Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Gung Hay Fat Choy

For the 1985 grand opening of a new grocery store in Chinatown, the advertising campaign took the form of a series of hand-drawn images of products, rather than photographs.

Cream Wafers, with the box decoration carefully copied.
Soy sauce, only 79 cents.

We found this delightful ad while sorting out the 1985 issues of the Chinese Times, a Vancouver Chinese-language daily that ran from 1915 to 1992. We're now up to 1987 in our scanning; by mid-year the whole run should be online.

A whole immigrant experience is summed up its pages, even if you can't read a word. The paper gets suddenly larger in 1979, when the community is able to afford more advertising. It stops just as suddenly in 1992, when the influx of Hong Kong immigrants brings with it rival newspapers. Over the years the publication wavers back and forth between left-to-right and right-to-left page order, hovering between worlds, between ways of speaking and organizing ideas, between there and here and between then and now. Advertising acquires more English words; headshots of women begin to appear; addresses move out and away from Chinatown, down the Fraser and Cambie corridors to begin settling middle-class Marpole.

Like most newspapers, there are masthead mistakes. Dates repeat or are different in the English and Chinese headers. English words are inserted by hand or on pasted-in typewritten strips. Pagination is suddenly reversed, with the pages of the middle section running backwards, then just as suddenly rights itself to run forward again. The same ad appears on the same page for months, years, decades; then drops off the page and is never seen again. Another ad runs twice in one issue, even twice on the same page. I imagine a cramped series of offices on the top floor of a Chinatown building; the frantic rush to get tomorrow's paper ready; the search for someone who can type in English but take direction in Chinese. I imagine a new, younger compositor putting a section together Western-style: the editor finds out but it's too late to remake the section. When the same guy goes on holiday for a week, none of the old-timers remember to change the English date on the paper.

The new Hong Kong newspapers can't compete with this. They are more professional, they have more pictures, they get the dates right. But can they tell these stories?

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