Cover Story: Chinatown can be a constant battleground—how do you respect the past while shaping a new future? Victoria and Vancouver’s historic enclaves face gentrification and demographic shifts in different ways
“I’m looking for Chinatown. Can you help me?”
The elderly woman had been walking back and forth along the street until she spotted Mrs. Luu and decided to ask for directions.
Mrs. Luu was shocked by the question.
“Por por, granny,” Mrs. Luu addresses her in Cantonese, “has it been a long, long time since you’ve gone to Chinatown?”
The woman says yes. Mrs. Luu thought so, because they were standing right in Chinatown.
Mrs. Luu is 66. Trinh Diep was her name before marriage; most people call her Mrs. Luu nowadays. She and Mr. Luu live in Solheim Place on Union Street at the southern edge of Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Their building is for people with lower incomes. The Luus like it there. It’s been their home for 17 years. That means they’ve had a front-row view of Chinatown’s gentrification since the millennium.
“There are fewer Chinese. More empty stores. New condos. And lots and lots of coffee shops!” says Mrs. Luu. Her friends have joked the neighbourhood should be called “Coffeetown” or “Whitetown” instead. It’s not Chinatown anymore.
Mrs. Luu was hurt by this. The neighbourhood was a good home to her after a hard life. Born in Saigon, she lived through the war. She ended up in Thailand—on the 12th attempt to flee Vietnam—and came to Vancouver in 1988.
Mrs. Luu might look like a quiet grandmother at first glance—sporting her bright fleece sweaters and red checkered hat—but once she starts talking about her neighbourhood’s future, she becomes a fiery presence. Mrs. Luu spoke out against the city’s Chinatown height review in 2011 that brought taller condos to the area.
This spring she took part in the heated protests against 105 Keefer, a development that many Vancouverites believe, if approved, would be the final straw that destroys what makes Chinatown special.
‘Not Chinatown anymore’
In 2013, Beedie Development Group bought 105 Keefer in Chinatown to build condos. It had been a gravel parking lot for years. The developer tried to rezone it for a denser, taller project, but city council said no. It was “too tall,” according to Vancouver’s urban design panel, and lacked the “‘spirit’ of Chinatown,” and a “contemporary reinterpretation of history.”
So Beedie scaled it down, settling on 12 storeys and 110 condo units. Beedie even added 25 senior social housing units and a seniors’ cultural space.
Supporters said the project would help bring new life to a declining neighbourhood.
“It’s super controversial, because everybody wants all of Chinatown to stay ‘yesterday.’ But we need the people,” said Vancouver’s famed real estate marketer Bob Rennie in an interview with Vancouver Magazine. “So incentivize me to save something, but give density that can stay in the area. We can’t just save it to save it: it has to have an economic use … You don’t save every Rembrandt—he did some shitty paintings.”
But opponents of the project feared that more condos in the historic enclave would push out vulnerable residents and the businesses they depend on.
“We’re not opposed to newcomers. We want Chinatown to be welcoming to all,” says Beverly Ho, a community organizer with the Chinatown Concern Group.
“But Chinatown’s priority should be seniors, people who don’t speak English, and low-income people. You can’t have newcomers at the expense of vulnerable people who depend on the neighbourhood and can’t afford to live anywhere else.”
Opponents were especially upset with Beedie’s addition of seniors’ space, saying it was a small token for the developer to pay for more density. And, according to the city, only eight of the 25 units would be required to rent at welfare rates, a drop in the bucket compared to the need. A 2011 UBC study found that 3,300 Vancouver Chinese seniors would need housing within 15 years.
The bulk of Chinatown’s new housing is market condos—not what the neighbourhood needs, says Ho’s group and others. According to their count, 20 per cent of housing in Chinatown is social housing. They’d like to see it go up to half.
105 Keefer is also in a culturally sensitive spot. It shares the corner of the block with the Chinatown Memorial Plaza dedicated to railway workers and veterans. Across the street are the Chinese Cultural Centre and the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. At 115 feet, 105 Keefer would dwarf these landmarks.
The project’s public hearing this spring was Vancouver’s most attended in recent years. It lasted 26 hours over four days, with Chinese and non-Chinese young and old crowding city hall.
On June 13, city council rejected Beedie’s proposal.
“It cuts far too deep a divide in the community to advance and see this built,” said Mayor Gregor Robertson at the time.
A month after the rejection, Beedie submitted a development application for 105 Keefer. It’s pending the review of Vancouver’s development permit board.
War for home
It’s easy to view this battle for Chinatown as a neighbourhood versus the big developer.
But the fight for Chinatown’s future is more complicated than a 1v1 match.
Chinatown’s decline began when immigration of working-class Cantonese and Hong Kong migrants slowed.
In the 1980s, white-collar migrants arrived instead, Hongkongers, but also Taiwanese, and later, Mandarin speakers from the Chinese mainland.
Also in the 1980s, new Chinese areas popped up in residential pockets of Vancouver. And in Richmond, the city next door, ethnic Chinese make up more than half the population. These became new Chinatowns, with doctors, restaurants, and supermarkets catered to local Chinese.
Meanwhile, the original Chinatown suffered in the 1990s. Theatres and landmark restaurants closed down. Neon signs vanished, nightlife disappeared, and the neighbourhood got a bad reputation.
The neighbourhood was beside the Downtown Eastside, the city’s hotspot of drugs and poverty, and heroin deals spilled onto Chinatown’s streets.
But the neighbourhood didn’t die.
Vancouverites with fond Chinatown memories still shopped there. And, most importantly, there is a lot of Chinese seniors housing in the area. Residents depended on the grocers, fishmongers, and bakeries that remained. Their relationships with shopkeepers and neighbours, the daily comfort of using their mother tongue, and Chinatown’s walkability made it a comfortable neighbourhood to age.
“Don’t ever close this place!” Mrs. Luu often tells the boss at Sunrise Market, where she likes to shop. “If you close, where would I go? I’d have to hobble onto a bus with a cane to shop somewhere else. That would be sad!”
Mrs. Luu likes to drop an old Chinese phrase wishing him to “live long for a 100 years.”
Sunrise Market is still around, but Chinatown’s 1990s downturn made the neighbourhood ripe for gentrification and the displacement of longtime businesses like Sunrise. Poorer, working-class areas are the most vulnerable to upscaling because they’re the cheapest to invest in and profit off of.
According to MIT urban studies professor Phillip Clay, counterculture is at the forefront of gentrification. Artists and entrepreneurs are usually the first to move into a distressed neighbourhood as rents are cheap, and the areas’ gritty, storied pasts are an attraction rather than a deterrent.
Real estate interests follow, sniffing out opportunities to ride the neighbourhood’s boost in popularity, such as condo development. Then, young professionals with money often move in. Vancouver’s Chinatown—with its new galleries, clothing boutiques, trendy eateries, and the condo development that followed—is a prime example of Clay’s stages of gentrification.
The capital’s Chinatown
Victoria has been taking action to keep their Chinatown vibrant, even if it’s not exactly the community it once was.
“I don’t think you can hold a place in time and keep it the same. As much as we’d love to in some way, I don’t think we can,” says Charlayne Thornton-Joe, a Victoria city councillor. She has Chinese and First Nations roots, and has a lot of childhood memories in Chinatown, from waiting long hours for her parents to finish playing mahjong to business owners giving her candy as she visited them by tricycle.
In Victoria’s Chinatown, buildings are well-kept, thanks to city programs. It’s more touristy than Vancouver’s, though. Postcards and novelties like finger traps are more inyour- face. Older Chinese businesses are on one end of Fisgard Street, while the other end near Store Street has newer businesses like an organic juice bar and a French-style bakery. There is still street life here, and the city has been encouraging it by allowing businesses to display goods on sidewalks, adding benches, and a large bulletin board that’s a nod to the days when bachelors depended on such a board for news from China. But look around and you’ll see a typical downtown crowd, with a few Chinese.
It’s different, but Thorton-Joe is glad the neighbourhood isn’t dead.
“I’d be more concerned if we had empty storefronts,” she adds.
Vancouver’s Chinatown, unlike Victoria’s, is at a turning point today because it still has a lot to lose. There was a boom of Chinese migration to Vancouver after Canada loosened immigration policy in 1967. The newcomers slowed the Vancouver Chinatown’s decline, compared to others like Victoria’s.
That delay means now there’s still a chance to save something called “intangible cultural heritage.” Architecture is tangible, while intangibles are about culture, from food practices, dialects, to street interactions unique to a place—all of which the Vancouver Chinatown still has. This measure is recognized in heritage policy by UNESCO, B.C., and the federal government.
Henry Yu, a UBC history professor who specializes in Asian Canadian history, believes the City of Vancouver needs to catch up and recognize heritage beyond physical sites.
“Chinatown is all about the cultural life,” says Yu. “It’s more important than the built form. Imagine if we lost the buildings, but still had the cultural life—no one would notice as much.”
Yu suggested that Chinatown be made a heritage conservation area by the city.
A section of Shaughnessey, the historic neighbourhood of Vancouver’s elite, has that designation, with policies in place that protect the area’s special features and guide development. Chinatown could benefit from such a designation and policy tools tailored to its needs.
The city or the business improvement association could also manage the businesses mix. “Is that anti-capitalist? No, malls do it all the time,” says Yu.
“I’m not saying everything in Chinatown has to be Chinese. Chinatown’s never been 100 per cent Chinese businesses.
“But you go to a place because it has a particular branding and idea. Managing a healthy mix in Chinatown would make more money for everyone. If you don’t step up to manage it now, when those old Chinese restaurants and produce markets go, they’re not coming back.”
Maintaining cultural legacy
The fight for Vancouver’s Chinatown is part of a global fight for the neighbourhood.
Some may say neighbourhood change is natural for cities—after all, ethnic enclaves dissolve, land costs rise, people age, and shops close if there are no customers.
But as cities grow and private development increases, culture is lost and those who can’t afford to stay in a neighbourhood are displaced. If a city is about to lose something that many believe is valuable, it begs the question of whether a city should act.
“Distinctiveness is what makes an area interesting,” says UBC’s Yu. Neighbourhoods change, but “you need core values to keep things you don’t want to lose.”
San Francisco has created a legacy business program that offers grants to help longtime, culturally significant businesses survive. New York is using a tool called inclusionary zoning to help vulnerable residents from being priced out of a neighbourhood they depend on.
The tool forces developers to include some low and middle-income units in new projects. Cities are also using residential and commercial rent control to help people and businesses stick around.
The City of Vancouver will have to decide what’s important to its neighbourhoods, and what and who is worth protecting.
If the city decides to ask Mrs. Luu what’s important, she’ll tell them to “just look around the neighbourhood.”
“It’s not hard,” she says. “There’s important history here, there’s seniors, and there’s poverty, Chinese and non-Chinese.”
Mr. Luu sometimes tells his wife she’s too emotional about this. She says she can’t help it. She wants to do her part.
She’ll keep meeting with the Chinatown Concern Group on Thursday mornings, planning what to say to city hall and the public. And if all else fails, Mrs. Luu will be at Sunrise Market, telling the boss to stick around and live for another 100 years.