Community News & Events

Saltwater City: a Story Still Alive 36 Years Later

It’s almost time to kick off Lunar New Year with the new moon on February 1 st . This Lunar New Year ushers in the Year of the Water Tiger: a year full of risk-taking, adventure, and making big changes. But it is also a year for family and nurturing interpersonal relationships. With that comes storytelling, from mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers. Take time to listen to the stories of your family members and elders this year and learn from their stories. The Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society would like to share one such story with you, a story about the Saltwater City – the name the early Chinese gave to Vancouver.

Saltwater City
Ramona Mar, former Member of the Saltwater City Planning Committee

Ramona Mar – Back in 1986, as Vancouver hosted the World’s Fair and the city celebrated its 100th birthday, a small group of volunteers mounted the Saltwater City Exhibit at the Chinese Cultural Centre under the able guidance of historian and writer Paul Yee. By the end of its successful 3 month-long run, as the artifacts were returned to lenders and we exhausted volunteers got on with life, there were thoughts that the Exhibit should’a, could’a been permanent. But where could it be housed? In the end, we were content that Paul memorialized the history in his award-winning Saltwater City book, and the Exhibit had inspired not one, but two video productions; one for CBC Television and the other for BC Schools. Thirty-six years later, I’d assert that the temporary exhibit and subsequent videos remain as relevant today as then. With the transformation in the demographics and make-up of the Chinese Canadian population and the re-appearance of anti-Asian racism over the decades, it seems we could all benefit from a reminder of history.

Saltwater City documented the journey of those who came predominantly from Southern China, who stayed, worked unceasingly and integrated along with other settlers from around the world. Chinese Canadians supported each other in the face of unthinkable institutional racism and are indebted to the over 600 men and women who volunteered to fight for Canada in WWII even though they did not have the right to vote. While the Saltwater City Exhibit has long been packed away, in 2022 we now have, amazingly, two permanent venues to impart this history. With the opening of The Chinatown Storytelling Centre this past November and the upcoming Chinese Canadian Museum, it occurs to me they stand as testaments to the legacy of the original Saltwater City Exhibit. Both of these institutions relay the same historical facts augmented by current technology and a variety of storytellers. 

You may smile at the retro-style of the Saltwater City video you are about to see, but be alive to the content. In the end, we are all enriched by having the story told again for it seems that we can never learn enough from our collective past.

Hoping you’ll forgive my shoulder pads,

Ramona Mar

Members of the Saltwater City Planning Committee

Producer of Saltwater City, Doug Nicolle

Douglas Nicolle studied film production at Simon Fraser University. After graduation, he worked at CBC Vancouver as a news and public affairs film editor.  After leaving the CBC Doug went into partnership as Spectra Communications, a local film and video production company where he produced and directed many productions for Federal and Provincial government ministries, private corporations, and associations. While there he produced and directed “Vancouver A Portrait By Arthur Erickson” which aired nationally on the CBC and “Saltwater City,” also for the CBC.

After Spectra he then spent 17 years with Providence Health Care/ St. Paul’s Hospital as Video Producer and Manager of Media Services. He produced and directed many health-related videos including “Faces of Palliative Care” for UBC Faculty of Medicine, which also aired on CBC. Doug Nicolle is now retired.