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Changing Chinatown SHAVONNE YU ENDS 220

At A Glance Statues of lions and golden dragons look on as I pass through the Millennium gate of Vancouver’s Chinatown. Awash in a sea of red lamp posts, I hear sounds of heavy traffic, overpowering any other ambient noise. But if I listen closely, I can hear the static of a radio, and the shuffle of feet as women dance to music nearby. A few years prior, I thought Chinatown owed its existence to an appreciation of culture. While I may have been naïve, I grew up being told to avoid that area entirely due to its proximity to the Downtown East Side. Never finding a reason to spend my time there, it wasn’t until I begun to learn about Vancouver’s history that I discovered that it was founded on a desire to segregate the working Chinese men from the rest of the city in the early 1900s (Greater Vancouver Hotels).

Structural Patterns Motifs appear again and again but in different forms, a remix of tradition into modern day use. A Chinese chess board pattern by the Sun Yat Gardens is repeated as lines painted on the road. Patterns of traditional ornamental windows appear on wall sconces outside Juke – new American fried chicken restaurant. An interesting parallel between the old and the new emerges through architectural forms that mimic the historical buildings. New apartment condos feature the same recessed balconies, which overlook a Starbucks just below them. However, this fabrication of the traditional is not always done correctly. On almost all the street posts sit golden dragons facing inward towards storefronts. Feng shui experts say that the Qi, or energy, should be directed outwards to the people (TVO). As the city’s view of Chinatown shifted from dangerous to interesting and exotic, additional decorations were installed in response to the influx of tourism.

Food Wars Allegations of gentrification persist despite some who claim that the upheaval of Chinatown’s businesses are merely a result of a capitalist economy. Local Chinese businesses – now empty – make way for upper middle-class coffee shops that cater to a young adult Caucasian demographic, displacing Chinese seniors who have lived there for decades. In fact, the number of cultural food businesses have decreased to more than half of what they were in 2009 (Hua Foundation).

One business, Pidgin, sits adjacent from Pigeon Park, a place known to be occupied by a large population of homeless people. An interesting blend of French and Asian cuisine, I visited last year during Vancouver’s Dine Out initiative. Sitting down, I balked at the $50 starting price for the dinner set which led me to settle for a cheap appetizer and leave hungry. Some see it as a symbol of gentrification, and it has a history of picketers lining up outside their storefront to protest. Others appreciate the food for the food itself – it was listed as one of the top 10 cuttingedge restaurants in the world by The Daily Meal and USA Today.

As someone who loves Asian fusion food, I find it difficult resist at least trying the new restaurants that have been met by raving reviews. One instance of this is at Kissa Tanto, where I literally stood at their doorstep but was convinced by my friends to eat elsewhere. In a mahogany frame, a sign on the wall had asked us with it’s gold foil letters to:


And while this sign could have meant no harm, it had just the right amount of passive-aggressive that denoted a distaste for anyone who was not deemed the higher class.

Rather than allowing Chinatown to quietly recede into history books, many have taken a stand, and not just the elderly. Young ChineseCanadians, distanced from their heritage, sought to record these quickly vanishing stories from Chinese seniors through a published book – “Chinatown Stories” – which was successfully funded through Kickstarter. Youth for Chinese Seniors is currently running an online campaign to build a senior’s drop-in centre in Chinatown. The 105 Keefer development, proposed by the Beedie group in 2013 has been met with protest for the past three years, with turnouts at City Hall filling the room.

Fabricated While the facades of Chinatown may be replicated in towers, it is undeniable that a sense of community has been lost. I once spent a weekend by the Chinese Cultural Center in high school as a participant in my teacher’s Chinese calligraphy exhibition. Only friends and family of the artists came, apart from the lone passerby. The courtyard outside was empty. A celebration of culture perhaps, but its only audience was those who already knew of it. It seems that interest lies only in replicating the architectural elements of Chinatown, rather than the preservation of its communities.

Richmond, the future Chinatown? Years ago, my mother used to get her groceries in Chinatown, back when businesses were bustling with good produce and good deals. As time went by, she found she could get everything she needed in Richmond. Why drive through downtown traffic when Richmond is a mere 15 minutes away? It seems to me that Richmond has become a more authentic representation of Chinese culture. Rather than congregating within a perimeter defined by the government, Richmond’s businesses have grown organically. Many of its stores import items that can only be acquired from Hong Kong. Richmond boasts a 62% immigrant population, the highest in Canada (Todd), as many Chinese immigrants opted to live there due to its low rental rates. Walking into Chinatown, I don’t feel the same sense of familiarity as I do when I’m in Richmond. People walk about without saying much, and there aren’t any store owners promoting their daily goods over a megaphone. Where is Chinatown headed?

Ultimately, the future of Chinatown is an incredibly complex issue. Many parties are involved, from hopeful entrepreneurs which bring more money to the area, and Chinese seniors who can no longer afford to live in their homes. Empathy is key to creating solutions that can bridge values – and empathizing begins not only with walking amongst the buildings, but amongst the people.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden, in the midst of change

Changing Chinatown  

A personal commentary on the changing dynamics of Vancouver's Chinatown over the years.

Changing Chinatown  

A personal commentary on the changing dynamics of Vancouver's Chinatown over the years.