British Columbia·In Depth

Vancouver's Chinatown embraces change

Vancouver's historic neighbourhood is home to an increasing number of non-traditional, non-Chinese businesses, but its long-time residents and business owners don't seem to mind.

'On the Coast' host Stephen Quinn and producer Jeremy Allingham take a tour of the historic neighbourhood.

Judy Lam Maxwell holds a photo of her great-grandfather close to her chest as we stand at the foot of the China Gate on Pender Street. It’s an area of town that is rich with unique and fascinating stories, and Judy’s personal tale is no different.

Her great-grandfather, George Ritchie Maxwell, came to Canada from Scotland in 1885.

Fourteen years later, he would become the first Liberal Member of Parliament from B.C. That’s where the twist comes in. Maxwell was vehemently anti-Chinese and lobbied to raise the now-controversial head tax.

Judy has letters from her pro-union, protectionist great-grandfather addressed to Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier, demanding the head tax be increased from $500 to $1,000.

"It’s a very strange connection through my dad’s European-Canadian family, instead of any relation to Chinese-Canadians who came here to build the railway or for the gold rush," says Lam Maxwell who is an historian and Chinatown tour guide.

This neighbourhood has seen some hard times over recent years, with businesses closing up and families moving away. The Chinese diaspora that initially settled in Vancouver has spread even further, to places like Richmond and Surrey, leaving Chinatown without the hustle and bustle it was once known for.

Lam Maxwell is quick to point out the changing face of the neighbourhood. Non-traditional, non-Chinese businesses are popping up everywhere. There are art galleries and a longboard shop. There’s even a German sausage place set to open up in the coming months.

Despite the sharp contrast these new businesses present, residents and entrepreneurs don’t seem to mind.

One man who has seen the neighbourhood change is 91-year-old Bill Wong, the owner of Modernize Tailors at the corner of Pender and Carrall.  Wong walks slowly, his back hunched ever so slightly from his years building, mending and altering garments.

But his mind and memory are sharp. He remembers when Chinatown was the dynamic hub of the city, where businesses brimmed with customers from the docks and other surrounding stores.

"It was really a bustling centre in the old days," says Wong, "Now, Chinatown is spread all over the city; Richmond, Surrey, North Vancouver, with the increase in immigration...it's bigger, but you don't get the hustle and bustle."

Our conversation is interrupted by a telephone call. Bill answers in English, but quickly proclaims, "Yes! I speak Chinese," and switches over for the remainder of the call.

"The lady is looking for a suit for the old man…we get lots of calls like that," he says after gingerly hanging up the phone.

A neighbourhood of growing contrast

We shuffle behind Lam Maxwell down the damp street into another one of the old, brick, signature buildings of Chinatown. Inside the Yushan Society County Association, we’re surrounded by clicking and clacking as older men and women enthusiastically slam mahjong tiles on the table.

The air is heavy with smoke, as Lam Maxwell points out, "They don’t follow the smoking-inside-buildings rule."

While this might capture the traditional picture of Vancouver’s Chinatown, down on the streets below, things are changing, and fast.

And like Bill Wong, that’s not a problem for Cecil Fung, the secretary and director of the Chinese Free Masons Society in Vancouver. He points out that foot traffic has slowed and businesses have been forced to close. 

Fung thinks the non-traditional businesses will bring an infusion of energy, not to mention money, into the neighbourhood.

"The most significant recent change is that some of the rental spaces have been taken by mainstream, Caucasian, young creatives," says Fung.

"They see a lot of history in Chinatown, they like to be in old buildings…perhaps it will help them with the creative juices and the cheaper rent."

According to Fung, the new face of Chinatown must be accepted.

"The shops that are changing — I think it is inevitable that the economics would dictate that we will have to do that," he says, "Otherwise, we cannot rent out the stores. The owners of the buildings, they will run into difficulties with their finances and maybe they'll have to sell off the buildings."

We end our tour of Chinatown in the most traditional of traditional Chinese businesses. The shelves of The Chinese Tea Shop are teeming with imported tea cakes and dainty tea pots. Daniel Lui steeps steaming-hot pu-erh in a 300-year-old antique pot as he discusses how things have changed since he opened up shop.

"We need people to come to Chinatown, so no matter whether it's owned by Chinese or not, or no matter it's a Chinese store or not, it's very important that when people come to Chinatown there is businesses," says Lui as he fastidiously prepares the hot beverages.

"If no people want to come to Chinatown, then no one can stay here long."

Outside the shop, Judy Lam Maxwell wraps up the tour, echoing what we heard at every stop along the way: the change is coming — might as well get on board.

"I think it's neat, the multi-millionaires that have bought into the neighbourhood have revitalized Chinatown, I think that there's so much heritage, culture here," says Lam Maxwell.

"I think for a long time people had a tough time adjusting to the changes that were going on, but now people are embracing it."