Vancouver’s Chinatown is a place where developers don’t always get their way

Amid projects to renovate historic premises and revive the area’s cultural heritage, a plan for new 12-storey building is knocked down by opposition from concerned residents, many with Hong Kong roots

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2017, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 6:01pm

Plans for a new development in the heart of Vancouver’s Chinatown had all the hallmarks of progress. The 12-storey, mixed-use building at 105 Keefer Street would comprise ground-floor shops, with 25 social housing units and 106 luxury condominiums above.

Not everyone found it progressive, however. The application, by developer Beedie Group, drew so much opposition that the city council voted it down eight against three after a lengthy public hearing on June 12.

The dissenters had already seen the creeping signs of gentrification when, two years ago, Starbucks opened a café in Chinatown – shocking many residents. A Western oyster bar, supper club and even a few bars have also popped up in the area, which is cheaper than Vancouver’s downtown core.

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The parties that voted against Beedie Group’s plan were concerned that it wasn’t culturally sensitive and didn’t guarantee elderly occupiers a permanent social space. Yet the objections didn’t only come from old-timers; they were aired largely by grass-roots groups led by Chinese-Canadian women in their 20s and 30s. While not opposing development in Chinatown, they feel it should be culturally sensitive and complement the area’s character and history.

“Young people are reaching out … They know how to organise through technology and are bringing people together,” says Andy Yan, a third-generation Chinese Canadian and director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University, who was at the hearing.

For more than 130 years, Vancouver’s Chinatown has been a ghetto for immigrants from southern China who built Canada’s national railway, hence its location close to the former railway terminus. The government denied the immigrants citizenship and limited their number through the Chinese Exclusion Act and Chinese Head Tax.

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So Chinatown became a base for benevolent societies that helped immigrants settle and send money home. Grocery stores and Chinese restaurants also flourished. In the 1960s, professionals – including doctors, lawyers and Chinese medicine practitioners – arrived.

During the past 30 years, the area has gone into a gradual decline as wealthier immigrants sought newer neighbourhoods. Besides, Chinatown bordered Downtown Eastside, statistically one of the poorest areas of Canada. The homeless and drug addicts would venture into Chinatown to shoot up in the alleys or commit petty theft.

Among those hoping to revive Chinatown is Carol Lee, daughter of Robert Lee, the founder and chairman of Vancouver real estate firm Prospero, who is also known for his philanthropic work. Carol Lee studied and worked in the US, then stayed briefly in Hong Kong before returning to her hometown and starting a skincare business in 2003. Six years later, she spearheaded the establishment of the Chinatown Foundation, with the aim of preserving irreplaceable cultural heritage, which she defines as buildings, people and legacy businesses.

“I shared an office with my uncle in Chinatown and saw the need to help with revitalising the area,” Lee says.

The foundation has bought the May Wah Hotel, where 120 low-income Chinese seniors rent accommodation. It plans to renovate the 113-year-old building and introduce social programmes for residents.

It also took over another well-known institution, Foo’s Ho Ho Restaurant, once recognisable by its giant neon sign of a steaming rice bowl with chopsticks. It was renowned for Canadian-Chinese dishes such as oxtail with black bean sauce, curried potato with beef, and egg foo yung.

The restaurant had served the community since the late 1940s but had fallen into disrepair. The foundation will fix it structurally, and has hired a contemporary interior designer to give Foo’s Ho Ho a retro but authentic look, Lee says.

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This month, the foundation will open Chinatown BBQ, a Cantonese roast meat restaurant, run by staff from another establishment that burned down a few years ago. A consultant has been hired to ensure this business operates more efficiently – and has cleaner toilets.

“These businesses in Chinatown are mostly mom-and-pop shops, and we want to streamline them, because the profit margins are really slim. We want to take what are best practices and have a more efficient restaurant,” Lee says.

There are cultural plans, too. The foundation has bought the site of a disused bank and wants to turn it into a storytelling centre for locals and tourists to learn more about Chinatown.

Lee won’t say how much money the foundation is pumping into the revitalisation projects. The City of Vancouver says it has provided small grants to support them.

Doris Chow and her sister June can’t buy property, but they are supporting the area’s revitalisation through the Youth Collaborative for Chinatown (YCC) that they founded in 2015.

“We saw the neighbourhood in decline and wanted to see more cultural activities. People keep talking about attracting businesses, but not a lot about cultural revitalisation. Young people don’t have businesses, so we put together mahjong socials,” she says.

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“We had no idea so many people would come,” says 34-year-old Chow, who has worked with social enterprises in the area for nine years. “It was a pilot project that we posted on social media, and printed some posters.”

She says the event’s success proved Chinatown remains relevant, even though large numbers of ethnic Chinese Vancouverites now also live in other areas, including Richmond and Coquitlam. “We had people come from Richmond come and play mahjong,” she says.

Another YCC initiative is Cantonese classes for non-Chinese who live in the area or who have a Chinese spouse. “We have an eight-week programme where they learn conversational Cantonese from a PhD candidate. They learn common phrases and words for food, and then practise using them in shops in Chinatown,” Chow says.

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With two sessions of 25 people each already under way, there is a waiting list of 70 for the classes.

Another organisation fighting to save the area is the Hua Foundation, established by Kevin Huang in 2012. The 31-year-old Taiwanese-Canadian, whose office is in Chinatown, is concerned that about half of Chinatown’s grocery stores, roast meat shops and restaurants have disappeared in the past few years, because owners have either moved out or retired. He says Chinese food is cheap and should be valued for providing comfort and communion.

“Young people want to reconnect with Chinatown, but how do you take cultural practices and make them viable businesses?”

Food is Huang’s focus for community building. His group organises dumpling workshops where participants share stories and bond over food. It’s also an opportunity to talk about Chinatown’s history.

Heritage Buildings Association chairman Fred Mah’s biggest concern is retaining the unique architectural character of Chinatown, and he hopes Unesco will designate the area as a heritage site.

“The new buildings in the area don’t have the Chinatown character. For example, old buildings have light wells inside, and they used to have mezzanine floors. The architecture had recessed balconies and older columns,” the 82-year-old long-time Vancouver resident says.

“We’re trying to use heritage to encourage tourism. In these buildings you have people playing mahjong, doing kung fu. If you’re into history, the benevolent society buildings have archives and artefacts that museums don’t have. Some of these organisations have letters from China during the Exclusion Act.”

Although Mah appreciates the efforts of Lee, Chow and Huang, he chastises the young activists for lacking cohesion.

That’s not necessarily the case, however. In early May, Lee’s foundation held a fundraising dinner for 750 guests as a reunion for Canadians with a link to Chinatown. The banquet – tables sold out within a week – brought together Lee, Chow, Huang and Yan, and respected elders of the Chinese-Canadian community.

Yan sees a generation gap in the approach towards revitalising Chinatown. The younger generation, he says, are mostly “women who are well educated, smart and suave”.

“Before, Chinatown was led by older men. It’s a disruption of the power structure. [For the younger generation] it’s not just about preserving Chinatown, but making it inclusive.”

Cohesion among young people with different ideas has been key, he says. The 105 Keefer Street development was voted down, for example, because more than one group was against it. “It was about how to negotiate between the groups. It’s a new kind of politics.These people are concerned about culture and history,” Yan says.

“This helps us to define who we are, that Vancouver isn’t just towers of glass, but has a history and people. Community is something you make – you have to do more than just write a cheque.”