British Columbia

Vancouver's Chinatown shouldn't be new Yaletown, says heritage advocate

The Early Edition's Elaine Chau talks to stakeholders in Vancouver's Chinatown about striking a balance between modern development and historic protection.

Carnegie Community Action Project calls for temporary moratorium on new market housing

A petition with more than 1,200 signatures was delivered to Mayor Gregor Robertson at Vancouver City Hall Tuesday, demanding a temporary moratorium on new market development in the city's Chinatown neighbourhood. (CBC News)

A petition with more than 1,200 signatures was delivered to Vancouver City Hall Tuesday, demanding a temporary moratorium on new market development in the city's Chinatown neighbourhood.

"We're seeing that Chinatown's character is changing very rapidly. With new retail, we're also very concerned about low-income housing," said King-Mong Chan, who works with the Carnegie Community Action Project.

King-Mong Chan with the Carnegie Community Action Project started a petition calling for a temporary moratorium on new market development projects in Vancouver's Chinatown. (Elaine Chau)

"As these changes happen, Chinatown is at a threat of being no longer Chinatown, but a new Yaletown, a new Gastown."

Vancouver city council approved a plan for Chinatown a year ago, and Mayor Gregor Robertson said on Tuesday he's sticking to the original plan.

"This plan that took ten years to develop is still in place, but we we want to be sure the neighbourhood is comfortable with the changes that are being proposed," Robertson said.

"We're not halting development ... we're working on making sure changes meet the community plan and that we respect the character of the neighbourhood.

His statements were met with heckling from some in the crowd.

The city is hosting a workshop this week to address the issue, and to ensure future developments speak to Chinatown's heritage and don't exclude its poorer residents.

One example of this recent development in Chinatown is Keefer Block, at the northwest corner of Main and Keefer streets.

The mixed-use development will include 81 homes, a new Starbucks, and Juniper — a new bar and restaurant specializing in craft cocktails.

Chan argues that many of the new development projects have little benefit for Chinatown community members.

"They're seeing some of their grocery stores close or be redeveloped and new shops coming in that are not the same sense of community and belonging they had in the past."

The Keefer Block is at the north west corner of Main and Keefer streets. It will be a mixed-use building with 81 homes, with a Starbucks and a new bar opening up on the ground floor. This is one of several developments that heritage advocates are concerned about. (Elaine Chau)

Signs in Chinese and English

Other community members in Chinatown are concerned about the changes, but their approach isn't to block new market development.

Instead, groups like the Chinatown Revitalization Committee, made up of like-minded stakeholders in the community, want to increase communication with entrepreneurs who are investing in the historic neighbourhood.

Committee member Edmund Ma, who grew up in the neighbourhood and is also a member of the Mah Benevolent Society Of Vancouver, encourages new Chinatown business owners to put Chinese on their English signs and menus. 

"We provide new businesses with a bit of a cheat sheet [on the Chinese language] because a lot of people use sandwich boards, just so that the community and the seniors feel more welcome," said Ma.

"Right now, you'll see [seniors] walk by a brand new store and they'll just look through the window and they don't know anything about it."

Edmund Ma has been learning and teaching martial arts in Chinatown for years. He's also serving on the Chinatown Revitalization Committee, to ensure that the neighbourhood's heritage is protected as it gets developed. (Elaine Chau)

A neighbourhood with soul

Meanwhile, the entrepreneurs behind Sai Woo, a new modern Chinese restaurant opening in the next month, near Main and Pender streets, have prioritized inclusivity as a key pillar in their business approach.

Chef Douglas Chang will find inspiration and ingredients for his menu from Chinatown's markets, and owner Salli Pateman is in constant dialogue with their landlord, the Chin Wing Chung Society.

Chang and Pateman named their new eatery Sai Woo after Sai Woo Chop Suey, a restaurant that existed on the same site back in 1925.

Pateman says the goal is to be profitable, and to honour the history of the neighbourhood.

"We're going to try and keep the neighbourhood authentic, and hopefully not the same way that Yaletown changed, and became very mainstream, and lost its place in history.

"I want to be in a neighbourhood that had soul, and has all the population living here."

Restaurateur Salli Pateman (left) and chef Douglas Chang are opening up Sai Woo in Chinatown this month. One of their priorities is to ensure it's a welcoming place for everyone who lives and frequents the neighbourhood. (Elaine Chau)

To hear more about concerns on the rate of development in Vancouver's Chinatown, click on the audio labelled: Chinatown Changes.


  • A previous version of this story said the Keefer block had 156 homes. In fact, the buidling has 81 units.
    Mar 04, 2015 7:37 AM PT


Elaine Chau

Associate Producer for CBC Radio in Vancouver

Elaine Chau was born in Hong Kong, and grew up in Montreal and Vancouver. She is the 2008 recipient of the CBC Radio Peter Gzowski internship, multiple RTDNA winner, and Gold Radio Winner in the Health/Medicine category at the 2011 New York Festivals for her series "AIDS: Then and Now".


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