Henry Yu: “It's the people not the buildings”—Vancouver Chinatown's future legacies

A UBC historian answers the question of what is intangible cultural heritage in one of the city's oldest neighbourhoods

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      By Henry Yu

      Four years ago, on April 22, 2018, the City of Vancouver officially apologized to the Chinese Canadian community for its ugly history of anti-Chinese discrimination. It was a beautiful moment of respectful contrition, taking place not in council chambers but in the community in front of a packed hall of Chinese elders in Chinatown. In the history of our city, this moment of formal repudiation of racism still stands out as a bright light, even after two years of resurgent anti-Asian racism. 

      Less than a year earlier in 2017, both city council and the Vancouver’s development permit board had listened to the voices of the Chinatown community in rejecting a high-rise condo development in the heart of Chinatown at 105 Keefer Street. A wide array of stakeholders—young through old, community volunteers and educated professionals, Chinese as well as non-Chinese, had come together in opposition to a future they did not want for Chinatown (a process captured in Chester Sim’s 2021 film “Clash on Keefer”).  

      Where are we now five years later? Could these diverse stakeholders rally together FOR something rather than AGAINST something? 

      On Wednesday (June 8) city council will hear the vision for the future of Chinatown those stakeholders came together to create. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, a Legacy Stewardship Group—appointed by city council to bring the wide range of perspectives of community members in the wake of the City apology and of the 105 Keefer fight—has worked for three years to come to a consensus about what the community wants as its future. Building upon the rich historical legacy of Chinatown's past, of resilience against racism and an inclusive refuge within a harsh world, the Cultural Heritage Assets Management Plan (CHAMP) is innovative and unprecedented.

      The City of Vancouver’s Chinatown Transformation Team of planners has supported the work of the Legacy Stewardship Group, and the community-led process for creating CHAMP is one of the finest examples of a democratic approach to planning in a city already world famous for neighbourhood consultation in planning processes. By the way, for those who do not know, strong neighbourhood consultation was one of the byproducts of the community-led protests in the 1960s against the proposed downtown freeway that would have destroyed Strathcona and Chinatown, and which kept Vancouver’s downtown vibrant compared to other North American cities.

      Planning and policy shape the quality of life in our communities. City services keep the city running day to day, but the future of where we live and work is shaped by management plans and zoning bylaws.

      For instance, in the wake of the 105 Keefer fight, city planners downzoned the protected Chinatown Historic Area (HA-1 and HA-1A, literally the first heritage areas to be designated in Vancouver, showing their importance). This restriction on density and height, and especially on assembling different properties into a single new development, has been the most important factor why Chinatown properties were not snapped up by real estate speculation during the pandemic, when the COVID-19-driven economic downtown shuttered businesses and dropped property values.

      Without the wise policy of zoning restrictions, one of the impacts of the pandemic would have been the creation of a financial incentive to speculate on redeveloping Chinatown. 

      The CHAMP proposal going before city council did not have to save the buildings of Chinatown. CHAMP is designed to achieve a much more important goal—to safeguard the cultural heritage of Vancouver Chinatown for future generations. The management plan is organized around one core value—what experts (confusingly) call “intangible cultural heritage”. 

      What does that mean? UNESCO has a long technical definition which, frankly, doesn’t help clarify it for people.

      In actuality, it is quite simple. What is intangible cultural heritage? It is about the people, not the buildings.

      After two-and-a-half years of working together despite different perspectives, listening to each other respectfully—sometimes disagreeing on one thing but agreeing on something else that is the most important to them—the representatives of LSG have created a comprehensive approach. 

      What are its goals? A vibrant cultural heritage economy, a prosperous and culturally rich space full of heritage and emotional impact, a commitment to inclusive and trusting relations between different communities with profoundly meaningful cultural exchanges, and intergenerational learning between young and old.

      What is at the heart of CHAMP's definition of ‘cultural heritage’? 

      Chinatown is our precious heritage not because its buildings are old, but because it is who we have been in Vancouver and who we want to be in the generations to come. Heritage is the people who care about Chinatown, and what takes place inside and in front of those buildings. 

      It’s simple—CHAMP is the charter made together by those who are willing to sacrifice and argue and fight for Chinatown's future.

      Professor Henry Yu is historian at UBC. His research team helped support the Chinatown Transformation Team and Legacy Stewardship Group with studies of how urban heritage neighbourhoods around the world were best protected and managed.