Penny Tham is our longest-serving volunteer at the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation and the Chinatown Storytelling Centre. She introduced our team to the Singapore-style vermicelli at Ming Fong Fast Food, was and remains a pivotal figure in opening the Chinatown Storytelling Centre (find her at the front desk every Monday!), and is—above all—proof of the passion that we can foster to change the narrative of Chinatown and revitalize our beloved neighbourhood.
“I can still remember Chinatown when it was vibrant—subsequent generations don’t necessarily have that; they only know Chinatown as it is. But, if you’d like to be able to envision Chinatown in its glory days, we must do it now, otherwise it will never get done. And that is the thing—now is the time.”
Penny joined our volunteer team in 2017 when, after over 20 years abroad, she “came back to see the deterioration of Chinatown'' and wanted to help make a change. She began at the May Wah on the advisory committee and hasn’t lost that momentum and commitment to our cause. We asked about her journey and accomplishments as a volunteer in Chinatown, as well as her advice to those wanting to get involved.
How did you get involved with the Chinatown Storytelling Centre?
“I’m a retired lawyer, and I’ve worked at investment banks around the world, so I’m very much someone who has seen and managed projects with all of that corporate background. Which is kind of a perfect job for me, because I am a project manager at heart! So that’s how I became the Storytelling Centre project manager and helped write the initial application for the grant we got from Heritage Canada.”
“We are seeing a new focus returning to Chinatown—sometimes it’s positive but sometimes it’s negative. We’ve had all of the anti-Asian racism throughout the pandemic, all the graffiti… It’s very heartbreaking to read the recent story about the mural that has been defaced, again, after they fixed it. You just really feel for the people. If you can bring your skills, and want to help, we always need it.”
What has been your most rewarding experience as a volunteer?
“What I get from it is something really meaningful. I’m doing work about something I really care about, and it’s probably one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life. Which I think is pretty special! I don’t think you can always say that.”
What advice do you have for other volunteers?
“What I’ve found through volunteering at various organizations, is that there are volunteers who don’t stay. There wasn’t that emotional connection for them. So, you have to care about the mission of what you’re volunteering for. That’s why I do it, that’s why I’m here every Monday. It’s so important to find something that you really care about. That will bring you the most satisfaction.”
“There is no shortage of causes and institutions that need your help and are worthy of being helped. But in order for them to get the most out of you so that you come back regularly? You have to get something out of it.”
How can others get involved?
“We are so lucky to have our events. That’s one thing that I’ve been really impressed with, with the team and with everybody here, is that during the pandemic we were able to do stuff. Like ‘Light Up Chinatown!’, that was so impressive! I was talking to somebody from Dress for Success and, that weekend, their family was in town from England and she took them down there. They were blown away!”
“And when you think about that, that came with a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, you can’t do that,’ or, ‘That’ll never work because it’s Chinatown.’ But here we say, ‘Okay! Let’s do it anyway!’ It’s turned out now to be where people are saying, ‘Are you doing it again?’”
What are the first steps?
“I encourage people to check us out! Come to the Storytelling Centre, have a look, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Hopefully it’s something you care about. I think, if nothing else, it’ll be a learning experience to come and get to know us. There are so many stories here that have never been shared—I still haven’t listened to all 150 stories!
“There are all of these fantastic ideas, and there are different generations of people working here; that mix of energies and ideas is really quite appealing to me. Hopefully, I’ll continue to learn new things! I always am. For me, learning is a lifelong journey. If you want a place to get involved that challenges you as well, and is stimulating, I think the Storytelling Centre has certainly done that for me.
And the most important question… What’s your favourite place to eat in Chinatown?
“Ming Fong! I wandered over there and ordered their Singapore noodles, which is one of my favourite dishes. I would bring them back to the office and everyone would be like, ‘What are you eating! It smells so good!’ After a while, if people knew I was going over there they’d ask me to bring them back a box.”
“The owners became people I grew more impressed with because they stayed open through the pandemic. There are seniors in this neighbourhood that rely on Ming Fong and the other businesses here. I admire how they stayed open and ensured that those members of our community could still have hot, delicious meals.”
Penny, thank you so much for sitting down with us and sharing your experience and insight!
If you would like to get involved with the Chinatown Storytelling Centre, please find more information here.