immensely grateful to for embracing us and working with us. I’ve built an incredible life here and I’m so honoured to be able to work with all the amazing people and organizations.”

Hunter says that in one way, he thinks of it as a gold mine — not in the material sense, but as filled with cultural treasures.

“This neighbourhood is a cultural treasure and there’s nothing like it anywhere else in North America. The people here, the organizations and the history are all quite astounding. And the fact that so much of it remains! It’s extraordinary. It’s my home and very heartfelt place that I dearly love.” Seeing the social issues in the neighbourhood is challenging and hard on the soul, but Hunter says he feels a sense of hope.

“We still have to keep on fighting, and we still have to keep on hoping and really working towards making this community a better place.”

The Downtown Eastside and Chinatown is also home for Xie.

“It was the home of my parents. It was home of my forbearers, so my roots are deep in this neighbourhood. For better or for worse, it’s home. I can’t turn my back on the community just because it’s got all these challenges.

“I think my community, the Chinese community, has had to put up with a lot more than social issues. We’ve had to endure legislative racial discrimination, and this is just one of many obstacles that we need to work through. For me, to give up on Chinatown would be to let down my forebears and I just can’t do that.”

Personal history, community history

In Once Upon a Time on a Chinatown Night, the work Xie is involved with this year, Shon Wong has been inspired by productions that use music, and personal and historical narrative to weave stories to delve into his own family history.

The production follows Wong’s personal journey and his search for family, identity and purpose. It features original Chynatruckerfunk music by the Son of James Band, historical projections by Xie, story by Shon Wong, with narrator Ramona Mar and special guests.

There will be images from Wong’s personal collection, public domain images and others woven into a storyline that will enhance what the artist wants to say.

Xie says that because many of the images are coming from Wong’s and his father’s personal archives, they’ve never been seen before.

“Quite often, when you see images of Chinatown, you see the same images over and over again, regurgitated in other peoples’ productions, so it’s rather refreshing to see images that have been hitherto never seen.”

Xie hopes that initiatives like this will also help the City of Vancouver archives expand their collections, to include and represent people of colour and marginalized communities.

“When people open up and feel a little more trusting, other families will feel confident in contributing to the public archives as well.” 

Carrying it forward 

Moving history into the future and looking at the next 20 years of the festival is something Hunter’s been preparing for years.

“We started talking about succession years ago and we’ve always been very committed to making sure the festival carries on after our departure,” says Hunter. “It’s really the community’s festival. It belongs to the community. The mandate will continue to be: to give voice and support to the artists and the residents of the Downtown Eastside, especially those who are marginalized.”

Hunter says the artists and residents of the neighbourhood will always have a voice. In recent years, there’s been a noticeable shift in the stories that are being told.

“A lot of these stories that I’m talking about these days, I can’t see myself talking about them 20 years ago,” says Xie. “I think a lot of things have opened up in the last 20 years. The ability to talk about residential schools, to talk about missing children, we’re talking about Chinese laundries — the whole thing about Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion… those things were not even on the radar.”

The future of the city and the festival is about sharing the past right now, in the present.

“People are finding out about these ‘taboo’ subjects and maybe it’s like that whole shift in museums, where we get away from settler/colonial stories and there are other stories, other people were here too and it’s time to shine the light on their stories as well.”  

Filed under: Arts

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Rebecca Bollwitt

Rebecca Bollwitt


Rebecca Bollwitt has been writing about events and travel in B.C. since 2004 on the multi-award-winning blog Miss604.com. With 25 years of digital publishing experience, she has co-authored and technically edited five books on the subject, and founded her own agency which assists clients across North America with their social media strategies and website development. Community is at the heart of her mission, and Rebecca partners with and sponsors campaigns for more than 20 charities each year. She also serves as a board executive for two local non-profit organizations.

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