Changing Chinatown

Tristan Johnston / The Runner

Like the Downtown Eastside adjacent to it, Chinatown is a community that finds itself in a strange situation. A neighbourhood known for low income levels and a specific cultural character is finding its own residents slowly being pushed out by economic forces. Seniors who have lived in the area their whole lives are finding their businesses replaced by new cafes selling $4 cups of coffee.

Chinatown is one of the oldest parts of Vancouver, dating back to the inception of the city in 1886. Many of the first people to live in the area were railway workers, but many also worked in the nearby Hastings Mill.

Over the next century, Chinatown became the main enclave in Vancouver for Chinese immigrants, who had formed a tight-knit community of various societies. Many buildings in the area had shops on the bottom, residential in the middle, and a society or a school of some sort at the top.

However, Chinatown has changed a great deal in the last few decades. Newer Chinese immigrants to Vancouver have chosen to live in other suburbs, notably Richmond. The overall increase in the cost of living in Vancouver has had a disproportionate effect on the neighbourhood.

“The gentrification issue is pretty rampant,” says King-mong Chan, who works with the Carnegie Community Action Project. “There’s a lot of new development along Main St. that’s coming online, there are already people who have moved into it.”

Even though Chan first came to CCAP to do his practicum in social work, focusing on homelessness in the Downtown Eastside, he found himself drawn to Chinatown. Over time, he became closer to the community, and found himself wondering what it means to be Chinese in a Vancouver context.

Tristan Johnston / The Runner

“We’re seeing a lot of high-end restaurants and coffee shops pop-up,” says Chan. “The problem is that it’s not accessible. I don’t think they have the intention to be. A lot of the new shops aren’t lingually and culturally accessible. [Residents] can’t go in and say ‘hi,’ and go and ask questions, they can’t just talk to people because everything’s in English. At the same time we’re seeing shops and places that they could have gone to, or went to in the past, are being closed. They’re either being sold to developers or rents are going up, property tax is going up, and so forth.”

Statistics Canada data from 2006 notes that the median income for the Chinatown area is $17,658, while the Vancouver median is $47,299. Furthermore, 67 per cent of the population is low-income. The unemployment rate in 2006 was 13.3 per cent, almost twice the Vancouver average of six per cent (more recent statistical data is unavailable due to census changes).

In Chan’s view, the new developments favour a demographic that doesn’t live within Chinatown. He finds that the new buildings and businesses are better suited to younger, wealthier Vancouverites who won’t necessarily take part in maintaining the culture and character of the neighbourhood.

Chan suggests that while one of the newer restaurants in town—Baobei—has a neon sign and serves Chinese food, the clientele aren’t typical of Chinatown.

“On the ground, we’re not seeing the results we would like to see. When we go to City Hall and oppose a certain development project, because of how all of this is contributing to Chinatown’s future, at least we’re getting the issue out there, and people are voicing their support in the opposition,” he says. Chan also uses the term “hollowization,” in the sense that while buildings might be preserved, and new buildings might maintain the Chinatown character, the people who have traditionally lived in the area are being pushed out.

“I think more people are concerned about Chinatown: in the past year we’ve seen different groups and youth, and Chinese youth, and non-Chinese youth, who are saying that this place is important, it needs to be preserved in a better way than we’re seeing right now.”

Tristan Johnston / The Runner

“A lot of people feel safe in this neighbourhood,” he says. “They feel that they’re less judged by other people that don’t understand their experiences, and people here help each other out because they’ve been through it themselves, and that fabric of the community is being ripped apart by gentrification and being displaced.”

“Even at Woodward’s, the social housing building is separated from the condominium,” Chan says. “While the city talks about social mix, there’s clear separation, not everything is equal.”

Most residents in the area want to be able to continue living in their homes with their current income, and for the character of the neighbourhood to be maintained.

When you talk to seniors who have lived in Chinatown for a long time, you’ll find many of them echoing similar sentiments. They love the sense of community that they have, the fact that there are plenty of businesses that cater to their culture, language and income level, and the history associated with the area. However, very few seem to be happy with the current situation.

Godfrey Tang came to B.C. in 1973, and while he didn’t live in Chinatown, he visited often to buy groceries and soon made a lot of friends in the community. While he has lived in the area for only three years, he has seen many changes taking place. “Businessmen told us about the rent going up, because they have to pay, now on top of the rent, property tax. Property tax keeps increasing as the property changes hands, new buyers,” he says.

“I think the three levels of government, they all declare this area as a heritage area. They keep on saying that they would like to see the area survive, to be preserved, but they’re only talking about, ‘Okay we don’t allow these 12 or 16 clan association buildings to be torn down.’ But they don’t mind, next door to these buildings, having new buildings go up,” he says. “Across the alley, they allow 120-feet buildings to go up, more than twice as high. It’s ridiculous.”

Tristan Johnston / The Runner

“Not only the character doesn’t match the existing building, it doesn’t give you the feeling of being in a special Chinatown area,” he says.

Tang, like others in the area, also decries the entry of outsiders into the neighbourhood. He’s worried that newer businesses don’t cater to the low-income, Chinese-speaking residents. “People come to Chinatown, they look around… ‘Woah, is this really a Chinatown area? It doesn’t have that much Chinese culture that I can see at all,’” he explains.

“Most of the Chinese stores who used to be around have moved away. I talked to them, next door, they’re putting on a 50 per cent sale. They said they have to close because the property tax is being raised $1500 per month. He said he couldn’t sell enough to make the difference.”

“It would be best if the government did what they said, if they want to preserve this as a heritage area, to try not to disturb it, they try not to change the look of the area. If they’re in the right mind, they should try to keep the new buildings the same height as the old ones,” he says.

Another longtime resident is Mr. Xia, who was speaking through Wendy Au-Yeung, an interpreter at an event in Chinatown. Xia has lived in Chinatown for many years, at one point working at Hon’s noodle house, which was originally started by an immigrant from Hong Kong.

Tristan Johnston / The Runner

While he wants Chinatown to be preserved, he understands the potential benefits of new developments.

“I think some development is really healthy and essential for my neighbourhood, and we can’t just rely on old businesses for our neighbourhood,” he says in Cantonese. “Some development is healthy, but it needs to be relevant to our neighbourhood.”

“It needs to be culturally appropriate and relevant, and reflective of Chinese cultural traditions and values, and what the neighbours need here as well.”

Representatives from the City of Vancouver denied an interview request, but linked to their website, which explains their plan for the area. According to their plan, some of their goals seem to be similar to those in the Chinatown community.

The neighbourhood plan acknowledges that certain buildings, especially those within “HA-1” zoning area, are deemed to be heritage sites. However, the plan also notes that roughly 33 per cent of the buildings are deemed “heritage,” compared to 75 per cent in Gastown and 50 per cent in Victory Square.

The report also notes that maximum building heights were increased from 70’ to 90’ in the southern part of the district, and from 65’ to 75’ along Pender. While residents don’t want too much to change, the city believes that these changes will allow for greater living density, and keeping prices reasonable.

“Will our needs be met? Those are still questions,” says Mr. Xia. “It’s really important for different groups to work together to protect the heritage of Chinatown.”

“If no one works to preserve it, it could be gone in a few generations.”