Chinese overseas
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
East Pender Street, 2015, in the heart of Vancouver's Chinatown. The district is at risk of losing its identity as its population ages and non-Chinese businesses move in. Photo: Christopher Cheung

How Vancouver's youth are bridging old and new to protect Chinatown's heritage

Young Chinese-Canadians in Vancouver are rising up to reinvent their unique neighbourhood while also protecting its heritage and identity

When she was young, Claudia Li's grandmother would take her to Vancouver's Chinatown on trips to buy groceries. She was amazed by the number of people her grandmother knew, calling out to passers-by and shop owners by name.

Today, Li helps organise a team of young Chinese-Canadians determined to protect Chinatown's unique, intimate community. They have led Cantonese workshops for non-Chinese, organised sports from street hockey to kung fu, helped the elderly with computers, and explained to city planners what constitutes Chinatown character.

"Chinatown is a place that's important for Canada," said Li. "I feel there's a common yearning between youth to learn and be proud of this neighbourhood."

Connecting the old and the new is one of Li's passions.

She co-founded Hua Foundation, a non-profit organisation that launched its first project last summer to create bilingual seasonal vegetable guides for Chinatown grocers, blending knowledge of traditional with a modern interest in eating locally produced food.

The youth group's goal is to help reinvent the neighbourhood with respect to its heritage, and bridge cultural and generational gaps. They want everyone in Chinatown to feel welcome, not just the ethnic Chinese.

It has been difficult for Vancouver's historic Chinatown to compete with Chinese communities elsewhere in Greater Vancouver, particularly the municipality of Richmond.

East Pender Street, 1978. Photo: City of Vancouver Archives
East Pender Street, 1945. Photo: City of Vancouver Archives

With Chinatown's population ageing, non-Chinese businesses moving into the neighbourhood and condo projects underway, there are fears of gentrification and loss of its identity.

"We're at a turning point where it can go either way," said Carol Lee, chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Revitalisation Committee that works with the city.

The city's youth are interested not only in exploring Chinatown's identity, but also their own heritage as Chinese-Canadians. Some work with community associations, seniors, student projects at the University of British Columbia, as well as a contemporary Asian art gallery.

But they are not the first young Chinese-Canadians to show interest in the neighbourhood.

Long-time Chinatown advocate Fred Mah, with half a century of volunteerism in the neighbourhood, remembers the '60s and '70s when youth involvement was at its strongest. Sports like badminton, basketball, table tennis and volleyball were the gateway to getting them interested in the community.

"With the sports and so on, you get the volunteers," Mah said. "Without the youth movement, activism wasn't going to happen."

The young volunteers joined activism efforts in the area, fighting against the freeway the city wanted to build through Chinatown and its efforts to close barbecue shops because of strict health regulations.

But after the 1970s, youth interest declined. A group in the 2000s tried to modernise activities, introducing outdoor movies, talent contests and even DJs and break-dancing at the night markets, but they struggled to recruit new leaders.

Most members of the new youth group are in their 20s, but the term "youth" is used loosely to refer to anyone who has been educated locally. "In Chinatown, youth means anyone aged below 50," said Edmund Ma, one of the group's organisers.

Condo developments and changing demographics aside, there are challenges within Chinatown itself that this younger generation will have to overcome. Many organisations are not ready to welcome involvement from new faces. Some have done things their way for more than 100 years.

"Most of the senior people pay lip service," said Fred Mah, who has decades of experience. "They say they want younger people in there, but at the same time, they still want to control everything."

Mah believes stirring up youth interest in Chinatown is another challenge, something Edmund Ma has seen firsthand.

Like Mah did in his day, Ma helps out everywhere he can: the night market, teaching kung fu and joining groups like his family's community group. It can be tiring work, which is why numbers and having key, dedicated individuals are important.

"There's so much stuff to be done with so few people," Ma said. "Chinatown just needs people … Everyone minds their own business now. It used to be a community. A real community does exist here, but it exists behind closed doors."

It is not easy making intergenerational connections in Chinatown, especially when speaking Cantonese is a challenge for some. But today's youth is determined to maintain a spirit of collaboration.

Mah commends the younger generation for being patient with the process.

"If you work alongside [the other associations] and accept some of their ideas, they will gradually accept you," he said.

"We're progressive and forward thinking," Ma said. "But we also respect tradition and how things used to be."

Satellite 'Chinatowns' develop in many parts of Vancouver

Vancouver's Chinatown is no longer the only centre for its local Chinese community. Many satellite "Chinatowns" have grown up in Greater Vancouver neighbourhoods, some with even more choice in services.

This decentralisation began in the 1970s when more Chinese chose to live elsewhere in Greater Vancouver as discrimination lessened. There are now about 400,000 ethnic Chinese in the region.

In the '80s, most Hong Kong and Taiwanese arrivals were investors and businesspeople who could afford to live in the more upmarket neighbourhoods, a shift from previous generations of working and middle-class Chinese who lived in or near Chinatown.

Richmond, the municipality south of Vancouver, is now the most Chinese city in North America. Richmond is popular for more recent immigrants, as it is closer to what contemporary East Asia is like. There are multiple malls and supermarkets, with many premises open long after midnight.

In Vancouver, a number of areas have clusters of Chinese businesses, including bakeries, doctors and grocers. These areas are convenient for many, especially the elderly, to get daily needs within walking distance.

Mainland Chinese have been increasingly interested in the region. For example, wealthy buyers from China have been purchasing multimillion-dollar homes on Vancouver's desirable west side.

Meanwhile, non-Chinese residents and businesses, such as clothing boutiques, bars and even a nightclub, have moved in to the traditional Chinatown. Three apartment projects are under way there.

Chinatown was the only Chinese community a few decades ago. With changes on its doorstep and competition elsewhere, many believe a new vision of the future is required if the neighbourhood is to survive.

Christopher Cheung

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Bridging old and newin historic Chinatown