Vancouver accused of paying lip service to multiculturalism amid clash over plan to build condo block in Chinatown
The failure of a recent rezoning attempt in Chinatown has Chinese Canadian community activists saying city officials lack true understanding of ethnic minorities and their needs
Vancouver is home to a large number of people from ethnic minorities and proudly touts itself as a multicultural city. That status is reflected in the nickname “Hongcouver”, acquired after a wave of immigration from Hong Kong before the city’s 1997 handover from Britain to China.
The 2011 census showed that Vancouver has more people of Asian origin than any other Canadian city, at 37 per cent of the population, including ethnic Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans and South Asians. This compares to 30 per cent in Toronto, while over the border in New York, Asians account for just 8 per cent of the population. The next census will be released in October, and the percentage of Asians living in Vancouver is expected to be even higher.
City politicians make a point of showing up at festivals and events such as the Lunar New Year lion dance in Chinatown, and Diwali, the Hindu and Sikh festival of lights. However, community activists say efforts to appear multicultural are merely superficial, and officials have no real understanding of ethnic sensitivities.
This came into the spotlight in June, when major opposition to a proposed luxury condominium development in the heart of Chinatown caught municipal officials off guard.
The new building at 105 Keefer Street – close to the Dr Sun Yat-sen Garden, Chinese Cultural Centre and Chinatown Memorial Square – would have been 12 storeys high, making it the tallest building in the vicinity. Although it was to have included 25 social housing units, only eight were earmarked as affordable housing subsidised by the provincial government. There were also plans for a “temporary” activity centre for elderly Chinese living in the area.
Almost 200 people – an unprecedented number – registered to speak at public hearings on the proposal. Given five minutes each, the hearings stretched to more than 26 hours over three days.
Speakers’ objections included the building’s height, the displacement of low-income senior citizens in the area through gentrification, the small number of social housing units, and the blight it would impose on Chinatown’s architectural character.
Karen Hoese, acting assistant director of planning for the city’s Vancouver Downtown Division, sat through the entire hearing. A large number of young and elderly people turned up, she says, and things got heated.
Melody Ma of community group #SaveChinatownYVR, one of the speakers, says councillors had probably not seen such large, passionate crowds, and were overwhelmed. “There were a lot of young people and people of colour [Chinese]. It was a unique situation for city hall and elected officials.” Some councillors described the young people as “a mob”, she says, which carried negative and violent connotations.
Vancouver-born councillor Kerry Jang chastised the young Chinese objectors, saying, “some of the Chinatown activists, the youth in particular, were very disappointing in their behaviour”.
“You do not represent Chinatown to me and the Chinatown I know. And don’t forget, I was there long before a lot of you. I worked down there, I did everything down there,” Jang said.
“He was saying that young people’s voices didn’t have a place at the table,” Ma says.
She was proud to see so many people with connections to Chinatown from different generations come together in solidarity to oppose the application for 105 Keefer Street.
Andy Yan, director of the city programme at Simon Fraser University and an urban planner, sat through some of the hearings, and says the speakers were a socially and economically diverse group.
“The city councillors’ response to the ‘boisterous youth’ threw them ... because these young people don’t normally come to these meetings. They were articulate, diverse; a mobilised group of young people,” he says.
The campaign appeared to have been a success, when the city councillors – including Jang – voted down the rezoning application eight to three.
A few days later an open letter addressed to Mayor Gregor Robertson, signed by many who spoke at the hearings, expressed disappointment at remarks made by Jang and other councillors.
Hoese says the 105 Keefer application looked good on paper. “It met the objectives, included social housing, an activity centre and set-back upper floors,” she says. “But what’s changed over the last few years is the tension between what people want. It was difficult for councillors to make the decision, because they didn’t want to see greater division.”
She admits there have been changes in Chinatown since the application was submitted a few years ago.
For the past 20 years, Chinatown had been falling into neglect – fewer people come to shop at Chinese grocery stores because they can buy the same goods in other areas, such as Richmond, East Vancouver and Coquitlam, where later Chinese immigrants have settled. Shops and restaurants are closing because of the drop in visitors. At the same time, drug addicts in the adjacent neighbourhood of Downtown Eastside have drifted into the area and petty crime has led to security concerns among businesses and residents.
To counteract the decline, approval was given for small condo developments, while Western restaurants have opened next to Chinese grocery stores. One latest addition is Dalina, an Italian-style coffee shop that also sells gourmet food and wouldn’t look out of place in New York. But it’s questionable whether it’s right for Chinatown, which is the second largest in North America after San Francisco.
It’s not what Ma and other grass-roots activists want in the neighbourhood where they grew up, learned Cantonese on Saturday mornings, or where their parents ran businesses. That’s why they spoke out against 105 Keefer Street.
Ma also points out that not all residents living around Keefer Street speak or read English, and even some of the elderly aren’t literate in Chinese. “There was a lack of translation,” she says, referring to English-language notice boards displayed by the city to explain the rezoning policy. “We had to push to get the city to translate not just the headings of boards, but the content as well, if they wanted to engage in Chinatown issues.”
Hoese says the city lacks resources to translate all materials, but adds that in the past four years there has been more awareness of different needs, and city hall is working to address the issue.
According to Ma, the city doesn’t recognise culture as a part of city building. “It’s beyond singing, dancing and art. Culture also includes language, identity and more. To have a healthy city strategy in Vancouver, it’s not just about art. When I looked up ‘culture’ other than the arts on the City of Vancouver’s website, I could only find ‘bike culture’ and ‘horticulture’. There’s a lack of understanding of culture at city hall.”
Urban planner Yan, who has also worked in Chinatowns in Los Angeles and New York, says Vancouver should have learned to understand cultural and language issues over the past 20 years. “They were caught off balance, but Vancouver has been a multicultural city since the 1990s. And we’ve had mayors like Larry Campbell [2002-2005] who were more open to diversity.”
He says the 105 Keefer Street proposal was a lightning rod for cultural insensitivity. “Who gets to make these plans, who are excluded and included? With Chinatown, where do young Chinese Canadians fit in Vancouver? How do we move forward together?
“Chinatown is not just a place for consumption, but it’s also cultural for Chinese and non-Chinese. It has cultural and social institutions that cannot be found elsewhere in Vancouver. Those who objected to 105 Keefer are not against change, but it excluded many kinds of people, and we need to have a different kind of change – with context.”
In order to move forward, Hoese says, the city can set policy, but it’s up to the stakeholders in Chinatown – the business improvement associations, benevolent societies, non-profit organisations and youth – to work together.
“Partnerships are needed to revitalise Chinatown. Not everyone will agree, but this is part of community development,” she says.
“We want to help Chinatown look more historic, to reflect how Chinatown has developed, but we can’t discriminate against users. It’s up to business improvement associations to encourage the kind of stores they want, which comes back to partnerships with other stakeholders.”
Ma, however, is concerned about the city’s lack of understanding regarding the importance of Chinatown.
“It’s disappointing the City of Vancouver doesn’t see the cultural gem in Chinatown and instead wants to put up new shiny buildings. What gives the soul of Vancouver is already there. I hope the [objection to the] 105 Keefer rezoning application helps them realise Chinatown is important in our collective history and part of the soul of Vancouver. People don’t come to Chinatown to look at new condos.”