The Sounds of Chinatown

The Sounds of Chinatown


Dominique Bautista

A Review: Chinatown Sound Mapping Workshop

Placemaking & sound mapping
How does sound contribute to our sense of place?

“Certain sounds can play a role in reaffirming a particular kind of place, like how opera music at an herbal store or the sound of seniors playing mahjong can reaffirm the Chinese-ness of the neighbourhood. But I think how you perceive the [sounds] and incorporate it into your understanding of Chinatown also depends on your position: if you’re from the neighbourhood or not, if you grew up in Vancouver, and so on. The longer I worked on this [sound mapping] project, the more I realized that a lot of the sounds that I gravitated towards are the sounds that evoked nostalgia for me, and are also just the sounds of everyday life in Chinatown. So for the people who live or work here, sounds that I found special might just be ordinary for them. (I don’t know for sure, but I’d like to think so!)

But, judging from the looks I sometimes get from employees and seniors they probably think it weird that I was recording sounds- like seniors buying peanuts, or fish being delivered, probably because these are sounds that they’re used to hearing everyday. So yes, I think the way you perceive sounds (which is shaped by your identity, who you see yourself as in this space) can really influence your understanding of a place like Chinatown.”

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Angela Ho’s first Chinatown Sound Mapping Workshop hosted in Chinatown at the Hua Foundation office with the support of UBC’s Asian Canadian & Asian Migration Studies program. Angela recently summered with Hua Foundation, and is a current student with ACAM (when she isn’t acting as a Teaching Assistant for first year international students at Vantage College, or serving as UBC’s Geography Students’ Association President).

Angela shares with participants her inspirations for this sound mapping project, building off of local and academic examples that get her thinking about what she herself could do. She says the idea really came to her on a walk home from work- because as you know, some of our best thoughts often come when we’re in transit!

The three-hour workshop is a bit of a tight squeeze and hopefully in the future more time can be allotted! There’s just enough time to become acquainted with sound equipment (two types of microphones are offered as use options), and basic tips on sound editing software (Audacity), as well as about an hour to explore Chinatown’s neighbourhood on a delightfully, and perhaps surprisingly, busier than normal Saturday mid-day stroll. I can attest to that one hour not being enough to explore the area, and this comes from someone who frequents Chinatown every so often! Oh, and snacks! Snacks from New Town were provided (dietary particulars taken into consideration), as well as an opportunity to get to know other participants- those who are more familiar with Chinatown, those who are curious to get to know the neighbourhood better, and those who have never encountered recording or sound mapping at all! There were a lot more commonalities shared amongst participants than we knew.

As we were heading out to explore the neighbourhood to try our hand at recording our own sounds, one of the participants, Arielle, remarked how Angela was hosting us like a caring mother, and she was so right. Angela took time to explain the importance of respecting the community, good practice when interacting in new spaces as visitors. If we needed support, she offered to translate in Cantonese permission to get sound recordings from certain businesses.

Most participants stayed a little after the intended end time because the desire to keep posting and sharing recordings was just too compelling! Angela also provides the link to the sound map project so that participants can continue to upload their mappings from sound recordings they take after the workshop. It’s so wonderful that she’s created a project that at its heart is truly a piece of community- a collaborative undertaking that genuinely reflects the experiences and spirit of Chinatown.

It was fascinating to hear the different sounds participants chose to record and felt significant enough to place on the map. Some of us chose to stand on the street corner of Gore and Keefer listening to the coming and going of traffic. Others chose to record a visit to newer shops, the bubbling fishtanks, and the classic gathering scenes at Chinatown Plaza. Coincidentally enough, today LiterASIAN was hosting a few panels in the neighbourhood, and I managed to catch a bit of the presentations! All these sights and sounds tantalizing our senses.
So, how does sound contribute to our sense of place? Do you choose to record sounds at places we have distinct connections to or previous memories? Do you choose to record at places that are ‘cool’ or curious? What do we choose to record in our memories as we plot these experiences on a map of Chinatown to share with our future selves?

Angela hosts two more workshops next month, which are both sold out! Congrats, Angela! Looking forward to you sharing the Chinatown sound map more publically when it’s ready for release! And more importantly, when are the next round of workshops coming out?

Find out more about Angela and her work on her blog or on Twitter!

Workshop 1

Workshop 2

Workshop 3

Soundcloud links: