Questions about Vancouver’s growth, housing strategies, and future demographics are weighing heavily on everyone in the city.
But for two particular neighbourhoods—Chinatown and Punjabi Market—navigating the preservation of the communities’ cultural legacies is a matter of life and death, as development proposals and gentrification loom.
The Indian Summer Festival is facing this moment of crisis head on this Saturday (July 8), by holding a free walking tour of the two neighbourhoods followed by a panel discussion about how to conserve the integrity of these historic sanctuaries in the heart of the city. A Tale of Two Markets, moderated by urban planner Andy Yan, will feature Meera Bains, Melissa Fong, Tyler Russell, and Paneet Singh, in a discussion that grapples with how to respect the value of a place beyond its commercial offerings.
Playwright and filmmaker Singh told the Straight over the phone that it’s essential to remember the role of these spaces in shaping Vancouver’s history, as well as its present and future.
“It probably sounds counterintuitive to most people to save a market for its history,” said Singh. “These are not just commercial spaces where people go to shop, these are community spaces. Interactions happen there on a daily basis, where people mobilize politically, where a lot of literature was disseminated. The further both communities get driven from Vancouver as a city, the easier it is to push both communities to backburner politically.”
Melissa Fong, currently completing her PhD in Planning and Geography at the University of Toronto—specifically looking at the meaning of revitalization in the context of Vancouver’s Chinatown—is also slated to speak on Saturday’s panel. She spoke to the Straight about Chinatown’s position as a safe haven for immigrants and people in need, of all stripes and nationalities—a place all Canadians should have an interest in protecting.
“Chinatown is seen as the original sanctuary city. It’s an essential place of refuge, support, and guidance for newcomers and refugees,” said Fong. “Canada’s population relies on immigrants; we don’t have a replacement birth rate.”
Singh also spoke to the power and history these communities have as safe havens for immigrants of different backgrounds. He mentioned that before Punjabi Market developed, many immigrants of Punjabi descent found that Chinese restaurants were the safest places for them to eat in Vancouver, because they were the only places they weren’t discriminated against.
As an academic heavily invested in Chinatown’s history and future, Fong said she’s looking forward to the opportunity to discuss solutions with cultural leaders of Punjabi Market—a community that she isn’t too familiar with, despite the fact that they exist within the same city.
“One thing we’re going to talk about is how unfortunate it is that we don’t know a lot about each other’s communities,” said Fong. “This could be a discussion about how to harness those connections in the future.”
For Fong, collaborative, protective coalitions between distinct communities aren’t a far-fetched possibility. She saw something like this happen just few weeks ago, when protests at city hall to prevent a 12-storey development in Chinatown drew supporters from across Metro Vancouver.
“There were a ton of other neighbourhoods there with us,” said Fong. “Commercial Drive, Kitsilano, Kerrisdale, it was really incredible and amazing to see all these neighbourhoods saying they didn’t want this to happen to Chinatown either.”
Singh is looking forward to showing off some his favourite spots in Punjabi Market on the walking tour, including the history of the longstanding Himalaya Restaurant. He’s also planning to showcase the market’s streets as a site of political action and celebration, aside from the commercial shops that the place is known for.
Singh has seen changes over time in the market. But not all of them have been without the community’s input. When the beloved community staple All India Sweets & Restaurant moved to carry on its decades-old legacy at 49th and Main, Singh said there was a sigh of relief from community members of Indian and non-Indian descent. Currently, he’s working with Orr Development to curate a public-facing installation that will be displayed at a new development at that same intersection—a piece intended to reflect the neighbourhood’s history.
“When you’re looking forward, it’s not that everything is going to stay the same. That’s just now the way it works, right?” said Singh. “If the space is changing inevitably and it happens without the input of people invested in the recognition of the space, I think that is going to lead to gentrification that wipes out history. With the input of community, change can be respectful and positive, that doesn’t eradicate everything that's happened.”
And according to Singh, it’s not just residents of the area who should be involved in the discussion that Saturday’s panel hopes to kick-start.
“The panel is worthwhile for anyone who has an interest in not just the history, but the development of Vancouver,” said Singh. “These two districts are valuable to identity of Vancouver. It’s a rare opportunity to get everyone who has an interest in the area together.”
More information on the panel and walking tour can be found here.