Sid Chow Tan: On Vancouver 125, remember that Saltwater City was born in Downtown Eastside
By Sid Chow Tan
On April 6, 2011, good people will be celebrating the 125th anniversary of Vancouver's founding.
About a century ago—September 7, 1907, to be exact—a race riot in Chinatown was a flashpoint and a defining moment.
Today, a new flashpoint is developing that invokes the area's geographic, social, and spiritual centering of the Chinese in Canada.
The controversy also revolves around the historic buildings of Saltwater City as people's homes and community history. Then as now, Chinatown suffered from partisan politics and economic entitlement. At the grassroots, it manifests itself in land use and zoning.
The 125th anniversay of Vancouver is an auspicious moment to acknowledge that Metro Vancouver is the unceded traditional territory of the Coast Salish First Nations. Their struggle against oppression began centuries ago with the arrival of European immigrants and settlers.
The new arrivals, armed with superior firepower, bandied ideas and words such as "heathens without souls" and "white man's burden" to "civilize" the indigenouus people.
Great help to justify a claim to the real estate. Later came the Chinese, treated as slaves and navvies under the same ideas and words.
However, they understood the pecuniary nature and advantages of the existing regime of land ownership.
Today, the Chinatown flashpoint comes courtesy of city planning and the historic areas height review of the Downtown Eastside.
After much opposition to hurried implementation, it was repackaged as a local area planning process for seven of the eight Downtown Eastside districts.
Completion is scheduled conveniently for after the November civic election, leaving the final decision to the next mayor and city council.
Chinatown is the district excluded from the local area planning process. However, a decision for or against greater heights is expected prior to the upcoming election.
Instead of inclusion in an integrated process, there will be a public hearing lasting several evenings over the next month or so. Some hundred-plus people have signed up to speak. Many call the historic area heights review the "Downtown Eastside condos plan".
Nine of the 11 decision makers (mayor plus eight councillors) represent civic parties that accept donations from developers. The fix is in, as indicated by the speed of the Chinatown heights public hearing.
Increased heights equals increased land values, which equals increased rents.
A decision from the mayor and council on this is likely before the civic election. Unlike other Vancouver neighbourhoods, Chinatown will be seeing condo towers without a local area planning process or a completed social impact assessment study.
The city planning fallback is a "revitalization" plan that Chinatown landowners, businessmen, and social and cultural organizations have worked on for 10 years. Some merchants and low-income Chinatown residents recently said they have not heard of or seen the plan.
So-called Chinatown leaders and pillar oganizations claim unanimous support for greater density, thus higher condo towers. They claim with their gentrification plan, it is unnecessay to include Chinatown in the Downtown Eastside integrated local area planning process. They also ignore that no social impact assessment is complete.
Such an impatient and mercenary heart wounds the soul of Chinatown.
The 'hood is threatened by forces that mistakenly refuse to see poverty and drug abuse as issues of health and housing. Poor-bashing, "welfare bums" and "get a job" are standard responses to media reports of low-income and often marginalized citizens of the inner city participating in the political process.
Their organizing and taking to the streets in peaceful assemby has redefined Vancouver's former skid row as the Downtown Eastside.
The area residents serve up a potluck of neighbourhoods and communities—organizers, activists, artists, vibrant culture, environmentalism, social conscience galore, and enthusiasm to match. Here also, initiatives are developed to combat poverty, provide treatment for a myriad of addictions, and reduce harm to individuals and the community.
The Downtown Eastside, and it includes Chinatown, is the heart and soul of the city.
Many residents are mindful of the 'hood's founding communities: indigenous people, Europeans, and Chinese from mainly Canton province. There is still some racial divide but like a century ago, it remains the city's low-rent distict.
Also similar is the caring and sharing because of necessity. Now it's among a racially diverse but still low-income and working-poor population.
The Chinese a century ago, without citizen rights, chose the area to lay the foundation for their community and contribution to nation-building. It is sacred common ground.
The heart and soul of Saltwater City begins with the Lo Wah Kiu*, Chinese adventurers and pioneers who drove a railway through mountains and picked gold from its guts. Then non-Chinese partisan politics and economic greed begat legal oppression.
Targets of 62 years of racist laws (including a head tax and their relatives' exclusion from the country), the founders of Chinatown looked to the future. Given alien status, they and their descendants sacrificed, gained strength, and fought the legislation.
In 1947, their perseverance brought the rights and privileges of Canadian citizenship. Chinatown is its people.
Now, they are the working poor and disabled, families, seniors on pensions, and landed immigrants making a life in social, affordable, and low-cost market housing.
Undocumented refugees and workers live in the only housing available to those in their situation—single-room-occupancy hotels. The rates are near affordable for those on social assistance.
Street-level shops offer low-priced, nutritious, and fresh food. Some of the people in the neighbourhood are organizing a Chinatown Residents Committee to exercise self-detemination, participation, and voice.
Developers, Chinese Canadian and otherwise, cite higher condo towers as the answer for the ills of Chinatown and the adjacent area. With financial clout and political influence, their haste for a "fix" for Chinatown is disrespectful and dishonest.
It is as obvious as the exclusion of current residents from an integrated local area planning process prior to the civic election. As obvious as no social impact assessment.
All who live and work in the area want a vibrant, safe, sane, and healthy community. That this is misunderstood suggests that the city-hall fix—a historic area heights review, Chinatown's exclusion from a local area planning process, and no social impact assessment—needs real fixing.
Power politics, and chasing the quick buck now root in and sully Saltwater City. Thankfully, the roots of Chinatown grow deep and have become resilient.
The struggle of today's residents honours the legacy of founders, who heroically battled and overcame generations of legislated racism. The history of Chinatown residents is to struggle and prevail.
If this continues, the heart of Chinatown will again be strong and its soul full.
* Hum Siu Fow or Saltwater City is the Lo Wah Kiu (old overseas Chinese), or Chinese pioneer families' name, for Vancouver.
Nearly a 40-year resident of Metro Vancouver, Sid Chow Tan lived off and on in a Chinatown single-room occupancy after Expo 86 for nearly 10 years. He help organize the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC) and by a general membership vote, was accepted as a natural community member and currently serves as a director. He is national chairman of the Chinese Canadian National Council and a founding cochairperson of Head Tax Families Society of Canada. The opinions expressed here are his own.