Chinatown events challenge gentrification

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      The prospect of 105 Keefer looms large over Chinatown. Despite the fact the planned nine-storey, 111-unit condo building is yet to begin construction, its years-long permitting process has been a flashpoint in the neighbourhood for residents concerned about gentrification and displacement.

      “We’ve been protesting this project for over a decade now,” says Melody Ma, campaign lead of Save Chinatown YVR. “105 Keefer, specifically, is right at the heart of Chinatown, next to the Memorial Plaza, surrounded by all these cultural assets. It has the potential to be so much more than more gentrifying condos that erase the culture.”

      In 2017, the original plan for a condo building at 105 Keefer Street was denied by Vancouver’s development permit board. Developer Beedie filed a petition in the BC Supreme Court challenging the decision, which was granted in late 2022 and led to another round of hearings earlier this summer.

      Through it all, activists have been organizing: both ahead of the initial permitting hearing, and renewed again this year. Hundreds of community members showed up to voice their opinions at events in Chinatown. However, several Chinatown groups, including the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden Society and the Chinatown Business Improvement Association, signed a letter in support of Beedie’s project, with the president of the BIA saying, “we stand united in support for this project, and the continued renewal of Chinatown.”

      Proponents of 105 Keefer say the building is necessary to inject new life into the Chinatown, and point to the changes that Beedie has made to its application since 2017. These include reducing the height from 12 storeys to nine, and changing the facade to be more in keeping with the neighbourhood’s character. The letter continues, “we further hope that the approved final project can serve as a model for respectful infill development.”

      Chinatown itself, with its mix of residents from other parts of the East Asian diaspora and the world, is not a monolith: but anti-gentrification activists say its existence as a place for Chinese people to be able to access what they need at affordable prices is menaced by encroaching real estate development, which threatens to drive up prices or wear away long-standing shops and businesses in favour of things that are more palatable.

      Over a hundred speakers called in to the development board hearings in June to press for the 105 Keefer site to be reimagined as social housing, dedicated seniors units, or below-market rentals. But the board said they had no power to enforce those requirements, and the permit was approved.

      Still, Ma and a series of collaborators decided to focus on keeping the well-attended community events going—and incorporating a variety of cultural activities to encourage different kinds of people to get involved. The Occupy 105 Keefer events use art, community, and culture as a protest against gentrification, while simultaneously bringing the community together.

      “We’re not going to rest; we’re not going to just accept the decision as is,” she says. “All sorts of folks have been coming together and collaborating to really take up space with our culture, bodies, and voices.”

      The events have been running every week since July, covering everything from Chinese classical music and kung fu to karaoke and film screenings. Run by volunteers, the offerings feature Chinese language translators and sign language interpretation to help ensure everyone can participate. Ma says the organizers have been sourcing everything possible from local businesses, too—be it chairs, tarps, snacks, or equipment.  

      “It’s a very mindful way of putting on cultural events without commodifying yourself,” says Galina Lee, an artist who co-hosted a Tea and Paint event in August—a play on ubiquitous “wine and paint” nights. Dozens of people sheltered under shaded canopies to learn how to paint different kinds of dim sum dishes, and Lee says a range of people, from youth to seniors, came to attend; artists, anti-gentrification campaigners from other parts of town, and curious passers-by all mingled in the crowd.

      “All of these events have been a celebration of Chinese culture, and also showing some resilience,” they say. “Sometimes I think about how this is also an homage to our ancestors, and how they would hopefully be looking on us and being proud that we are continuing this tradition of resilience.”

      Lee’s grandmother was a founding board member of the Sun Yat-Sen Garden, and also took part in contemporary anti-gentrification protests. She’s disappointed that the garden’s current board is choosing to support 105 Keefer—though they acknowledge that decision galvanized them into getting more involved.

      “I feel like the board’s direction is very different from my grandma’s direction for the garden and for Chinatown,” she says.

      Part of that is the idea that new luxury condos will bring “renewal” to the neighbourhood; for Lee, cultural revitalization happens at a grassroots level, through events that encourage local residents to come together and build solidarity.

      “We can revitalize a community, we can put on events, we can make Chinatown a place that people want to go visit without having to sell out—without having to commodify our culture,” they reflect. “It’s making events that are accessible, that respect and promote the culture, and introduce people or educate people on the culture, and let people feel like they can participate. If you build community, that revitalizes the neighbourhood itself. The community will stand strong together.” 

      For S F Ho, an artist, writer, and organizer who’s putting on a Chinatown Rhythms poetry and tai chi event in September, art serves as both a protest and as a way to make people feel less alone.

      “It helps to build relationships by sharing culture, and I think that makes us stronger,” they say. Besides poetry, their event will also feature pipa music from Zoe Leung. The tai chi demonstration will be led by Mrs. Ma, a beloved local elder and staunch anti-gentrification advocate.

      As Ho points out, displacement in the city’s downtown and eastside is hardly new. Since becoming involved with some of the original 105 Keefer protests in 2017, they’ve been using their creative work to draw attention to contemporary and historic displacement.

      “This neighbourhood of Chinatown, Downtown Eastside, is the site of multiple displacements,” they reflect.

      From anti-Asian riots to the internment of Japanese Canadians to the demolition of Hogan’s Alley and forced clearings of unhoused people who are disproportionately Indigenous, waves of gentrification, urban renewal, and targeted policies have systematically displaced thriving neighbourhoods and enclaves.

      Coming together—for poetry or tai chi or painting—is its own kind of protest.

      “Activism is a form of culture. I don’t know if activists always see it that way, but as a cultural worker, I do,” Ho says. “I think we can be pretty good at making that come together for the cause.”

      While the event series is set to wrap up at the end of September, the work is far from over. Ma is already thinking about how to keep community momentum and events going as the weather gets colder, and is finding creative ways to support Chinatown businesses.

      The city-owned undercover Chinatown Plaza Mall, which drew criticism for kicking out a group of seniors practicing tai chi in May, could be one option. (“It would be interesting to explore potentially doing events there,” Ma says wryly.) The important thing is making sure the energy of the events continues.

      “The city council clearly did not hear the voices of the people who attended rallies, or the hundreds of people who spoke at City Hall, so we are going to continue to make our voices heard by occupying the land right next to 105 Keefer with our culture,” Ma says. “And the best way to get people involved is to reassert our presence with our culture.”