Imperfect Archives: Lilian Leung and Linda Zhang Virtually Capture Eroding Chinatowns

Linda Zhang's Virtual Reality companion for Eveline Lam’s story "Interval," 2021. Courtesy the artist.

Next to the yellow lettering of Mother’s Dumplings, artist Lilian Leung pulls out her phone and begins circling, taking images from as many different angles as possible. Among the fruit and vegetable sellers, the bubble tea shops, and restaurants advertising ‘takeout only’, Mother’s Dumplings is a mainstay in west Chinatown, which has existed at the intersection of Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West since the late 1960s. One of six Chinatowns in the Greater Toronto Area, it’s heavily frequented by tourists, though a community of residents, seniors, shop owners, and benevolent societies have been in the space for decades. While it doesn’t have the elaborate welcome gates typically found in other Chinatowns, or the familiar Sino architectural flourishes, it does share their history of persistence. Toronto’s west Chinatown has been forcibly relocated several times by city planning officials, and, despite ongoing attempts at redevelopment and gentrification in the area, it continues to exist.

Leung takes scans of Chinatown almost daily and volunteers with advocacy groups like Friends of Toronto Chinatown (FOTC) and Tea Base, both collectives of young activists trying to prevent condo development and corporate chains from pushing out the community. Leung tells me about a planned protest next week against the redevelopment of the block where Rol San, a popular dim sum spot, currently sits; it’s slated to be transformed into a 13-story mixed use building for “young professionals.” (The development is later approved despite community objection.) Moving through Chinatown with Leung, it’s clear she’s aware of even the smallest shifts in the architecture, knowledge she shares on her Instagram account Chinatown.vr. Using 3D scanning software, Leung carefully stitches together several images of a built space taken on her iPhone to create a final render, which she then posts with captions that are both informative and informal, noting the date the building was scanned, its location – and sometimes, how difficult it was to capture. One caption provides a brief history of family associations, also known as benevolent societies or tongs, which emerged in the early days of Chinatown as a form of mutual aid, creating financial and cultural support for Asian immigrants in the face of racism and discrimination. Next to the caption, a set of scans taken in 2020-21 depict the locations of three different family associations, seemingly nondescript and hidden above storefronts, including one above a bright red-and-yellow Denny’s sign.

Lilian Leung, “Dragon Hobby,” 2021. Courtesy the artist.

Leung began to experiment with 3D-scanning as part of her art degree and eventually transitioned from painting to digital tools, hoping to create interactive documentation of Chinatown with VR. Citing the influence of Stan Douglas’s Circa 1948, an immersive app that recreates Hogan’s Alley and Old Hotel Vancouver, two communities that no longer exist near Vancouver’s Chinatown, Leung’s Chinatown.vr falls somewhere between an informal architectural tour and an imperfect archive. Using a common real-estate modeling tool to build her scans, Leung’s work feels closer to the practice of digital repatriation, the return of cultural heritage items in a digital form to the communities from which they originated, seen recently in the Institute for Digital Archaeology’s life-size 3D printed model of Syria’s destroyed Palmrya Arch, erected in London’s Trafalgar Square and New York’s Times Square. Moving through Chinatown with an iPhone, Leung works at a smaller, less precise scale, framing storefronts and shops in Chinatown as sites of cultural heritage.

Shared publicly on Instagram, without their full 3D capabilities, Leung’s scans are more accessible than a 3D interactive space that requires a headset or other hardware. Rather than render each structure in detail, Leung’s work leans into opacity, pixelation, and texture. Several images, like Furama Cake and Desserts (2020) and Lucky Star (2020), appear warped and dotted, like the buildings are trapped underwater, about to dissolve. Despite their technology, the scans feel strangely handmade. Store signs are stippled with small dots of color signifying Chinese characters, store fronts are represented by thick strokes of red brick or the wavering lines of a front door. Many of the buildings are hard to identify at first glance, due to the stitching together of an accumulation of images and the angle of Leung’s camera in her hand that day. Imperfect by design, they are decidedly less consumable than the real-estate renders found on billboards, promising something new and exciting is coming to your neighborhood soon.

Leung’s scans often depict structures that no longer exist, having shuttered due to the pandemic, rising rent costs, redevelopment, or owners retiring after decades in the same space. Some scans, like Goldstone Bakery and Restaurant (2020) in Vancouver and Rol San All Day Dim Sum (2021) in west Toronto, represent lost landmarks, informal gathering spaces where you could sit for hours without having to buy much, frequented by locals and more recently, protesters taking a break to regroup, eat, and organize. While Leung’s scans have been a welcome addition to my Instagram feed, providing access to downtown Chinatown during the lockdown when visiting wasn’t possible, they also serve as a frustrating reminder of the continual loss of space, charting the dismantling of the area one scan at a time.

Linda Zhang’s Virtual Reality companion for Eveline Lam’s story “Interval,” 2021. Courtesy the artist.

Chinatown.vr also brings to mind the work of Linda Zhang, whose projects recreate marginalized neighborhoods in immersive VR memory spaces. Drawing on her background in technology and community organizing, Zhang’s work looks at how architectural forms of representation can reflect community life that exists beyond institutional recognition. Like Leung, Zhang was drawn to west Chinatown for its resilience in a rapidly gentrifying area and its duality, used as a living space by residents and a visiting space by tourists. Zhang’s Chinatown 2050 project, created in collaboration with the Toronto history museum, Myseum, is a story-driven VR world made from 3D scans and drone footage she took of downtown Chinatown over several years. Rather than let the footage languish in the city archives, Zhang decided to collaborate with a group of Asian designers and architects to build interactive VR spaces informed by speculative short stories.

Collected as the anthology Reimagining Chinatown, the eleven stories were born out of an online writing workshop held in 2020 amid the pandemic and a series of lockdowns in the city. In her introduction, Zhang calls the stories “community narratives,” noting their resistance to the way Chinatowns are often depicted, what she calls “The White City” phenomenon. In 1906, architect Daniel Burnham was commissioned by the city to redesign San Francisco’s Chinatown after it was leveled due to an earthquake and several fires. Meant to complement the “City Beautiful Plan” for San Francisco, Burnham and several other architects (who had never been to China) relied on century-old religious images of the continent to create a new look for the area; the familiar “Chinatown” architectural style was born.

Linda Zhang’s Virtual Reality companion for Michael Chong’s story “New Hong Fatt BBQ Restaurant,” 2021. Courtesy the artist.

This design turned Chinatown into a homogenous space that would appeal to white audiences, reducing Chinese culture to pagoda style roofs, red lanterns, and embellished lampposts. It was later implemented in other Chinatowns across North America and has become synonymous with look and feel of these communities. This desire to “beautify” Chinatowns persists today in the form of city-approved developments and revitalization projects done without community consultation, reflecting the ongoing need for these areas to appeal to white North American standards and counteract perceptions of dirtiness or imperfection to survive. Within this context, Leung’s scans of west Toronto Chinatown, with their stippled and dotted representations, feel all the more meaningful for their inscrutability, resisting a clean, easily digestible image.

“The White City” phenomenon is a trap the community continues to struggle with. As Zhang notes, “the architecture helped Chinese Americans and Canadians ‘earn’ economic means and political right to stay, but came at the cost of their continued othering, exoticization, and fetishization.” In this way, speculative fiction narratives are not a metaphor for the Chinatown community; “The White City” design created a vision for the area centered on white audiences, a long-standing fiction that residents continue to live with, and within. For Zhang, merging speculative storytelling and the built space of VR allows her to create a fully immersive experience that presents alternative ways of representing Chinatown. Her use of community narratives to shape the VR give the raw data of 3D a deeper framing, transforming them from simple documentation into a more imagined, story-driven world.

Created by Zhang and a team of VR designers, the VR worlds for the stories in the anthology are accessible via a QR code printed on the back page of the publication. The viewer can then use their iPhone or tablet to “walk” around different areas and enter the VR space for each story. Though the VR can be accessed via a 3D headset, the iPhone experience works just as well, allowing you to move around in the built space with your finger. Set to be completed in 2022, the eleven VR spaces will include audio of each story read by Zhang.

Lilian Leung, “Lucky Star,” 2020. Courtesy the artist.

Themes of dystopia, loss, and nostalgia pop up in many of the stories, depicting a future where the pandemic, rampant condo redevelopment, and anti-Asian racism have radically changed Chinatown, and these elements are reflected in each VR world. In the current VR space for Interval by Eveline Lam, about a woman who discovers the Chinatown community has gone underground to live among plants that grow below the earth, empty present-day Chinatown is a gradually taken over by tall grass and plants, bright stalks of green pushing through pixelated brick and metal. Another story, Chinatown Island by Amy Yan, follows a young girl on a school field trip to an amusement park version of Chinatown, complete with shopkeepers from the original, sequestered on an island made for tourists. The VR space reflects the faux cheer of the amusement park, a giant waving Lucky Cat Hotel framed by a spotted bright orange and violet sky, the outline of buildings far from the island’s edge shimmering in the distance, a wide dark swatch of water separating the island from the city.

Somewhat in tandem with Zhang’s practice, Leung has also begun integrating storytelling into her VR work: she recently facilitated a series of online workshops inviting participants to recreate memory spaces in VR and make their own interactive documentation using low-cost tech. Some of the participants built spaces they’d never been to before, such as Josh Lu’s My Mother’s Village (鹿湖), using VR as a tool to build memories that bridge the gap between fiction and memory.

For Leung and Zhang, creating intentionally imperfect VRs of Chinatown speaks to their larger project of moving past superficial representations, and framing the built space not for its real-estate value but for its time-worn aesthetics and fading presence. There is friction in how both artists position their work within the reality of west Chinatown, which is sure to experience continued loss of space and potentially suffer the same fate of Chinatowns in other Canadian cities, overrun by building creep and profit-motivated architectural development. While their projects are free to access online and do not try to monetize the area (though in Leung’s case, technically Instagram does own her images), they also aren’t able to completely replicate the experience of being there. Both projects reinforce Chinatown as a site of possibility and ongoing loss, where the gain of virtual memory spaces does not fully account for the destruction happening in the community, in real time. As Toronto’s west Chinatown continues to experience a loss of space, and virtual experiences have become a way to remember, but they also reveal what cannot be reclaimed.

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