British Columbia

Cultural sites 'under constant attack,' director says, as graffiti and vandalism blight Vancouver's Chinatown

Politicians say a successful bid to become a UNESCO world heritage site could be key to preserving the neighbourhood's character.

Community leaders call on levels of government for more resources to combat mounting crime

Graffiti on a business in the Chinatown neighbourhood in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The gates at the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden haven't always been locked, but its executive director says the chains are a symbol of trying times.

"This courtyard used to be open to the public, and we've had to gate it off due to the vandalism," Lorraine Lowe told CBC News. "It's crazy."

On Jan. 16, the exterior walls of the historic garden were spray painted, while windows at the nearby Chinese Cultural Centre were smashed. It's the latest in a series of incidents of vandalism that have afflicted the community over the past two years.

Lorraine says the crimes happen so often it's hard to tell whether they're being specifically targeted or if it's a symptom of an even larger problem in the city.

"It's disheartening to say the least. It's just we're under constant attack," she said. "It's gotten a lot worse after COVID."

Graffiti is pictured on businesses in the Chinatown neighbourhood in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A recent study suggests there have been higher incidences of crimes in low-income neighbourhoods in Vancouver. The Vancouver Police Department says Chinatown's close proximity to the Downtown Eastside means there have historically been challenges with crime in the area, which have been exacerbated during the pandemic.

"Particularly since the beginning of the pandemic, we've seen a number of increasing and concerning incidents that have involved aggression toward racialized people or hate crimes ... and we investigate them very thoroughly," said Sgt. Steve Addison.

Bill Kwok, the vice-chair of the board of the Chinese Cultural Centre, says his building has been the site of a number of fires to go along with the vandalism, which are becoming costly to manage.

"Our funds are very limited, and when this happens we're not able to fund our programs properly," he said. "And once you set [these buildings] on fire, it's very historical and there's a lot of artifacts inside, and it would be a shame to lose all that."

The aftermath of a break-in at a business in the Chinatown neighbourhood in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Finding a solution

Advocates from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside say systemic challenges surrounding poverty and mental illness have long been prevalent in the community, and conditions have worsened amid dual health crises impacting the most vulnerable.

"This community has been grappling with grief and loss for many years, people dealing with PTSD and trauma," said Fiona York, a community advocate. "The pandemic and opioid crisis [have increased] the loss, the trauma, the grief."

York says issues like crime won't go away until a concerted effort is made to lift people off the streets and out of poverty.

Over the last two years, the province spent more than $250 million securing housing for B.C.'s homeless population. However, it's still unclear what effect the effort had on the number of people living on the street. In Vancouver, annual homeless counts have been cancelled for the past two years.

Police say vandalism has long been an issue in Chinatown, but incidents have increased over the past two years. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Push for world heritage site status

As for Chinatown, members of the community would also like to see multiple levels of government put more effort into support for low income residents.

"There needs to be ongoing support for the marginalized community," said Lowe. "If we can tackle the main issues of addiction and mental health, I think that would really help."

MP Jenny Kwan, who represents the riding of Vancouver East that straddles both neighbourhoods, said she's been advocating for more financial grants for the community at the federal level.

She's also among those lobbying for the neighbourhood to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which would deem it an international landmark with legal protection and could help secure the funding to preserve and maintain its streets.

"We need to do it, and work together to recreate Chinatown with its history and to value its character," she said. "But we need capital investment."