To her dismay, artist Annie Wong’s site-specific banner installation, A park without a name (2021), was on view at James Short Park in the Canadian city of Calgary in Alberta for just four days last week. The park, named after a lawyer and school principal who was instrumental in preventing Chinese Calgarians from establishing the city’s Chinatown, has undergone a years-long renaming process since July 2020 amid a reckoning of Short’s racist legacy. Now, the artist accuses the city of “white fragility” and “fear-mongering” which led to holding off the project since 2021, and eventually displaying it for less than a week.
Wong’s seven printed banners feature quotes from interviews she had conducted with Chinatown’s community members about Short’s racist history and the city’s sluggish approach to acknowledging the historical injustice toward its Chinese citizens. The banners feature statements including “James Short was a racist,” “Erasing a name in history cannot erase what was done,” and “James Short was a leader in the anti-Chinese movement.”
As a lawyer, Short represented the White citizens of the city aiming to prevent Chinese Calgarians from establishing Chinatown within the city center in 1910 due to property depreciation concerns. “Those people do not beautify any property, and in fact they tend to make a district obnoxious,” he told the Calgary Herald that year. “They have no idea of sanitation at all.”
Short’s lawsuit was unsuccessful and the development of Chinatown proceeded.
The park, developed on the block across from Calgary’s Chinatown in 1991, was named after Short as the high school once sat on the property. Despite the fact that Chinatown’s development prevailed, community residents found the park’s name offensive as Short’s racist zoning efforts set off decades of discriminatory behavior toward Chinese locals. Wong told Hyperallergic that the community has vied for the park’s renaming for over a decade, but the motion was only filed in 2020.
Through the city’s Chinatown Artist Residency, Wong was able to interview Chinatown residents between the ages of 20 and 60 regarding their thoughts about Short and the renaming of the park. The banners were up from October 25 through 28. The city’s announcement about renaming the park is expected on November 1.
“It was my intention for the work to be up for much, much longer than just four days,” Wong told Hyperallergic. “The city was afraid to install the work because they felt like they were getting a lot of pushback from the, uh, living descendants of James Short.”
According to Wong, this wasn’t the first time the city of Calgary dropped the ball in the effort to rename the park, either. She claimed that the initial steps that the city had taken to consult the Chinatown community members on appropriately renaming the park were “quite insensitive” as the committee was “led mostly by an all-White team they had hired.”
“They were really afraid of the White people in Calgary who were arguing against renaming the park,” Wong added.
A spokesperson for the city told Hyperallergic in a statement that “both the local Chinatown community and The City of Calgary had safety concerns about installing the artwork, given the rise in anti-Asian violence that many cities across North America have experienced.”
“While it seems like a short period of time, this artwork is a bold step forward for The City of Calgary and sets a precedent for future work being viewed as less of a risk,” the spokesperson continued.
Wong mentioned that certain community members felt that the committee meetings were erasing the history of Chinatown’s struggle a second time around. She also indicated that some of the older Chinatown residents, fearful for their safety, were in the past afraid of asking to rename the park.
“Calgary is a very conservative city in Canada. You can cut through the smell of white supremacy with a knife out here,” she said.
The City of Calgary said it will acquire the banners for its public art collection, with the possibility of displaying them again in the future. The City also said that it plans to invite Wong for an artist talk and further conversation about the banners.