The Current·Changing Chinatown

'The physical legacy of struggle and sacrifice': How Chinatown is part of Vancouver's past — and its future

The Current's Matt Galloway set up shop in Vancouver’s Chinatown and talked with planners, restaurateurs, business leaders and more about what’s happening in the changing neighbourhood, and what’s next

'The reports of the death of Chinatown have been greatly exaggerated,' says planning professor

The Current's Matt Galloway explores Vancouver's Chinatown with historian Judi Lam Maxwell. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC )

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In recent decades, much of Vancouver's Chinese community has moved to areas such as Richmond and Burnaby, which has led some to ask, "Why preserve Chinatown?" 

But at a special forum hosted by The Current's Matt Galloway at Floata Seafood Restaurant in the heart of the historic neighbourhood, prominent Vancouver entrepreneur Carol Lee argues it is an essential part of Canadian history.

"If it were any other part of Canadian history, I don't think we would even be asking that question," says Lee, founder of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, who also opened the popular Chinatown BBQ, a restaurant aimed at revitalizing the neighbourhood through food.

Lee says the neighbourhood goes back to the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, one of the most important and defining nation-building projects in Canada's history.

Vancouver entrepreneur and business leader Carol Lee says Chinese labourers helped to build the city, and the country, and that Vancouver’s Chinatown is important to preserve because it's 'the physical legacy of that struggle and sacrifice.' (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

"That was facilitated because of the Chinese railroad workers. Can you imagine if they hadn't come over to work on this project?"

Lee calls Vancouver's Chinatown "the physical legacy of that struggle and sacrifice," and one that is distinct from other Chinatowns in North America.

"The beginning of Chinatown was 1885. That coincided with the completion of the railroad. These people had nowhere to go and live. They didn't have enough money necessarily to go back to China," she says. "So they got this little piece of land on the edge of a swamp."

That land has become one of the most vibrant, and most controversial, areas of Vancouver — one facing skyrocketing property values, a ballooning opioid crisis, development pressures, a lack of affordable housing and shifting demographics.

The Current's host Matt Galloway with panelists Jordan Eng, Carol Lee and Andy Yan. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

With major developments around the corner — including the removal of two large viaducts, the building of a major new hospital, and the development of Northeast False Creek — locals fear those pressures are only going to build. 

Many legacy businesses are already closing because owners' children don't want to take them over, says Jordan Eng, realtor and president of the Chinatown Business Improvement Association.

At the same time, crime rates have forced his association to allocate half of its budget to measures like graffiti removal and security patrols. In a BIA survey, business owners also named cleanliness, graffiti and safety their chief concerns.

Now he's calling on city officials to beef up policing and introduce other improvements. 

On his tour of Vancouver's Chinatown, The Current's host Matt Galloway visited the Chin Association building where seniors gather daily to play mahjong. 'The game looks fierce,' joked Galloway. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

"Property taxes have gone up quite substantially this year, so we're asking the question, 'What is coming to Chinatown? How are you going to help us keep our streets clean so when people come there, they feel invited and they don't come just once and then say, 'I don't want to go again,'" asked Eng.

"We want them to keep on coming back. And that's what will sustain any business in our neighbourhood."

Because of its rich immigration history, Simon Fraser University planning professor Andy Yan calls Vancouver's Chinatown "a neighbourhood of sanctuary," and one that could be an example for the city's future — not a museum piece from its past. 

Realtor and Chinatown BIA president Jordan Eng asks city leaders to help make the neighbourhood grappling with perception issues welcoming again. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

The neighbourhood faces significant challenges, he says, among them the social and economic exclusion that can come with an increasingly prosperous city. Yet he, like his fellow panelists, remains staunchly optimistic.

"The reports of the death of Chinatown have been greatly exaggerated," says Yan, to cheers from the crowd. Chinatown has a strong future, he emphasizes — but only if the community wants it.

"And I think that it's in that idea of Chinatown as a collective project for both Chinese-Canadians and those who aren't Chinese-Canadians that we come together and help shape this neighborhood, and help shape this city."