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Vancouver’s Vanishing Chinatown

February 16, 2017

Vancouver’s Chinatown flourished against the odds to become a booming cultural center. Recently, as long-time residents have witnessed gentrification take a toll on the cultural richness and history of the area, new strides are being made to preserve the area’s history and culture.

Settled in the late 19th century, Vancouver’s Chinatown — then known as Shanghai Alley — grew to become second in size only to San Francisco’s Chinatown, and by the mid-1970s, had become incredibly valuable real estate.

Its streets were abuzz around the clock, with people patronizing restaurants, nightclubs, theaters and grocery shops specializing in Chinese delicacies. Chinatown was the place to be; and it was the only place Chinese residents of Vancouver were allowed to live for more than 80 years.

Then, suddenly, if you were Chinese you no longer had to live within the close and closed community. The laws changed and immigration from Asia soared. Following unrest in Hong Kong in the 1960s, a flood of people jumped on ships seeking safer harbors and Vancouver was a preferred destination.

As 1997 loomed and the British prepared to hand control of Hong Kong over to China, a wave of uncertainty swept through the colony. Families with money fled to Vancouver, but not to Chinatown, as they no longer were required or needed to live in the tight-knit self-segregated community.

At the same time, third- and fourth-generation Chinese Canadians moved out of Chinatown. Most were highly educated and successful professionals looking to enjoy the benefits of full participation in the Canadian experience. Slowly the nature of Chinatown began to change.

The city lost touch with Chinatown, as City Hall focused on condo development to the south and the rampant drug and alcohol problems in the ghetto just one block north of Chinatown.

But property values remained high due to pressure from developers wanting to build monolithic high-rise condos. The mom-and-pop shops that for generations had peddled wares from the humble confines of a busy and affordable community could no longer afford the rent.

Closed store in Vancouver's Chinatown

Stores started to shutter, and the closures made the streets feel impersonal, empty and dangerous. Kella Ng and her husband own the Bamboo Village emporium, and she says customers stay away because, “When you walk around Chinatown, you don’t feel safe.”

Long-time resident Stephen Wong says, “Chinatown will disappear day by day, and pretty soon there will be no more Chinese in Chinatown.”

But there are a number of Vancouver residents and organizations that envision and are working toward mobilizing a renaissance for Chinatown.

June Chow, who with her sister Doris created the Youth Collaborative for Chinatown, says, “It is nationally recognized that Chinatown is an endangered community.” Chow is referring to the fact that in 2016 the National Trust for Canada included Vancouver's Chinatown in its Top 10 Endangered Places list. The Chow sisters consolidated support from an ever-expanding group of young women and men who are determined to restore vibrancy and vitality to the place their families have called home for generations.

Zoe Lam, a PhD candidate in Linguistics and Lead Researcher of the Hong Kong Canada Crosscurrents project at the University of British Columbia, teaches adult learners conversational Cantonese at Saturday School.

Their first step was to re-establish “Saturday School” at the historic Mon Keang Chinese School, where generations of Vancouver Chinese girls and boys learned to speak Cantonese — now, through guided field studies adults can learn conversational Cantonese and more about the history of Chinatown.

The Youth Collaborative for Chinatown is also activating and revitalizing public space by hosting Mahjong socials to gather anyone who wants to learn the game, which is central to Chinese culture in Vancouver. The organization says the socials are a response to the changes in Chinatown, including rapid and large-scale development, the cessation of the Chinatown Night Market and other impacts of gentrification: “The monthly format seeks to create continuity within a changing landscape, and a habit of visiting the area in pursuit of creating lived cultural experiences of Vancouver Chinatown,” reads the collaborative’s website.

Third-generation resident and business owner Carol Lee was so alarmed by the deterioration of Chinatown that she established the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, which exists to celebrate Chinatown’s culture and community and to invest in projects that will revitalize it.

Lee has gone to work to buy up heritage buildings and Chinese rooming houses and to prompt the City of Vancouver to build a health unit that will serve Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, also known as Canada’s worst neighborhood.

Lee, whose family has deeply rooted ties in Chinatown, says, “I can imagine what Chinatown has the potential to be. If we do it right, it can be Vancouver’s number one tourist attraction.”


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Stuart McNish

Stu McNish is a trainer, speaker, video producer and award-winning television reporter. Over the course of his career Stu has taught countless professionals how to prepare for media interviews and to speak in public. As a television reporter with Global TV, Stu won numerous awards for his work, ended the careers of politicians, spoke out on behalf of those who didn't have a voice and made a difference.

In 1998, Stu left reporting and created Oh Boy Productions, a production company producing truly compelling videos for TV, corporate clients, government agencies and not-for-profits.

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