What are we going to do about Vancouver’s Chinatown?

What are we going to do about Vancouver’s Chinatown?

This is a counterpart to the “Disappearing Chinatowns” research in the US; a response to some of the rapid changes occurring in Chinatown and public debate on the harms/benefits of said changes; and an answer to NE who asked me, “What is your vision for Chinatown?”

 Remembering Chinatown’s soul

I spent many days and weekends in Vancouver’s Chinatown helping my dad at his office.  He worked in the building on Keefer and Main (the one being turned into the Keefer Block condominiums).  Back then, that corner was probably the definition of “vitality” in Chinatown.  The intersection was bustling, as people boisterously struck up conversation with one another and wished each other good health.  I can still remember running up and down the streets; wincing at the smell of the dried goods in the open storefronts; and staring at the whole pigs that were deliciously barbequed and hanging in the front windows of the butcher shop.  My eyes twinkled at the “cute shops” that sold Hello-Kitty dolls and anime-gifts for chubby-cheeked, happy children.  I remember eating at Goldstone, Mitzie’s Café and Kam Gok Yuen, for unmistakably Hong Kong diner-style food.  I still think that anything you order in Chinatown beats any food in Richmond.  You can’t beat the seasoning on those woks in Chinatown.  If you know a thing or two about woks, you know that they get better as they age because the flavor of everything you cook is sealed into the surface of cast iron.  The flavors of previous meals are imparted on new ones, and this gives wok-stir fried foods extra depth.  A well-seasoned wok is the soul of a well-seasoned meal. Passing down this soul, is something that we keep searching for in, what seems like, a stagnancy that has taken over in Chinatown.


A history of problems

I think people have this happy memory of Chinatown and want to bring back a generalized state of “vibrancy”, but have difficulty remembering all the details.  Chinatown was not without its troubles either.  I still remember the bus stop bench on Pender and Main, where the homeless man was peeing in a Snapple bottle.  Back then the benches weren’t “bum-proofed” and that bench, unencumbered by raised bars, was also probably where he took his afternoon slumber.  I remember the alcove beside the parking lot in the building where my dad worked- it sheltered people as they cooked and injected crack cocaine.  The garage itself finally got a gate because so many homeless people sought shelter behind the cars, peed in the corners and spooked those parking in the lot.  I also remember that every month or so, there would be a break-in to the building.  It was a medical office building housing several Chinese family doctors, dentists, labs and pharmacies.  People broke in probably looking for supplies, drugs and things to re-sell.  Yes, there were problems that came before the rise and fall of Vancouver’s commercial Chinatown.  Chinatown was still great, despite some of those problems.

Chinatown also inherits a history, and very current reality of poverty, discrimination and racist exclusion.  Let us not forget that “Chinatowns” aren’t these ahistorical happy places where you can just order your Chinese food, take in some bright colours and say that you’ve now embraced Canada’s “multiculturalism” (we should all be wary of tokenism and the commodification of ethnicity).  Chinatown was created as an exclusionary zone for Chinese labourers.  My mother still recalls the times when my Grandfather would have to step off the sidewalk for a White person, or he’d be spit on or beat-up.  Sometimes stepping off the sidewalk wasn’t a guarantee of avoiding being called a “chink”, being spit on, and then being beaten-up.  Alongside Chinese discrimination, there was racism against Blacks, Japanese and Indigenous that led to a ghettoized geographical convergence in Vancouver.  These histories are not “in the past”, as many in Vancouver’s Chinatown still experience the violence of poverty.

Diagnosing overlapping issues and recognizing common interests

The decline of the Chinatown, we once remembered, is due to a whole host of issues.  The problem is complex.  See part of my analysis here.

Chinatown Business interests are splintered because they realize poverty in the DTES was not the deciding factor of the decline of Chinatown.  Chinatown’s decline combines a few things, which include the closure of Woodward’s, which decreased foot traffic to adjacent Chinatown; the popularity of Richmond and the Chinese suburb (and the general availability of Chinese goods in mainstream grocery stores); and the decline in families passing on their businesses on to their children to run (some business owners could consider this desirable if their children became upwardly mobile professionals).  It is clear to everyone that the poverty in the DTES is unlikely directly related to the decline of Chinatown (Excerpt from “Chinatown business interests”).

Beyond the complex history of problems, there are some common interests in Chinatown.  We all agree that whatever develops in Chinatown should respect the history of Chinese people and other disenfranchised groups who settled in the area.  We all agree that, moving forward, we need to ensure that “Chinatown” is more than just a museum and does justice to Vancouver’s multiculturalism.  Beyond these common threads, we have tension on how to achieve a “new Chinatown”.

Some folk are calling for “revitalization”, which can be a euphemism for gentrification if we don’t address the fact that there are serious housing security issues for poor, racialized and aging people in the neighbourhood.  The Chinatown BIA is taking charge on commercial revitalization by supporting the many new businesses, nightlife venues and liquor licenses, which have made a home in Vancouver’s Chinatown since the Revitalization Plan was enacted.  Many have been reactive against this strategy because they question whether or not the new businesses are a form of commercial gentrification.  While we cannot declare that none of these businesses aren’t for local people, it is hard to believe that some of the high-end pricing, at some of these new businesses, is accessible to the poor and seniors who currently struggle to make rent.

There is clearly a disconnect between the businesses, that have opened in the past few years, and the businesses and services needed for the existing community.


(image credit here)

Moving Forward?

I am always partial to a defensive stance when it comes to the people most at risk.  This is the way equity is achieved: we take the most disenfranchised group and make their lives better first.  So who is the most disenfranchised?  For starters, I would say the homeless and poor struggling find shelter or meet rent; Chinese seniors, who face both poverty and discrimination; and Aboriginal people, who have been subject to violence on unceded territory.

We have to recognize that some of the language around “revitalization” is couched in the motives to make Chinatown a more commercialized destination for people with money.  There is no justice if revitalization plans turn into displacement plans and result in a neighbourhood version of Yaletown or Gastown, with a tokenistic glance to racial violence, when it is convenient for tourism (or to claim a more modern, “enlightened”, liberal multicultural society).

I know not everyone is in it for social justice (even though this fact pains me…).  I know that people just want to see their lives improve, no matter what cost- (and sometimes that cost is at the expense of other people’s lives).  However, I think there are several ways we can move forward, ensure that most people’s lives will improve and do a little social justice for people who truly need it.

1)   Buy land for affordable housing; safeguard the zoning.  It doesn’t matter if there is no money to currently build affordable/social housing, advocate for the money and build it when you can.  Losing land to market rate housing is the primary force of gentrification.  People are already homeless, poor and struggling, market rate housing will not benefit them and will hasten gentrification.  Protect the land first; build later when possible.

(Buying land and building are two different processes.  Governments should do whatever possible to build coalitions to buy land and protect zoning first.  Losing this land to market rate housing is not an option).

2)   Protect Chinese Non-Profit Associations, Benevolent societies & Community associations/programming.  Chinese-community oriented organizations not only have a long history in helping Chinese communities, but are also a source for intergenerational connections.  These locations and organizations need to be protected to respect the history of future Chinatown-place-making.  These can also serve as key sites to start new programming for the needs of the community.


3)   Protect [Chinese] businesses that existed before 2005.  There are many Chinese-owned businesses and local businesses that have struggled to remain in Chinatown before the Revitalization Plan ever existed.  It is important that we do an assessment with these businesses to understand their needs for remaining in the neighbourhood, if they desire to remain.  Protecting some of these older businesses helps us to protect the character of the neighborhood and identifies forces of commercial gentrification.  The majority of these older businesses is Chinese-owned and provides affordable groceries and services.

Just walking around Chinatown and asking these older businesses what some of their struggles include can help identify what is needed to protect them.

4)   Community identification of services needed; find ways to provide and fund programming.  One of the most important steps is to identify community needs- the asset mapping-trend is getting a bit much- I know it puts a nice positive spin on things (and can help identify gaps)- but let’s face it- there are gaps- and we need to stop putting the happy-spin on it and try to fill them.  Jackie Wong wrote an amazing series on the racism experienced by poor Chinese seniors. Chinese seniors are underserved.  Even when services were provided, Chinese seniors were often discriminated against and attacked as a stereotype of a homogenized-model-minority- group that was draining resources for the poor.  We already know of the problems poor and racialized people are experiencing; we can’t overlook those facts.

Also, what is the use of educational institutions if we aren’t using them to better this world?  Vancouver is home to several major universities and colleges.  Many could incorporate coop programs where young people could help pilot and practice skills for the betterment of their community.  The UBC Leaning Exchange is already located in Chinatown/DTES- I’d love to see more collaboration.  Who says there isn’t money and resources?  Educational intuitions are bursting with resources.

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5)   Identify guidelines for new businesses in the neighbourhood– baseline affordability standards; training how to serve in a community of need.

In Toronto, to slow down gentrification, there was a moratorium placed on new commercial businesses (bars and restaurants) in neighbourhoods like Parkdale- a well-known low-income community.  We could do the same in Vancouver, however I doubt there is enough bravery in the room to try.  So I suggest that there should be a list of requirements that BIAs can hold businesses accountable to.  We need to force standards of affordable businesses that serve the community much in the same way we enforce a certain mix of housing.  BIAs can help administer this- identify what is needed in the community (along with low-income residents) and new businesses will have to justify their contribution to the neighbourhood before they open.  This is a win-win situation.  We aren’t saying that you’re not allowed here, we are saying that if you open in Chinatown, you have to prove that you will benefit the community.  I don’t think that is too much to ask.  And besides, maybe we’d avoid some future confrontations too (i.e. Pigeon).

Even though I would rather see investments made into businesses and services low income and racialized people need come first, this strategy doesn’t have to exclude pricier businesses either. There are a lot of higher end businesses coming into the neighbourhood that are doing their own things to give back to the neighbourhood (i.e. donations, employing local, buying local etc).  What I worry is that there are businesses that come into the neighbourhood and feel no need to understand Chinatown (and the DTES’s) context.  I understand that neoliberalism has provided us with an ethic that makes us think that if we can afford it then we deserve it, full stop.  However, this is a sensitive neighbourhood- that has experienced divestments as the rest of the city has developed.  There has to be a social bottom-line too, not just economic.  A society that genuflects to profit only is a society I don’t want to live in.

6)   Use empty storefronts for non-profit organizations, non-profit businesses or pop-up storefronts for local entrepreneurs.  Allow non-profits to run businesses by paying minimal rent to maintain basic costs of location maintenance.

There are plenty of empty storefronts that need some love.  Somebody is already paying for that storefront to remain empty (or holding out that a big-name developer will buy it off them).  I suggest we help non-profits set up shop in empty storefronts by giving them a requirement that they just pay the fees required to keep the storefront open and maintained.  It’s a win-win situation seen in many successful neighbourhoods such as the E. Danforth area where new entrepreneurs are running pop-up shops.  The BIA endorses it to bring some pedestrian traffic to the area, entrepreneurial people can test out their ideas, and the landlord is able to upkeep some small maintenance without costing them any extra of leaving it empty.  (Please, let us learn from W2).

7)   Encourage any community programming that involves cultural exchange or ethnic history to be located in Chinatown spaces, galleries or community centers.  The legacy that Chinatown can leave is the encouragement of future active intercultural relationships we can foster.  Chinatown is not a museum of a racist past; it needs to stay active as a site of both memory and relationship building, as we move forward.  I would love to see any cultural/arts programming located in Chinatown.  This would also boost local businesses and tourism.


 (Kathryn Lennon will be curating an AMAZING new project at Centre A! – Participate here!)

8)   Aboriginal health & wellness + Aboriginal community programming center.

City Hall already approved an Aboriginal health and wellness center in the DTES Local Area Plan.  I think that’s amazing- add that to the future asset-map!  However I think we also need an Aboriginal community center.  Where the former can be a space for active health and wellness services, the latter can be a cultural programming center, not unlike the Aboriginal Friendship Center.  I would like this space to be specifically about building non-profit programming for arts, culture and education, and be a space that encourages understanding the relationships between Aboriginality, White-settlers and racialized settlers.  There is a lot to unpack here, and we need a dedicated space to have these conversations.

(The list finishes at #8 because it is a lucky number in Chinese.  Hah- not the real reason- I just ran out of things to say!  But go ahead and add your own to the list- #9 is lucky too!)

9)   —- Your input goes here —-

Relationship building

If we really want to move forward, we have to build relationships between the past and the present and do justice to the groups who experienced, and still do experience, racism, discrimination and exclusion.  When we “revitalize” Chinatown, let’s remember that Chinatown never “lost its soul”.  It has always been there, just not always honoured.



Let’s honour Chinatown’s soul, moving forward.


(image credit & feature image from here)


PS: I don’t know if I made it clear in my anecdote- but this is also to say that Chinatown and the DTES is NOT an unsafe place. There is moral panic over criminality, when the only criminal thing there is the poverty that attacks vulnerable people.  There is no need to bulldoze a community to solve a socially constructed problem of “danger”.  I spent a good part of my childhood in this neighbourhood- we shouldn’t fear poor people- we should fear austerity.

4 responses to “What are we going to do about Vancouver’s Chinatown?

  1. Thanks for your insightful analysis of the current situation of Chinatown, Melissa. I know both Edmund and Kathryn through VCRC and would love to join the conversation.

  2. I can comment on everything you have mentioned here and would like to speak with you about your ideas. The VCRC is working on all your points with the BIA, VCMA, DTES Neighbourhood Group, and the City.

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