VIFF features on Chinatown and Japantown raise questions about Vancouver's urban changes

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      Two selections at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival cast their gaze upon historical neighbourhoods in Vancouver: Chinatown and Japantown. Together, they raise interesting questions for discussion about not only the past, present, and future of these areas, but also about what is becoming of our entire city as urban change and development overtake us.

      Although Chinatown and Japantown were distinct from one another, they shared many parallels.

      Both areas neighboured one another on the edges of the Downtown Eastside, and both were formed by ethnic groups as a result of numerous historical social factors, including language barriers and racial discrimination.

      Julia Kwan's documentary Everything Will Be takes an intimate and sensitive look at how current changes in Chinatown are affecting citizens who live and work in the area. Meanwhile, The Vancouver Asahi, which tells the story of a legendary local baseball team of Japanese Canadians, recreates life in Japantown during the 1930s.

      Chinatown, past and present

      UBC planning professor Andy Yan was one of the people Kwan chatted with while conducting research for her film. Like Kwan, Yan has ties to the neighbourhood—his family owned businesses there. His great-grandfather owned Most Modern Cleaners while his father owned the Kwong Chow Restaurant. His grandmother also raised him in the area.

      For his master's thesis, Yan took an in-depth look into Chinatown and issues about revitalizing degenerating neighbourhoods.

      What's interesting to note is that prior to Chinatown, the area was an Italian and southern European enclave. As Kwan's documentary reveals, one Italian family-run business in that area remains, Tosi & Company (current proprietor Angelo Tosi is featured as an interviewee in the film).

      This shift in ethnic dominance in various areas is one that has repeatedly occurred throughout the city's history. Both local, national, and international economics and politics have determined not only waves of immigration from different countries but also what types of class and professionals the city has attracted. As but one example, Robson Street used to be known as Robsonstrasse, due to the growth of German immigration in the area.

      Yan explained by phone that Chinatown began as a bachelor's society, but grew as women arrived and families began to grow, particularly after the Second World War.

      “The completion of the [Canadian Pacific] railway in 1886 certainly helped increase the population of Chinese Canadians to concentrate and move to cities like Vancouver and Victoria and begin in neighbourhoods like Chinatown, but also the kind of ongoing relationships to Chinese settlements throughout the province was in part connected and coordinated out of the neighbourhood.”

      Both Chinatown and Japantown were also hit by the Anti-Asian Riots of 1907. The Asiatic Exclusion League, formed by local labourers concerned about their jobs being taken away by cheaper Asian labour, became upset by Asian immigration. In reaction, they marched through downtown Vancouver and continued into Chinatown and Japantown (also known as Little Tokyo) where they smashed businesses and looted stores.

      The attacks did not deter the communities, however. While Japantown blossomed up until 1941, Chinatown particularly boomed in the 1960s and '70s.

      More than one Chinatown

      The influx of immigrants from Hong Kong to Vancouver in the 1990s saw the rise of a new concentration of Chinese businesses and residents in Richmond. While Yan said that while these areas are linked by having Chinese Canadian communities, they remain distinctly separate entities.

      “Richmond is very much the story of transnational migration and capital flows beginning in the late 1980s right up until the present day. And I think Chinatown is very much connected towards the history and development of the city and the region, that it was much more a local story, of local families, of local money.”

      He added that it's important to recognize Chinese diversity: just because people may be of Chinese descent, it doesn't necessarily mean that they will relate to or identify with one another. Class, area of origin, generation, and history (including time period of arrival in Canada) all factor into differences within the local Chinese Canadian population.

      “Chinatown is a low-income, working neighbourhood, of immigrant entrepreneurs as well as workers to which really is a different type of immigrant that comes in, in large numbers, beginnning in the mid- to late-1980s,” he pointed out. “The initial city to which Chinatown began in was exceptionally hostile to Chinese, but also any number of Asian minorities.…We’ve obviously seen changes for the good, and that’s really a different type of setting for that migration that occurs in the mid- to late-1980s.”

      Yet Richmond is not the only alternative to Chinatown. Kerrisdale, Arbutus, South Vancouver, and the Oakridge area have also seen Chinese neighbourhoods crop up. In fact, Yan considers the 41st Avenue and Victoria Drive area to be an "expansion of Chinatown" which developed in a post-war suburbanization.

      In his research for his thesis, he said he discovered that “there were more Chinese Canadians living within a 1 kilometer circle of 41st and Victoria than Pender and Main.”

      What will be?

      The future of Chinatown, a question mark raised by Kwan's documentary, is one that concerns Yan. In particular, he wonders where the classes of people who sought blue-collar, industrial jobs will go instead.

      “The challenges that Chinatown faces now is really where do working low-income residents fit? Where do people who don’t necessarily nicely fit into a condominium ad belong? And I think that it remains a challenge and a question as the job base changes in Chinatown to a much more residential base that what about the commercial and light-industrial land uses that were really throughout the neighbourhood, and how do they fit into where the neighbourhood’s going?”

      He's also concerned about poverty in the area, particularly seniors' poverty which ranks near the highest in Canada. He has also observed a large number of single Asian elderly women in the area.

      “Chinatown has historically formed part of their supporting social and economic networks and with that changing and disappearing, where do they go?”

      The growth of Japantown—and its vanishing act

      The future of Chinatown could perhaps be hinted at by what became of its neighbour: Japantown, or Poweru Gai, as it was known by its Japanese Canadian residents.

      Similar to the origins of Chinatown, Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre director and curator Beth Carter explained by phone that the first Japanese immigrants were men with limited or no English-speaking skills who were seeking labour jobs and short-term housing. Like Chinatown, the area grew when women began to arrive and families developed. The Japanese Language School and the Vancouver Buddhist Temple started up, and are two of the few remaining legacies of Japantown.

      Carter said that Japanese people were unable to vote (until 1949), and as they were excluded from certain professions, they were constrained to a working-class community.

      The following generation, who were born in Canada, had English-speaking skills, and sought higher education at places like UBC, she said. (The Vancouver Asahi film illustrates this with a Japanese Canadian female character who aspired to obtain a scholarship.)

      What we think of the area today, as part of the Downtown Eastside where the tent-city protest has taken root at Oppeneheimer Park where the Vancouver Asahi used to practise and play, is a far cry from the family neighbourhood that it was known to be.

      When Japanese Canadians were interned during the Second World War, the economic and social structure of Japantown were abruptly annihilated. The area has since sunk into an economic depression which it has never recovered from.

      "It certainly created a vacuum because over 8,000 people were living in that neighbourhood and almost overnight they were gone and all of their property seized by the government and then sold at quite low prices," Carter said. "So you went from being an extremely dynamic and vital family neighbourhood…to being an area that was empty. It was a void."

      Carter noted that very few Japanese Canadians returned to the area after being permitted to move back to the coast many years after the war ended. Post-war immigration from Japan has not been concentrated in any particular area of the city.

      Looking at the past in the present for the future

      Unlike Chinatown which still exists, only a few remnants of Japantown remain. Even the shortlived Little Ginza area of high-end Japanese tourist–oriented businesses along Alberni Street (near Burrard) that arose in the 1980s has vanished, with the receding wave of Japanese tourists due to the decline of Japan's economy. The Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre located itself in Burnaby (due to space) and Japanese grocery stores like Fujiya and Izumiya established themselves in places like East Vancouver and Richmond.

      In part, these varied locations reflect the fact that Japanese cuisine and culture have been interwoven into the city's mainstream, and are no longer confined to one specific area. For instance, sushi restaurants now rival coffee shops in popularity. In fact, Vancouverites are so crazy for Japanese food that izakayas, ramen shops, and more can be found almost everywhere.

      Nonetheless, Carter pointed out that Powell Street's architectural heritage, which recently garnered attention due to the fate of the Ming Sun building, needs to be considered.

      "In the 300- and 400-block of Powell Street, it's incredible how many [buildings] are still there and it's a really potential heritage gem in terms of a being a place with such a deep history and so many beautiful buildings still intact. We know that that's threatened right now with changes in the city land use and then also just general decay because many of those buildings have been used as storehouses or…haven't been kept up as well as they could have been."

      The future of Chinatown and the disappearance of Japantown raise the broader issue of what is happening across the city as gentrification occurs in numerous places and several areas are witnessing radical change with the destruction of neighbourhood connections and longterm fixtures, such as movie theatres, neighbourhood gathering spots, and community-oriented businesses or organizations, due to condo developments.

      While we can see the visible impact of what is changing in these areas, Yan also pointed out that we must considered the less tangible consequences of urban erasure all around us.

      “I think it’s important to think that spaces and the history of Chinatown is an integral part of Vancouver’s soul," Yan said. "I think that there are challenges in what’s happening in Chinatown and questions about Vancouver’s soul.”

      Among those many questions, one to consider is: if Vancouver keeps erasing its physical past, are we destined to keep repeating history in the future?

      The Vancouver Asahi screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival on October 10 (1 p.m.). Everything Will Be will screen as part of the VIFF Repeats series on October 11 (11:30 a.m.) at SFU. 

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      Oct 10, 2014 at 12:03am

      Walked down from Pender and Main the other day and was physically shocked by a new storefront: guess who's moved into the neighbourhood?
      No longer hipster skateboard or sausage shops replacing wicker stores, it's now Adidas!
      Is this what the Chinatown Merchants Association wanted when they supported rezoning?
      It's not what I want but it's too late now.


      Oct 10, 2014 at 7:38am

      Awesome article. It was refreshing to hear someone talk about the history and current conditions of these areas without dwelling on the negativity that most like to milk as much as they can. In particular I liked that there was a recognition that the conditions greeting the recent wave of immigration from China, is radically different than it was more than a century ago. Also it was good to note that there are many centers in Vancouver of mainly Chinese inhabitants and small 'Chinatowns' everywhere. As someone who has biked through most neighbourhoods in Vancouver I had noticed that many areas had changed dramatically in their cultural makeup and I was perplexed that it was never acknowledged, but then I expect that politically correct were worried that there would be an anti-Asian backlash - which has never materialized.

      In addition it was nice to see that people do realize that Chinatown and Strathcona have gone through many cultural changes and that there were other ethnic groups in and around Chinatown that predates the formation of Chinatown.

      It is sad to see that Chinatown is shrinking, but this seems to be the norm in every city, but perhaps especially Vancouver. The part that concerns me the most is that Chinatown is the last neighbourhood that has retained its makeup almost unchanged since the start of the cities' history. Hopefully they'll at least keep the buildings intact.