Yucho Chow was known for decades as a photographer who recorded the lives of Chinese Canadians in Chinatown in the first half of the 20th century.It turns out that Chow was that and much more. As the first solo exhibition of his work shows, he was the go-to photographer for many of the city’s visible minorities and marginalized groups.They knew they wouldn’t be turned away at Chow’s studio in Chinatown.Chow’s work remains relatively unknown despite his four decades as a commercial photographer. A big reason why is that most of his negatives and prints were thrown away when his studio closed. As a result, few of his photographs are in public collections and archives.Catherine Clement has been on a mission to make sure Chow is recognized for his contributions to the visual history of Vancouver. She’s organized a groundbreaking exhibition of Chow’s work in the museum at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Chinatown.
Chow’s photographs show that Chinatown wasn’t only for Chinese Canadians, said Clement.“It was a place where so many other marginalized groups could come and be comfortable and get service and the things they needed,” she said.Clement said Chow was not only Vancouver’s first Chinese Canadian photographer, he was probably the most prolific. He photographed “thousands of faces of all skin colours, religious beliefs and backgrounds.”In particular, he photographed Black and African Canadians and Indo Canadians, especially Sikhs. Musqueam and other Indigenous peoples also sought him out. He was also a favourite of Italian Canadians and newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe such as Ukrainians and Poles.“There was something about him that was warm and welcoming.”Chow was born on June 3, 1876, in what today is called Kaiping, Guangdong. It’s in the Pearl River Delta in southern China, the source of many immigrants to Canada in the 19th and early 20th centuries.He probably arrived in 1902 when he was 28. He would have had to pay a head tax on Chinese immigrants, which had been increased to $100 that year.He started off working as a houseboy and then apprenticed with a photographer. By 1906, he found enough money to buy equipment and open a studio on Pender. He later moved to 518 Main.Part of the story behind the exhibition is Clement’s own journey into her Chinese Canadian past.Clement, who’s half Chinese, remembers being taken one summer as a six-year-old to Chinatown by her grandmother, who would play mah-jong, a game of skill and chance for four people with a set of 144 tiles.That was it in terms of her exposure to Chinese Canadian culture in Vancouver.“I didn’t really grow up Chinese,” Clement said. “I grew up white.”About 10 years ago, she became a volunteer on a project interviewing Chinese Canadian veterans of the Second World War. That’s when she started learning about the history of Chinese Canadians and the legal discrimination they faced, which included being barred from professions such as pharmacy and law.The veterans Clement interviewed often brought out photo albums to jog their memories. Among the photos, she kept noticing certain ones with a distinctive seal that said Yucho Chow Studio.She had no idea who he was. When Clement Googled the name, she found very little except for a citation in special collections at the University of B.C., which has about 20 of his photographs.“There was no photo of him and very little written about him,” said Clement, curator of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum. “He was like this ghost.”Four years ago, a widow of a war veteran told Clement that Yucho Chow was her grandfather.“Bingo!” Clement said. “Finally, I found my first photo of what this man looked like. Things started rolling from there.”Chow worked during a historic time in Vancouver for Chinese Canadians that included the years of the head tax, when it increased from $100 to $500, the 1907 anti-Oriental race riots in Chinatown and the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923, which barred all Chinese immigration to Canada. He was also a photographer during sunnier times, such as when Chinese Canadians won the right to vote in 1947.After Chow died in 1949, two of his sons kept the studio going until they retired in 1986. They thought nobody would be interested in the negatives and prints, so they filled five truckloads with the studio’s contents. It was all taken to the dump.Bringing together enough Chow photographs for an exhibition has taken years. The biggest source came through Clement’s Chinatown History Windows project, a series of more than 20 historical window displays, in 2017. The window on Yucho Chow featured a life-size self-portrait of the photographer in a three-piece suit and a panama hat. As a result of the window and the media coverage, numerous families contacted Clement to add their Yucho Chow photos to her collection.Clement said if it weren’t for the families who shared their photos, she wouldn’t have been able to tell the story of Chow’s culturally diverse clientele.Clement didn’t know, for example, anything about Chow’s photos of African Canadians until she was contacted by Judith Collins Maxie.“I had heard that (Chow) photographed more than Chinese Canadians,” Clement said. “I didn’t really have any evidence of that. Judith opened that door.”Clement said she thinks of Chow’s photographs as “everywhere but nowhere” because of the way they’re dispersed in privately held photo albums. A few are in archives. Some have ended up in thrift stores, where they’ve been spotted by collectors.Clement has about 250 Chow photographs, 80 of which are in the exhibition. Wherever possible, each photo is accompanied by a story that puts it in context.Some photos have no names or stories, which she describes as having “gone silent.” She hopes the people in them can be identified so they can speak again. Tips on how to identify a Yucho Chow photograph are at www.YuchoChow.ca.In the exhibition, Chow’s photographs will be displayed by themes such as family or entertainment.“We want to underscore the fact that despite the different backgrounds and experiences, everyone wanted to be remembered and to have significant moments captured,” she said.“Their commonality becomes so evident when you see the photos together.”Chinatown Through a Wide Lens: The Hidden Photographs of Yucho Chow, runs Sat., May 4 to Thur., May 30 at the Chinese Cultural Centre, 2nd floor, 555 Columbia St.Later this year, Clement plans to publish a limited-edition book of Yucho Chow photographs.Making a connectionWhen Judith Collins Maxie was growing up, she remembers noticing distinctive photographs on the bedroom dressers of her extended family and friends.Some had what she now knows were memorable art deco backgrounds. They often had a unique Yucho Chow seal on a handsome cardboard frame.Two years ago, Maxie read a story by reporter Joanne Lee-Young in The Vancouver Sun about the Chinatown History window on Chow. She noticed it didn’t mention the photographs Chow took of Black Canadians. Maxie saw the absence as an example of a missing part of Vancouver’s history.So she sent Lee-Young a family photograph of her British-born grandmother, Emily Aida Collins, with her five mixed-race grandchildren. After Emily’s first husband was killed at Vimy Ridge, she had married Charles Collins, a Jamaican. The photo, taken by Chow in 1944, marked the second birthday of Emily’s grandson Richard. Judith is beside him on Emily’s lap.After Lee-Young forwarded the photo to Catherine Clement, she got in touch with Maxie, who shared more photographs and helped Clement connect with other families.“Mixed-race families would have been little recorded and known at the time,” Maxie said.“Most of Chow’s photographs are hidden — and all those histories are hidden. Catherine is exposing how these various cultural communities were experiencing the same period of time, the early 20th century.”Maxie is the daughter of singer and entertainer Eleanor Collins, the jazz singer who in 1955 became the first Black artist in North America to have their own nationally televised show on CBC.Chow’s photographs show commonalities across differences in cultural heritage, race, gender, and class, said Maxie.“The black community felt very free in (Chow’s) studio. They knew they could have their memories documented. His photographs end up being quite artful in the way they were styled and the way people were placed.”John Howard Fair is shown wearing the classy clothes of a tap dancer. In 1938, his photo by Yucho Chow appeared in The Vancouver Sun accompanying a story about a revue show with singers, musicians and dancers called Footlight Frolic that played at local theatres such as The Lyric. Even though he was born in Vancouver and raised in Strathcona, the paper described him as an example of “Harlem at its Best.” As an adult, Fair was an actor and singer who performed at venues such as Theatre Under the Stars. Source: John Howard Fair Collection.
An artist looking for a frame for his own art found this photo of an unidentified family at Value Village. The hand-painted backdrop of an outdoor scene is a classic example of what Yucho Chow used in the 1920s. Because photographs once required long exposures, figures often became blurry because they moved — like the little boy on the left. Source: Roma Kuzhlev.
In 1929, many businesses owned by European Canadians wouldn’t serve Sikhs, especially those wearing turbans. Yucho Chow became so popular among Indo-Canadians that he became the main visual chronicler of their community. Curator Catherine Clement points out that the four unidentified men straddle two worlds: the traditional with their turbans but also the modern with their suits. She doesn’t know why the man standing on the left has his tie coloured blue. Source: Simon Fraser University, Komagata Maru Collection.
Irma Miotto was 17 when Yucho Chow took her photo in 1947. Born into an Italian Canadian family that lived in Strathcona, she married Ramon Benedetti, whose family owned Benny’s Market on Union Street. The couple took over the store and added more Mediterranean food and deliveries. The family still owns the store. Source: The Benedetti Family.
Richard Mar was the first Chinese Canadian selected for the elite 1st Canadian Paratroop Battalion during the Second World War. The battalion supported the D-Day invasion of June, 6, 1944, by being dropped into France the day before and took part in other major battles in the European theatre, including the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944/early 1945. Mar later found out he was half Chinese and half South Asian. His photo is an example of the studio hand-painting photos. Most were done by Yucho Chow’s daughter Jessie, including this superb example that’s so skilfully executed it looks like a colour photo. Source: Marshall Mar
Yucho Chow /
Yucho Chow designed several seals for his studio, including this distinctive one when he was located at 23 Pender Street. Inside the graphic of the photographer looking through a tripod camera is Chow’s name in Chinese characters.
This self-portrait, from a postcard, was likely taken when Yucho Chow switched to a new studio at 518 Main in 1929-30. Among Chinese Canadians, some photos Chow took were sent to relatives in China for a variety of reasons, including as evidence that their investment in helping a relative emigrate had paid off. Chow kept numerous props, such as money clips, pocket watches and jewelry, so customers could project the image they wanted.