It’s significant when a new establishment opens in Vancouver’s Chinatown, because until recently, the historic neighbourhood has long been associated with empty storefronts and business closures.
Chang Sheng Supermarket (297 East Georgia Street) made its debut at the beginning of November, and its name translates to “long prosperity”. Located in a space formerly occupied by Jiamei Market, it offers everything from fresh fruits and veggies to imported dried goods and rice.
Still in its soft-opening period, Chang Sheng’s co-owner Wang Zhi Gang is still waiting for a shipping container to arrive so he and his staff can finish stocking the relatively empty-looking shelves.
“We try to bring something different than the other stores,” Wang told the Straight in an interview at his supermarket. “We try to bring more variety of fruits and vegetables here.”
He’s not worried about competition, because there aren’t that many fresh produce stores in the community. “Our focus is to provide to the local neighbourhood, but we also deliver to some restaurants as well,” added Wang.
While the new opening is a welcome addition to Chinatown, it’s still a far cry from the area’s heyday. A decade ago, visitors would be able to find dozens of grocery shops and specialty food stores along Keefer and Pender Street.
But it doesn’t mean the changing district isn’t thriving in other ways.
Recent developments that have popped up on the corner of Keefer and Main Street have allowed for more businesses to open up, including new restaurants, bars, and even an upscale Italian grocer. Other relatively new brick-and-mortar spots such as a plant-based ice-cream parlour and refurbished Chinese barbecue-meat shop have also created buzz in the area.
These new outlets have contributed to bringing more life into Chinatown, but some argue its influx has led to rapid gentrification, which is pushing out those who can no longer afford to live in the community.
All of this change and growth is happening amidst Vancouver Chinatown’s bid for a UNESCO World Heritage site designation—a landmark or area selected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization considered to have historical and cultural significance, and is legally protected by international treaties.
In order for Chinatown to receive this designation, it must be considered to have outstanding universal value and meet at least one of the 10 selection criteria. Before the application is submitted, one of the issues that the city must tackle is Chinatown’s gentrification.
Dr. Lee Ho Yin, an associate professor from the faculty of architecture at the University of Hong Kong, flew in to the city as a guest speaker for a Chinatown UNESCO event earlier this year. With his knowledge and expertise in architectural conservation programmes, his insight is considered unparalleled.
“It’s possible [to reverse] it, but gentrification may not be a bad thing,” Lee told the Straight in an interview at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. “No matter what you do, most sites will gentrify and gentrification is one way to help sustain the local businesses. The businesses are important because local economy is something that will keep a living community alive.”
Vancouver’s Chinatown is unique in the sense that it is bringing in new blood, but also preserving its core character and values. Chang Sheng Supermarket is a good example: it’s a traditional business that caters to the local community, and simultaneously helps Chinatown's economy prosper.
However, Lee emphasizes that the future of businesses in Chinatown must appeal to its future patrons. Establishments will have to adapt and change in order attract the younger generation.
“That’s where conservation comes in. How do you change while still maintaining your core character? That is the trick about conservation, and that’s why we learn,” explained Lee. “You have to identify the value of these things. Historical, artistic, social values, and under each value, what are the key defining elements that will retain the value of those things?”
The Hong Kong-based professor believes that Vancouver’s Chinatown has a lot of potential, especially when compared to other Chinatowns in North America. It’s one of the largest, and one of the oldest. A Chinese community still resides here, and many organizations and traditions are still very intact.
“It’s no longer about protecting the hardware, it’s also about sustaining the software,” added Lee. “The people and the community, how do you keep them alive and make them prosper?”
Chinatown will have to figure out the answers to those questions as part of the application for the World Heritage site designation. For now, we’re definitely not complaining about having another place to find fresh fruits and veggies in the neighbourhood.