The Current·Changing Chinatown

How these 'bright stars' are 'creating space for the community' in Vancouver's changing Chinatown

Vancouver's Chinatown started seeing a new wave of young activists and advocates in the historic neighbourhood around the time a controversial condo proposal was being considered at 105 Keefer St., an empty parking lot next to a meeting spot for many seniors.

In search of connection to Chinatown, these advocates are helping build intergenerational communities

Observers say Chinatown started seeing a new wave of young activists and advocates in the historic neighbourhood around the time a controversial condo proposal was being considered at 105 Keefer St. (CBC)

Yuly Chan says she became a community organizer in Vancouver's Chinatown as a way to honour her late father, an immigrant from Venezuela who was very involved with the community.

"Chinatown was a place that provided me and my family a lot of support and a sense of community as immigrants to Canada," said Chan, 33.

In 2015, she volunteered with the Chinatown Concern Group, a seniors group that started a petition calling for a moratorium on condo developments in Chinatown and organized a city hall rally.

"It was really kind of a big turning point for the community because you've had this group of Chinese seniors storm city hall, and you've never seen that before," she said. 

Chan, who is now pursuing her PhD in Toronto, says she is proud of the work that thwarted the condo project. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

"Some of them never even stepped into city hall before and there they were bringing over a thousand signatures to the mayor of Vancouver saying: 'You're not listening to us. We want a say over what's happening in our community.'"

Observers say Chinatown started seeing a new wave of young activists and advocates in the historic neighbourhood around the time a controversial condo proposal was being considered at 105 Keefer St., an empty parking lot next to a meeting spot for many seniors.

Until the Keefer condo was proposed, no other project had stirred up as much opposition and emotions since the '60s freeway, which would have razed Chinatown's local businesses and relocated residents. That plan died after a six-year battle by residents and activists, such as Shirley Chan and Mike Harcourt.

A bird's-eye view of the Chinatown Memorial Plaza in Vancouver where Youth Collaborative for Chinatown holds its pop-up majong socials during the summer. Behind the plaza is 105 Keefer St., site of the controversial condo proposal that was rejected in 2017 after much widespread opposition. (Jonathan Desmond Photography)

"I think what's interesting with Chinatown is so many folks are coming to it, especially what I see are typically younger folks … trying to find a bit of themselves in their history and their story," said Kevin Huang, co-founder of Hua Foundation, who mentored some of the activists and advocates. 

Vancouver Chinatown BIA president Jordan Eng says these young adults now want to help preserve Chinatown after growing up in the community and "seeing how it has eroded." 

"Now we have a good youth group here. I think these are the people that need to come into Chinatown and continue what our ancestors did. And there are a few real bright stars that have already done that," Eng told The Current's Chinatown forum at Floata Seafood Restaurant Monday night

Kevin Huang, left, co-founder of Hua Foundation, says it's been interesting seeing new groups of activists and advocates popping up in Chinatown around the time a controversial condo project was being considered for 105 Keefer St. in Chinatown. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

After the city hall rally, Chan says she and a group of passionate youths saw a need to form the Chinatown Action Group to focus on working-class Chinese.

"It's not only Chinese seniors who live there and work there," said Chan. "It's a very mixed community, very working class. So there was a lot of work to be done and a lot of needs that weren't being met."

It really put Chinatown on the map for people in the city who didn't care about it before, and who saw the potential of seniors to really make a difference in the future of the city.- Yuly Chan on the Keefer Street condo project

Now working on her PhD at York University, Chan says she's "very proud" of the work the group and others did against the condo project.

"It really put Chinatown on the map for people in the city who didn't care about it before, and who saw the potential of seniors to really make a difference in the future of the city."

Is UNESCO bid part of Chinatown's future?

The Keefer proposal was Kimberly Wong's "entrance" into Chinatown activism.

Growing up in Vancouver, Wong, 24, says she didn't go to Chinatown much, nor went to Chinese school. 

But by her late teens, she had a racial identity crisis and started going to Chinatown to understand the history of her grandfather and his instrumental role in Cantonese opera and her great-great grandfather's history with the railroads.

"Unpacking all of these kinds of layers of history and family stories and intergenerational trauma was something that drew me to Chinatown," she said.

Last summer, Kimberley Wong, 24, began co-chairing the Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group, which provides input to city staff who are developing a cultural heritage and assets management plan. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Wong has been co-chairing the Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group (LSG), which consists of 36 volunteer members appointed by the City of Vancouver to provide input to city staff who are developing a cultural heritage and assets management plan (CHAMP).

Since 105 Keefer's demise, Vancouver city council has officially apologized to the Chinese community for past discriminations, and both Vancouver and British Columbia want Chinatown designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and to establish the Chinese Canadian Museum.

People attend an alternative open house in October 2015 near 105 Keefer St. It coincided with the developer's open house for the site's first rezoning application. (Submitted by Sid Chow Tan)

The CHAMP plan, which is a key component for a possible UNESCO bid, will catalogue Chinatown's intangible and tangible heritage assets.

"I think what largely people have difficulty defining is the intangible assets — like knowing how to make bao in a way that is authentic to Chinatowns around the world or to Vancouver Chinatown, like the smell and the sounds of mahjong halls and tiles," Wong said.

"That's what we're trying to catalog to ensure that when we do — if we do — apply for the UNESCO bid, we understand what things we need to protect to make Chinatown, Chinatown still. And this is very varied amongst the community."

Wong says the group is expected to get a draft of the plan from city staff later this month.

'Creating space for the community'

Doris Chow, co-founder of Youth Collaborative for Chinatown (YCC), wanted to highlight and share the intangible cultural assets through pop-up mahjong socials and Cantonese lessons — describing the group's approach as "advocacy with a little 'a.'"

"It's not holding placards and rallies," Chow said. "We call it place-keeping. So it's really about creating space for the community that is here." 

In May 2015, YCC started the outdoor mahjong socials — where anyone can play the Chinese game similar to gin rummy — to showcase the community, after hearing the negative public sentiment that Chinatown was no longer relevant, she says.

The cancellation of the Chinatown Night Market, which left many seniors with no place to gather, was the other impetus behind the mahjong event, says Chow, who'd take her grandmother there in the summers.  

Doris Chow, left, and her sister, June Chow, co-founders of Youth Collaborative for Chinatown, wanted to highlight and share intangible cultural assets through pop-up mahjong socials and Cantonese lessons — describing the group's approach as 'advocacy with a little a.' (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"It's really to strengthen the living heritage of Chinatown. It's not just about buildings. It's about the intangible cultural heritage of Chinatown."

The mahjong events attract as many as 150 people to the Chinatown Memorial Plaza. And the fact that they get people coming from as far away as Coquitlam and Langley on a Saturday evening when stores are closed "is pretty remarkable," Chow says. 

"We've reached a pretty diverse audience and shown that people will come to Chinatown."

Chow says YCC has inspired youth in other Chinatowns across Canada to start their own mahjong clubs, including ones in Ottawa and Toronto.

"That's been really inspirational to see."

On July 20, 2019, participants play a game at the mahjong social held in Vancouver's Chinatown, a summer event started by Youth Collaborative for Chinatown. (Jonathan Desmond Photography)

Connecting youths and seniors

Yulanda Lui started volunteering with Youth for Chinese Seniors in 2016 as a way to connect with her culture, language and elders.

"And from there, I just got swept up with the project," said Lui, 24.

Youth for Chinese Seniors was created a year earlier by Chanel Ly for low-income Chinese seniors, who needed help with their medical appointments. 

Yulanda Lui, pictured, and Chanel Ly created Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice in early 2018, which offers seniors services, such as help to apply for housing and navigate Service Canada. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"But quickly Chanel realized that it was more than just access to health care," Lui said. "It's also access to all types of services that normally, if you were English-speaking, you would have access to."

Together, the two women created Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice in early 2018, which now also helps Chinese seniors apply for social housing and navigate Service Canada.

Lui says Yarrow and the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre are the only two organizations in Chinatown that offer such services for its seniors.

"There are so many seniors whose voices aren't heard because they're not English-speaking," Lui said. "And they aren't able to access other services that are provided for the English-speaking community. So it is necessary for them to have this service … to meet their basic needs."

Really, the focus of our work is building intergenerational communities. So connecting youth and seniors and working together to support one another, teach one another culture and history and tradition.- Yulanda Lui, co-founder of Yarrow

Yarrow and its predecessor have assisted about 500 seniors, most of whom are women, low-income and non-English-speaking. 

The organization is also working with a seniors residence, so youths can have monthly visits with residents.  

"Really, the focus of our work is building intergenerational communities," Lui said. "So connecting youth and seniors and working together to support one another, teach one another culture and history and tradition."

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