The Chinese Canadian Museum aims to rewrite Canada’s racist history

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When eminent collector Bob Rennie was first approached last year about converting the Rennie Museum in Vancouver’s Chinatown into a new home for the Chinese Canadian Museum, he initially turned down the offer. Reached by phone in New York after an art trip through Brazil, the globetrotter from Vancouver remembers: “I said no. It was my family legacy.”

The museum, which includes more than 2,000 works from Rennie’s collection that focus on issues of social justice and identity, opened in 2009 with an exhibition dedicated to British-Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum. The opening concluded a five-year renovation by local architects Francl Architecture and Mcfarlane Green Biggar of the historic Wing Sang building, built by Chinese immigrant Yip Sang in 1889.

Not only has the museum itself become an iconic building in Vancouver, but so has Rennie’s “Baby.” He added, “But sometimes you have to let your kid go.”

Rennie is Chairman of the Tate Americas Foundation and was recently appointed Chair of Contemporary Art Acquisitions at the Art Institute of Chicago. He says he and his family “have been asking themselves some difficult questions, which is how can we own the oldest building in Chinatown and still have the Chinese Canadian Museum in a smaller building.”

The BC Chinese Canadian Museum Society opened the temporary exhibition A seat at the table in August 2020 in an Edwardian building down the street from Wing Sang. Amid the anti-Asian racism of the pandemic era, the show played with the tradition of immigrant restaurateurs to examine the Chinese experience in Canada from the days of the railroad workers. Showgoers were greeted by what appears to be a storefront in the converted Hon Hsing Building – once an athletics club used for lion dance practice – with a giant dragon mask and hand-painted wok.

In the month leading up to its opening, the society received a $10 million grant from the British Columbia government as part of a joint effort by provincial and civil governments to have the city’s Chinatown designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Following meetings between Rennie and the Society, and Melanie Mark, BC’s Secretary of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sports, it was announced in February that the provincial government would grant the Society $7.8 million in funding to purchase the Wing Sang building. CAD is a gift from the Rennie Foundation.

“The contributions of Chinese Canadians to this province have been invaluable,” said BC Premier John Horgan. “The Chinese Canadian Museum answers the community’s long-standing desire for a place where success stories can be shared and injustices can be highlighted. The museum will be an important place for all British Columbians, connecting the past with the present and future generations.”

Grace Wong, Executive Chair of the Chinese Canadian Museum Society added, “This is a historic moment for Chinese Canadians across the province. This is the first such museum in Canada and will comprehensively share the history, contributions and heritage of Chinese Canadians and their lived experiences. Having the home in the Wing Sang Building, one of Vancouver Chinatown’s most historic buildings, is particularly meaningful.”

As for the future of the Rennie collection, Rennie says it will initially be housed in a warehouse in Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver, and will be available for private viewing. He will move his real estate marketing offices, which are adjacent to Wing Sang, to a 16,000-square-foot space formerly owned by yoga apparel company Lululemon, just below his own home in Kitsilano on the west side of town.

Rennie has now loaned 92 works to galleries worldwide and is carefully considering continuing collaborations with university galleries such as the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver, where Rennie served on the board for over a decade. Education will remain a focus, Rennie says, as will developing a new sculpture park to display the many sculptures in his collection. But after securing a permanent home for the Chinese Canadian Museum, he is currently looking for a new space for his collection.

A final show in September features previously unreleased works by around 45 artists. The China Canadian Museum will take up residence in early 2023 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the “poll tax,” legislation that imposed a $50 fee on Chinese citizens migrating to Canada. From 1923 to 1947, only 50 Chinese nationals immigrated to Canada.

“Canada has been so good at hiding our own racism,” Rennie notes, “while we’re pointing the finger at our neighbors to the south.”

Now the China Canadian Museum will not only celebrate the history and achievements of a people who survived this racism and still thrive, but an important Canadian legacy will live forever.

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