Vancouver searches for ways to save Chinatown, including having it designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Half of the local food suppliers in the neighbourhood have been lost since 2009, according to a study by the Hua Foundation, and the city is reaching for new ways to sustain the community, including having it designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Could a World Heritage designation revitalize the shrinking community?

Half of the small food suppliers in Vancouver's Chinatown have closed since 2009. The city is looking for ways to revitalize and sustain the shrinking community. (Trevor Dineen)

Fresh food groceries, butchers and fish shops have disappeared from Vancouver's Chinatown, only to be replaced by boutiques, restaurants and hip coffee shops.

Half of the local food suppliers in the neighbourhood have closed since 2009, according to a study by the Hua Foundation, and the city is reaching for new ways to sustain the community, including having it designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Rising real estate prices and high property taxes are a large part of the problem, said Wes Regan, Vancouver's community economic development planner, but it goes beyond affordability.

Aging community

Regan says owners are aging out of their businesses without anyone to take them over. 

"What we've seen in some of the American cities, New York and Minneapolis for example, is people banding together to form investment cooperatives to take over these businesses and inject some new energy into them," he said.

Drawing research from the Legacy Business program in San Francisco, Regan said that the city will be looking into how it can change design guidelines for the stores in Chinatown to try and protect the smaller format retail spaces that a lot of the older businesses are in.

As part of the city's attempt to revitalize the area, a panel discussion Saturday on Chinatown food security at the SFU Harbour Centre will open up the question to the public.

The neighbourhood is already a national heritage site, but a world heritage designation would place more focus on sustaining the parts of Chinatown that define its cultural contribution to the city, according to Dr. Ho Yin Lee, the division head of the University of Hong Kong's Architectural Conservation Programmes.

"The agenda is more social based now and it's about keeping a living community living. Not only a social agenda but also a sustainable development agenda," Lee said.

'Keeping a living community living'

There was a lot of worry when UNESCO shifted its focus to community preservation because of past experience with sites drawing massive amounts of tourism that impacted the local population.

But he said that when the community applying for the designation had a strong management plan in place with support from government and the community, a lot could be done to protect those special pieces of heritage.

"It has to be about promoting an important aspect of the Canadian culture to everybody, to make it a representative element of the Canadian culture, that's the key thing."

"The idea is to keep it alive and use more innovative ideas, so including more young people."

Lee highlighted Chinatown's unique and close connection with Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the well preserved historical buildings associated with the first generation of Chinese immigrants, and the longstanding community organizations including the Tongs and the Freemasons which are still alive and have been operating since the 19th century.

"If you look at San Francisco's Chinatown, a lot of these buildings are gone … the Clan buildings, this is the most important thing … is the intangible element, the social aspect."

Lee was in Vancouver to lead a public forum Friday at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden on the implications of designating Chinatown a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

To hear the full interviews listen to media below:

Wes Regan on sustaining Chinatown's small businesses 7:54

Dr. Ho Yin Lee on Vancouver's Chinatown UNESCO World Heritage site 7:23

With files from The Early Edition