Melissa Fong: What are we going to do about Vancouver’s Chinatown?

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      Remembering Chinatown’s soul

      I spent many days and weekends in Vancouver’s Chinatown helping my dad at his office. He worked in the building on Keefer and Main (the one being turned into the Keefer Block condominiums). Back then, that corner was probably the definition of “vitality” in Chinatown. The intersection was bustling, as people boisterously struck up conversations with one another and wished each other good health.

      I can still remember running up and down the streets, wincing at the smell of dried goods in open storefronts, and staring at the whole pigs that were deliciously barbequed and hanging in the front windows of the butcher shop. My eyes twinkled at the “cute shops” that sold Hello Kitty dolls and anime-gifts for chubby-cheeked, happy children. I remember eating at Goldstone, Mitzie’s Café, and Kam Gok Yuen, for unmistakably Hong Kong diner-style food.

      I still think that anything you order in Chinatown beats any food in Richmond. You can’t beat the seasoning on those woks in Chinatown. If you know a thing or two about woks, you know that they get better as they age because the flavor of everything you cook is sealed into the surface of cast iron. The flavors of previous meals are imparted onto new ones, and this gives wok stir-fried foods extra depth. A well-seasoned wok is the soul of a well-seasoned meal. Passing down this soul is something that we keep searching for in, what seems like, a stagnancy that has taken over Chinatown.

      A history of problems

      I think people have this happy memory of Chinatown and want to bring back a generalized state of “vibrancy”, but have difficulty remembering all the details.

      Chinatown was not without its troubles, either. I still remember the bus stop bench on Pender and Main, where the homeless man was peeing in a Snapple bottle. Back then, the benches weren’t “bum-proofed”, and that bench, unencumbered by raised bars, was also probably where he took his afternoon slumber.

      I remember the alcove beside the parking lot in the building where my dad worked. It sheltered people as they cooked and injected crack cocaine. The garage itself finally got a gate because so many homeless people sought shelter behind the cars, peed in the corners, and spooked those parking there.

      I also remember that every month or so, there would be a break-in at the building. It was a medical office housing several Chinese family doctors, dentists, labs, and pharmacies. People broke in probably looking for supplies, drugs, and things they could resell.

      Yes, there were problems that came before the rise and fall of Vancouver’s commercial Chinatown. But Chinatown was still great, despite those problems.

      Chinatown also inherits a history of poverty, discrimination, and racist exclusion.

      Let us not forget that “Chinatowns” aren’t these ahistorical happy places where you can just order your Chinese food, take in some bright colours, and say that you’ve now embraced Canada’s “multiculturalism” (we should all be wary of tokenism and the commodification of ethnicity).

      Chinatown was created as an exclusionary zone for Chinese labourers. My mother still recalls the times when my grandfather would have to step off the sidewalk for a white person, or he’d be spit on or beat-up. Sometimes stepping off the sidewalk wasn’t a guarantee of avoiding being called a “chink”, being spit on, and then being beaten-up. Alongside Chinese discrimination, there was racism against blacks, Japanese, and indigenous people that led to a ghettoized geographical convergence in Vancouver. These histories are not “in the past”, as many in Vancouver’s Chinatown still experience the violence of poverty.

      Diagnosing overlapping issues and recognizing common interests

      The decline of the Chinatown we once remembered is due to a whole host of issues. The problem is complex. See part of my analysis here.

      Chinatown business interests are splintered because people realize poverty in the Downtown Eastside is not the deciding factor of the decline of Chinatown. Chinatown’s decline combines a few things: the closure of Woodward’s, which decreased foot traffic to adjacent Chinatown; the popularity of Richmond and the Chinese suburb (and the general availability of Chinese goods in mainstream grocery stores); and the decline in families passing on their businesses for their children to run (some business owners could consider this desirable if their children became upwardly mobile professionals). It is clear to everyone that the poverty in the Downtown Eastside is unlikely directly related to the decline of Chinatown. (Excerpt from “Chinatown business interests”.)

      Beyond a complex history of problems, there are some common interests in Chinatown.

      We all agree that whatever develops in Chinatown should respect the history of Chinese people and other disenfranchised groups who settled in the area. We all agree that, moving forward, we need to ensure that “Chinatown” is more than just a museum and does justice to Vancouver’s multiculturalism. Beyond these common threads, we have tension on how to achieve a “new Chinatown”.

      Some folk are calling for “revitalization”, which can be a euphemism for gentrification, if we don’t address the fact that there are serious housing security issues for poor, racialized, and aging people in the neighbourhood.

      The Chinatown Business Improvement Association is taking charge on commercial revitalization by supporting many new businesses, nightlife venues, and liquor licenses, which have made a home in Vancouver’s Chinatown since the revitalization plan was enacted.

      Many have been reactive against this strategy because they question whether or not the new businesses are a form of commercial gentrification. While we cannot declare that none of these businesses are not for local people, it is hard to believe that some of the high-end pricing, at some of these new businesses, is accessible to the poor and seniors who currently struggle to make rent.

      There is clearly a disconnect between the businesses that have opened in the past few years and the businesses and services needed for the existing community.

      Moving Forward?

      I am always partial to a defensive stance when it comes to the people most at risk. This is the way equity is achieved: we take the most disenfranchised group and make their lives better first.

      So who is the most disenfranchised? For starters, I would say it is the homeless and poor struggling to find shelter or meet rent; that is Chinese seniors, who face both poverty and discrimination, and aboriginal people, who have been subject to violence on unceded territory.

      We have to recognize that some of the language around “revitalization” is couched in motives to make Chinatown a more commercialized destination for people with money.

      There is no justice if revitalization plans turn into displacement plans and result in a neighbourhood version of Yaletown or Gastown, with a tokenistic glance to racial violence, when it is convenient for tourism (or to claim a more modern, “enlightened”, liberal multicultural society).

      I know not everyone is in it for social justice (even though this fact pains me). I know that people just want to see their lives improve, no matter what cost (and sometimes that cost is at the expense of other people’s lives). However, I think there are several ways we can move forward, ensuring that most people’s lives will improve and do a little social justice for people who truly need it.

      1) Buy land for affordable housing; safeguard zoning

      It doesn’t matter if there is no money to currently build affordable/social housing. We should advocate for the money and build it when you can. Losing land to market-rate housing is a primary force of gentrification. People are already homeless, poor, and struggling, and market-rate housing will not benefit them and will hasten gentrification. Protect the land first; build later when possible.

      (Buying land and building are two different processes. Governments should do whatever possible to build coalitions to buy land and protect zoning first. Losing this land to market rate housing is not an option).

      2) Protect Chinese non-profit associations, benevolent societies, and community associations and programming

      Chinese community-oriented organizations not only have a long history of helping Chinese communities, but are also a source for intergenerational connections. These locations and organizations need to be protected to respect the history of future Chinatown place-making. They can also serve as key sites to start new programming for the needs of the community.

      3) Protect Chinese businesses that existed before 2005

      There are many Chinese-owned businesses and local businesses that have struggled to remain in Chinatown since before the revitalization plan ever existed. It is important that we do an assessment with these businesses to understand their needs for remaining in the neighbourhood, if they desire to remain. Protecting some of these older businesses helps us to protect the character of the neighborhood and identifies forces of commercial gentrification. The majority of these older businesses are Chinese-owned and provide affordable groceries and services.

      Just walking around Chinatown and asking these older businesses what some of their struggles include can help identify what is needed to protect them.

      4) Community identification of services needed, and finding ways to provide and fund programming

      One of the most important steps is to identify community needs—the asset mapping-trend is getting a bit much. I know it puts a nice positive spin on things (and can help identify gaps), but let’s face it, there are gaps, and we need to stop putting the happy-spin on it and try and fill them. Jackie Wong wrote an amazing series on the racism experienced by poor Chinese seniors. Chinese seniors are underserved. Even when services are provided, Chinese seniors are often discriminated against and attacked as a stereotype of a homogenized, model-minority group that is draining resources for the poor. We already know of the problems poor and racialized people are experiencing; we can’t overlook those facts.

      Also, what is the use of educational institutions if we aren’t using them to better this world?

      Vancouver is home to several major universities and colleges. Many could incorporate co-op programs where young people could help pilot and practice skills for the betterment of their communities. The UBC Leaning Exchange is already located in Chinatown/Downtown Eastside—I’d love to see more collaboration. Who says there isn’t money and resources? Educational intuitions are bursting with resources.

      5) Identify guidelines for new businesses in the neighbourhood: baseline affordability standards, and training how to serve in a community of need

      In Toronto, to slow down gentrification, there was a moratorium placed on new commercial businesses (bars and restaurants) in neighbourhoods like Parkdale, a well-known low-income community. We could do the same in Vancouver; however, I doubt there is enough bravery in the room to try.

      I suggest that there should be a list of requirements that BIAs can hold businesses accountable to. We need to force standards of affordable businesses that serve the community much in the same way we enforce a certain mix of housing. BIAs can help administer this—identify what is needed in the community (along with low-income residents) and new businesses will have to justify their contribution to the neighbourhood before they open. This is a win-win situation. We aren’t saying that you’re not allowed here, we are saying that if you open in Chinatown, you have to prove that you will benefit the community. I don’t think that is too much to ask. And besides, maybe we’d avoid some future confrontation, too (i.e. Pidgin).

      Even though I would rather see investments made into businesses and services, low-income and racialized people need come first. This strategy doesn’t have to exclude pricier businesses either. There are a lot of higher-end businesses coming into the neighbourhood that are doing their own things to give back to the neighbourhood (i.e. donations, employing local, buying local etc).

      What I worry is that there are businesses that come into the neighbourhood and feel no need to understand Chinatown (and the Downtown Eastside) in context. I understand that neoliberalism has provided us with an ethic that makes us think that if we can afford it then we deserve it, full stop. However, this is a sensitive neighbourhood that has experienced divestment as the rest of the city has developed. There has to be a social bottom line, too, and not just economic. A society that genuflects to profit only is a society that I don’t want to live in.

      6) Use empty storefronts for non-profit organizations, non-profit businesses, or pop-up storefronts for local entrepreneurs

      Allow non-profits to run businesses by paying minimal rent to maintain basic costs of location maintenance.

      There are plenty of empty storefronts that need some love. Somebody is already paying for that storefront to remain empty (or holding out that a big-name developer will buy it off them). I suggest we help non-profits set up shop in empty storefronts by giving them a requirement that they just pay the fees required to keep the storefront open and maintained. It’s a win-win situation seen in many successful neighbourhoods such as the E. Danforth area, where new entrepreneurs are running pop-up shops. The BIA endorses it to bring some pedestrian traffic to the area, entrepreneurial people can test out their ideas, and landlords are able to upkeep some small maintenance without costing them any extra or leaving it empty. (Please, let us learn from W2.)

      7) Encourage community programming that involves cultural exchange or ethnic history to be located in Chinatown spaces, galleries or community centers

      The legacy that Chinatown can leave is the encouragement of future active intercultural relationships we can foster. Chinatown is not a museum of a racist past; it needs to stay active as a site of both memory and relationship building, as we move forward. I would love to see cultural and arts programming located in Chinatown. This would also boost local businesses and tourism.

      8) Aboriginal health & wellness + Aboriginal community programming center

      City Hall already approved an aboriginal health and wellness center in the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan. I think that’s amazing—add that to the future asset-map!

      However, I think we also need an aboriginal community centre. Where the former can be a space for active health and wellness services, the latter can be a cultural programming centre, not unlike the Aboriginal Friendship Centre. I would like this space to be specifically about building non-profit programming for arts, culture, and education, and be a space that encourages understanding of the relationships between aboriginals, white-settlers, and racialized settlers. There is a lot to unpack here, and we need a dedicated space to have these conversations.

      (The list finishes at  number eight because it is a lucky number in Chinese. Hah—not the real reason—I just ran out of things to say! But go ahead and add your own to the list — number nine is lucky too!)

      9) Your input goes here

      Relationship building

      If we really want to move forward, we have to build relationships between the past and the present and do justice to the groups who experienced—and still do experience—racism, discrimination, and exclusion.

      When we “revitalize” Chinatown, let’s remember that Chinatown never “lost its soul”. It has always been there, just not always honoured.

      Melissa Fong is a PhD candidate in planning and geography at the University of Toronto. Her areas of research include neighbourhood change and equity. She maintains a blog on municipal politics, feminism, and anti-racism issues at




      Apr 21, 2014 at 2:40pm

      Thanks for all your writings around the complex issues of the DTES which includes Chinatown!
      I like what you're starting!


      Apr 21, 2014 at 8:39pm

      Let history be history. Build the city for the people that need to be here in the future. The Chinatown some of us once enjoyed (and still enjoy a bit today :) depends too much on the legacy of our immigrant ancestors having to live and work there. Once we were able, we chose to move on to better places. The area now known as Chinatown could once again become a better place for those living in tjis city in the future.


      Apr 22, 2014 at 12:13am

      Japantown was displaced by VANDUstan, Little India is gradually moving to Surrey, Chinatown is basically Richmond. These are voluntary moves for the most part. I'm not sure what the appeal is of keeping things in status. Change is good. Humanely paced change, of course - if the people there are being driven out because of rising rent or some other market force, I think that there should be grants and appeals and other sorts of relief.

      But what are we going to do about Chinatown? Come on. If the Chinese don't want to live there, then someone else will.

      William Corden

      Apr 22, 2014 at 12:19am

      Interesting article.
      Many years ago I worked for the Royal Bank at Main and Hastings. The area back in the 70's was just like Hong Kong, thriving restaurants and businesses managing to co-exist with the denizens of skid row. I learned a lot about the insular culture of the Chinese and realized that they could get on with their normal lives amongst all of the squalor and violence on their doorstep.

      As they became successful and their kids began to get well paying jobs, the pressure was on to move to more comfortable surroundings and so they moved pretty much lock, stock and barrel to Richmond and Coquitlam.

      This had the effect of hollowing out Chinatown and, even though there were some ambitious developments, anyone who moved in was swimming against the tide.
      The last thing that successful second generation kids wanted to do was to live in scruffy old Chinatown and the new wave of immigrants were wealthy enough to buy homes in the suburbs.
      Realistically the only hope for returning it to a thriving community once again is for the development of highrises ala Woodwards building and the encouragement of "fusion style" businesses which cater to both Western and Eastern tastes.
      These aren't just idle musings , I did try to put pressure on the Chinese Visa office to relocate to Chinatown, the number of applicants they get every day would boost the energy level down there, but I was met with a deafening silence.

      The foundations are there to help retain the cultural heritage, with the Omni TV channel and the Sun Yat Sen gardens and T&T supermarket.

      New Dim Sum bars and outdoor patios give us a hint of what the modern Chinatown could look like.

      It's an uphill battle though, the younger Chinese Canadians aren't as willing to live in a neighbourhood that butts up against the mess that is Hasting Street between Cambie and Main, so you can't have success in one unless you clean up the other.
      The future is inevitably a fusion neighbourhood, but how you get there depends on the way City Hall handles it. In fairness, they seem to have the right idea with their current path but this is Vancouver and you can't take even one step forward without pissing somebody off.


      Apr 22, 2014 at 9:49am

      sounds like you want a charter of values

      Who cares..

      Apr 22, 2014 at 10:25am

      It's Chinatown lol...

      Thomas Robson

      Apr 22, 2014 at 12:46pm

      Good stuff.

      So often I hear Chinatown described an 'historic place', needing to be preserved, or as a business district that requires revitalisation.

      But our Chinatown is first and foremost a neighbourhood and it provides all the services a healthy community requires: clinics, churches, schools, bakeries, meat & fish markets, produce shops and merchants selling a broad variety of household goods. You can find all of these within walking distance of the homes that make up this great community.

      I have participated in and observed this community since the mid 1970's. I have witnessed the changes as the 'vital core' slowly shifted from Pender, to Keefer, to East Georgia.

      Now as the Local Area Plan kicks-in and the first signs of its impact can be measured, it becomes clear how much this community is at risk. East Georgia is outside of the 'official historic area' and not protected by the Local Area Plan, but it is the last street to provide Chinatown residents with the necessary affordable services. Tragically it is also the bleeding edge of development.

      When the grocery shops and markets of East Georgia Street are gone, Chinatown will be forced to empty out. Seniors, families and people with low incomes will loose the community they have struggled for and Chinatown will be home to ghosts only.

      Chinatown is an opportunity. There is much talk about ideal urban neighbourhoods with services within easy walking distance; well Chinatown is exactly that. Critically it serves the poor as well as the wealthy. But right now it looks like the City's plan for this sort of neighbourhood is only an exclusive offer.


      Apr 22, 2014 at 3:56pm

      Yes- Chinatown is an opportunity- good ideas.
      There is room for everyone to make this possible.
      I really like the section on relationship building. I think that is a wonderful stance.

      Thanks for writing that.


      Apr 23, 2014 at 9:12am

      If we re-elect Vision Vancouver the future of Chinatown will be simple. Knock it all down and replace it with identical glass condo towers. Who needs heritage and culture?


      Apr 23, 2014 at 12:55pm

      I've dwelled here over 20 years. I work, live, and eat here. Chinatown will be what it becomes. You can't force a neighbourhood to BE something. We don't want a fake Chinatown, or a high-end Yaletown 2. It just needs to be a good, safe place for people. I suspect COV has another plan to upscale the whole thing into a Disney version of Chinatown with towers. I do wish they would consider the people who've been holding the glue together all these years, while other people cleared out. We're not rich but we're good family people. These plans will eventually nudge us out.