Sid Chow Tan: On Vancouver 125, remember that Saltwater City was born in Downtown Eastside

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      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.



      Sid Tan

      Apr 3, 2011 at 10:23am

      For more, see Remember to attend the Tuesday (April 5) rally at 6:30pm at City Hall...Ain't no power like the power of the people and the power of the people don't stop!

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      Tim Louis

      Apr 3, 2011 at 12:25pm

      Great article, Sid. Critical issue - I too am concerned about community inclusion as well as density pushed by developers.

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      Lenore Clemens

      Apr 3, 2011 at 12:47pm

      Great article, thank you so much.

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      Concerned Chinatown

      Apr 3, 2011 at 5:11pm

      It is unfortunate that the passion and energy of Mr. Tan could not be used during the ten year planning process between the City and Chinatown. Were there no organizations within Chinatown that would accept him to engage in the process or does he feel better empowered by looking in from the outside.

      The groups that support the Historic Area Height Review for Chinatown are the same groups that fought for equality for Chinese, built social housing for seniors and "overcame generations of legislated racism".

      Mr. Tan's argument does not hold water. Chinatown's organization supporting HAHR are already arguing for inclusion, retention of heritage and protection of low income residents. Remember that Chinatown and the DTES has been a primarily low income neighbourhood for 125 years. But it was also a low income WORKING neighbourhood.

      Mr. Tan is promoting an EXCLUSIVE social housing neighbourhood which includes Chinatown. Google CCAP and scroll through the DNC website. The underlying objective is to extend the enclave of free housing neighbourhood funded by taxpayers.

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      Sid Tan

      Apr 3, 2011 at 10:41pm

      @Concerned Chinatown

      As much as I dislike responding to comments by anonymous posters, some questions are raised that must be responded to. Why are you not posting under your name.

      I was aware of the ten year planning process, attended some meetings and felt it was likely to result a gentrification plan. I was not aware of any significant efforts at the time by the so-called "revitalization" people to engage and consult with low-income Chinatown residents. There is not unanimity among Chinatown residents as the self-interested revitalization = gentrification proponents claim. Just because something takes ten years doesn't mean it's good. These are the issues, not my participation.

      You write: "The groups that support the Historic Area Height Review for Chinatown are the same groups that fought for equality for Chinese, built social housing for seniors and "overcame generations of legislated racism"."

      These are the same so-called leaders and pillar groups who opposed the DTES health and safety initiatives in 2001, They also accepted a "no apology no compensation" agreement-in-principle on redress in 2005 which head tax and exclusion families fought and gain some success.

      Yes, Chinatown groups have done good work. However, they are off the mark here mainly because of the appeal of lucre and poor leadership and vision. And yes, you can agree to disagree.

      You write: "Chinatown's organization supporting HAHR are already arguing for inclusion, retention of heritage and protection of low income residents."

      Easy to argue this but would like to see the guarantees in writing. Talk is cheap. Brent Toderian, director of city planning said on CBC there are no guarantees in place. See CBC Early Edition podcast for March 17, 2011 about 8min. in.

      You write: "Mr. Tan is promoting an EXCLUSIVE social housing neighbourhood which includes Chinatown."

      I am promoting public participation and the right of Chinatown residents to self-determination and voice. It's clear many Chinatown residents know little of the towers plan. It is an impossibility for Chinatown to be, as you say, an "...EXCLUSIVE social housing neighbourhood."

      The Carnegie Community Centre is included as part of official Chinatown and the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) is based there.

      Finally, please answer how one feels "...better empowered by looking in from the outside."

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      Concerned Chinatown

      Apr 4, 2011 at 9:51am

      @ Sid Tan

      As a social activist for most of his life, Mr Tan has worked on some very good causes, but I think it is he that is off the mark here.

      In reading his reply to mine, Mr. Tan was more than “aware of the ten year planning process”. He attended meetings but decided not to be engaged because he felt it was likely to result in a gentrification plan?

      Mr. Tan has created and led enough organizations yet felt that this was not an important enough issue any time during the ten years process to fight for resident participation and against gentrification?

      If Mr. Tan cared to engage himself in the process instead of now "looking in from the outside", he will understand the numerous housing studies, during the last 10 years and beyond, for the DTES and Chinatown ALL recognize and support the preservation of the low income housing in the area and it is imbedded in City policy.

      At least some of his colleagues in the DNC and CCAP have been more transparent in their rally cries.

      In every community there is never 100% support, I am sure even in the group he represents. That is of course unless Mr. Tan suggests that he supports the civil disobedience threatened by his supporters at the last Council hearing.

      I would suggest that if Mr Tan and his colleagues truly believe in open public debate, they should not muddy the water with misinformation such as having residents sign a petition showing a 35+ storey building on the Chinese Cultural Centre and telling Chinatown’s seniors, the communities most vulnerable, that they will be displaced from their government owned homes.

      The Chinese as a community worked hard to provide safe housing for their seniors, and continues to do so, to respect the hard working citizens that contributed so much to this society. Mr. Tan with his previous work, more than anyoneelse, should know better than to use Chinese seniors as pawns in his political game.

      Lastly, is Mr Tan suggesting that DNC and CCAP would better lead Chinatown.

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      Sid Tan

      Apr 4, 2011 at 12:11pm


      I would agree that DNC and CCAP could better lead the low income residents of Chinatown.

      The so-called leaders and pillar organisations of Chinatown opposed the DTES health/safety initiatives in 2001 and an inclusive redress in 2005. The past ten years they provided a very welcoming environment for those who who differ don't you think?

      Henceforth, I will exercise my right not to respond to anonymous posters. You say all these things about me and put words in my mouth yet won't identify yourself. Take your best shots, they don't mean anything now.

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      Concerned Chinatown

      Apr 4, 2011 at 10:33pm

      Mr. Tan has found it convenient to end a dialogue which he initiated for public debate. It is his right of course not to respond to very relevant questions. However, the general public has the right to these answers.

      If Mr. Tan feels that shots are being taken at him, maybe he can help answer why CCAP as an "official part of Chinatown" or its executives similiarly decided not to engage itself any time during the ten year Chinatown planning process.

      Leadership requires accountability and credibility.

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      Sid Tan

      Apr 4, 2011 at 11:27pm

      I wrote "I would agree that DNC and CCAP could better lead the low income residents of Chinatown."

      Meant to say DNC and CCAP provides better leadership for low income residents than the Chinatown gentrification boosters.

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