“Ni hao,” says a red painted wall on the southwest corner of Main and Keefer. The enormous particle board inscription is an English phonetic spelling of “hello” in Cantonese, part of an advertisement for a coming condominium development in the rapidly upscaling Union-Keefer- Georgia radius between Main and Gore streets in Chinatown. The inscription has the unintended effect of mocking the people crowding the bus stop below. Most of Chinatown’s Chinese residents can’t read or speak English, nor can they afford what the developers call “achievable home ownership” at 1888 Keefer St. Obviously, the condo advertisement is not for them, though it pretends to speak their language.
What gets lost in translation is that despite the new condo towers, restaurants and coffee shops catering to a new class of English-speaking residents and workers in the neighbourhood, Chinatown’s longstanding residents are barely holding on to their homes in a part of the city that has been central to their lives and family histories in Vancouver.
Recent flashpoints, like the city-ordered demolition of the Ming Sun Benevolent Society headquarters in December and the 30-40 per cent rent increases served to elderly residents of the Chau Luen Tower on Keefer Street earlier this month, are signs of the precariousness facing Chinatown’s predominantly elderly Chinesespeaking residents. The population is already on the margins because of their poverty, their language and their age.
The B.C. Residential Tenancy Branch recently ruled against the landlord’s attempts to raise the rents at the Chau Luen, marking a victory for the renters who would have otherwise been priced out of the building and, ostensibly, the neighbourhood.
Carnegie Community Action Project that there are no more rooms renting for the monthly $375 shelter allowance rate for people on income assistance, and with a 30-year Local Area Plan to be passed for the Downtown Eastside (DTES) next month, Vancouver’s Chinatown persists as a contested space.
The neighbourhood lies at the nucleus of the city’s ongoing tensions around housing affordability, racialized discrimination, access to services and questions about who has the right to the city.