City Talk: Chinatown YVR

A postcard featuring Vancouver's Chinatown. Photo courtesy of the UBC Chung collection.

In light of the recent City of Vancouver proposal to make Vancouver's Chinatown a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I wanted to share a piece that I wrote for a class on the current state of Chinatown and the need for action to take place with regards to heritage preservation. This comes especially after the recent October 30 meeting on the fate of the infamous 105 Keefer development in Chinatown. I wrote this piece before the alleged fifth time the Beedie Group, the developers that want to redevelop 105 Keefer, had submitted a new proposal.

Though I do not personally live in Chinatown, as a Chinese-Canadian I have these Chinese-Canadian pioneers to thank for my freedoms now as a person of colour in this city. Since I go to school and volunteer nearby/in Chinatown, seeing the disparity of the neigbourhood breaks my heart. But I'll let this piece speak for itself.


We cannot lose Chinatown for the sake of modernization.

Natural death and gentrification is slowly erasing an ugly but important part of Vancouver’s past – a past that we cannot forget.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop that looks out onto East Pender Street in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown. The space is clean, quiet, and minimalist.

East Pender was not.

I watched the scenery outside for about ten minutes. An elderly lady struggled with her rolling shopping bag as two twenty-somethings walked by with their bikes. Two elderly gentlemen on the other side of the street smoking cigarettes. Coming up past them was a younger Chinese woman and her mother ambling up the sidewalk, maneuvering her walker around the cracks. A skateboarder narrowly misses them.

This is Vancouver’s Chinatown as I, a twenty-something Chinese-Canadian see it. It is a site where history meets contemporary, where poor meets rich, and where death meets youth.

Chinatown is a historically ugly and messy site. I would even go as far as to say that it is a darker part of Vancouver’s past that we sweep under our multicultural rug.

Vancouver hasn’t always been the friendly and welcoming city that we claim it is. If you were white in the late 19th to early 20th century, you had a free pass. If you weren’t, it was just your bad luck.

For the Chinese, they left their homeland in search of greener pastures. But instead of green pastures, they were pushed into concrete ghettos – four city blocks, to be exact. Chinese people couldn’t own land, couldn’t hold professional positions despite being just as qualified, disenfranchised, and Canadian citizenship was out of the question.

And so, Chinatown was born.

The pioneers of the Chinese population in Vancouver – the ones that afforded me the rights that I have today as a Chinese-Canadian – took firm hold in Vancouver’s Chinatown despite all the hatred and racism against them. Chinatown later grew into a vibrant part of the city that outgrew its meagre four city blocks, and later one of the largest Chinatowns in Canada and a National Heritage Site.

Without these people enduring the suffering and treatment that they did, people of Asian heritage wouldn’t be able to take up professional positions, pursue their dreams, and live normally. It is this legacy of strength in the face of adversity that needs to be preserved in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

But gentrification is taking a greedy bite into this legacy. Building proposals such as the infamous 105 Keefer Street aims to bring modern flair and mixed-use buildings, at the expense of a rich cultural community that lives there. In this tug of war between gentrification and revitalization, Vancouver’s Chinatown has landed itself on Canada’s Top 10 Endangered Places list.

Chinatown’s once vibrant lights and beautiful buildings are now dilapidated. Once beautiful murals depicting pastoral Chinatown scenes are hidden in the shadows of tall buildings. Storefronts once bustling with activity are now hollowed-out shells because the Chinese store vendors can no longer keep up with the rising cost of rent.

We are losing Chinatown to natural death, as well as death by social Darwinism, in neighbourhood chunks. The family owned produce market that might have been a community staple now takes their vegetables elsewhere, and in their place comes a hip smoothie joint, an overpriced coffee laboratory or a vegan pizza parlour.

But I’m not backing down yet, because if there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that Chinatown and Vancouver’s Chinese are resilient. They always have been, and they always will be.

On October 30, 105 Keefer Street will be back to the deliberation table for the fifth time. The Beedie Group is proposing a 9-storey mixed use building with 111 residential units. However, while there will be a “seniors cultural space” in the building, there is no mention of any low-income or social housing for seniors or those in a lower-income bracket.

We need spaces that Chinese elders, as well as other residents of Chinatown, can actually afford. We need to maintain the integrity and legacy of a part of Vancouver that is rich with history and diversity. We need the City of Vancouver to say no to high rises that only a small fraction of the population can afford and actually listen to the voices of people who have broken their backs for this city.

Thanks to gentrification, we have already lost Hogan’s Alley and Japantown. I cannot let the efforts of these people be erased by posh buildings and expensive taste.

And Chinese or not, neither should Vancouverites.


This piece was an assignment for my communication class, CMNS 432: Political Communication, Public Opinion, and Political Marketing.