British Columbia

Closing up shop: Vancouver's Chinatown battered by crime, COVID-19 and dirty streets

In its heyday, Vancouver’s Chinatown was a bustling community. But today the streets are mostly empty. There are almost as many wooden boards covering the windows of shops as there are neon 'open' signs.

Chinatown's retail vacancy rate has risen to more than 17 per cent during pandemic

A city worker crosses the street in the midst of Vancouver's historic Chinatown neighbourhood.
The streets of Vancouver's historic Chinatown are mostly empty. There are almost as many wooden boards covering windows as there are neon 'open' signs, and filth has become part of the landscape. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In its heyday, Vancouver's Chinatown was a bustling neighbourhood.

It was a swirl of culture, commerce and community as the Chinese bakeries, fresh produce markets and butcher shops were alive with customers.

But today the streets are mostly empty. There are almost as many wooden boards covering windows as there are neon "open" signs. Vandalism and filth have become part of the landscape.

There's a retail vacancy rate of more than 17 per cent in Chinatown, and while the pandemic has exacerbated the situation, those who live and work in the once vibrant community say it has been deteriorating for years.

At Sincere Gift Shop, owner Bonnie Chen can help you find all of the usual tourist trinkets, but she has few people to sell them to these days.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Chen said, she would sometimes make about 2,000 sales a day. Now, she's lucky if 100 people walk through her doors.

"Before, our customer is from cruise ship, right? And tours. Now I think it is 95 per cent down," she said.

According to Tourism Vancouver, 310 cruise ship calls were expected in Vancouver in 2020, which would have brought about 1.2 million visitors to the city.

Bonnie Chen owns the only two gift shops left in Chinatown. She says she is facing eviction because she hasn't been able to pay her rent. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

There used to be six gift shops in Chinatown. But since COVID-19 became part of the daily vernacular, only two remain. Both of them are owned by Chen, who doesn't know how much longer she'll be able to keep the doors open.

It's been months since she's been able to pay rent, and she says she now faces possible eviction.

A disappearing community

Above Vancouver's famous Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden are the offices of the Chinese Cultural Centre.

From there, Fred Kwok, chair of the centre and president of the Chinese Benevolent Association, has watched his neighbourhood change.

"The condition in the Chinatown neighbourhood has been deteriorating so much and everyone feels scared to come down to Chinatown," he said.

A broken window is pictured in Chinatown this week. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Crime is common in the neighbourhood. In 2020, there were 2,983 police investigations in Chinatown, according to the Vancouver Police Department. It was a 20 per cent decrease from the previous year, but still too high for Kwok.

"The neighbourhood is, I can use a word, terrorized," he said. "People got attacked on the street, abused, verbal abuse and mostly targeted the Chinese population in Chinatown."

The windows of Chen's shop were smashed four times in two months last year. Most shop owners now install two layers of glass in the windows because they know they will be broken, she said.

And if the crime wasn't enough, Kwok said that residents and business owners have to deal with increasingly filthy streets.

"All over the street: human waste, piss, garbage," he said.

Fred Kwok, chair of the Chinese Cultural Centre, says he witnesses crime in the community on a weekly basis, which makes people feel Chinatown isn't safe to visit. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Many mornings when Chen goes to open her shops, she said she comes across excrement.

Both agree the state of the neighbourhood drove off many customers long before the pandemic.

The community has long been struggling with the pressures of gentrification and changing demographics. 

Cleaning up Chinatown

The City of Vancouver says it is actively working to clean up Chinatown.

In the 2021 budget, council approved a 10 per cent increase in funding for cleanliness services in the area. As well, the city has a number of programs and initiatives focused on improving safety and cleanliness, including Embers, which hires Downtown Eastside residents to do needle pickups and work with local businesses.

As for the excrement, the city says it flushes the lanes of Chinatown nightly, but not the sidewalks.

"Flushing of sidewalks in Chinatown is not practical as water would enter into the doors of businesses," it said in a statement. For 2021, it is piloting a new feces removal service.

A temporary washroom trailer will also be installed in Chinatown later this week.

Kwok says the smell of urine and feces is common in the mornings in Chinatown. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The future of Chinatown

Jordan Eng, president of the Chinatown Business Improvement Association, said although the challenges in his community might appear insurmountable, he believes Chinatown can rebound.

He's betting on increased traffic from major developments such as the new St. Paul's Hospital and the Northeast False Creek plan in neighbouring districts to help drive consumers to Chinatown.

"I'm definitely hoping that we can only get better," Eng said. "Chinatown is the heart and soul of the Chinese community. You can't find that in a mall in Richmond."

But those developments are still in the distant future — five to 10 years away — and some owners, like Chen, don't know if their businesses will survive the wait.

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email