Hong Kong in Vancouver – Part II: The New Generation of Activists Building a Future for Chinatown

This is the second in a two-part series on Vancouver’s Chinatown. Read the first instalment here.

Chinatown was just bouncing back from decades of decline when city planners threatened to kill it. In 1967, a plan was announced to demolish the historic Vancouver neighbourhood for a new freeway, which would have wiped out part of the neighbourhood and isolated the rest of it behind walls of concrete. Chinatown residents knew it would spell the end of the neighbourhood they had spent generations building. So they took to the streets.

One of the freeway’s most articulate opponents was Joe Wai, a young architect who had recently returned to Vancouver after three years of designing affordable housing in London. His younger brother, Hayne, was studying political science at the time, and he accompanied him to one of the community meetings about the freeway. “Joe told me, ‘This is real politics,’” he says.

Vancouver’s establishment took a dim view of the freeway opponents; then-mayor Tom Campbell dismissed them, bizarrely, as a gang of “Maoists, communists, pinkos, left-wingers and hamburgers.” They lost a few battles. A nearby viaduct was expanded in anticipation of the freeway, wiping out Vancouver’s only black neighbourhood, Hogan’s Alley. Large blocks of Strathcona, the residential counterpart to Chinatown’s commercial district, were bulldozed to make way for social housing. But the activists won the war, ultimately defeating the freeway plan and putting a stop to more urban renewal.

Joe Wai remained involved in Chinatown. In the 1970s, he designed a type of affordable housing that could be built cheaply and quickly in Strathcona lots that had been cleared for urban renewal; 51 such houses were built around the neighbourhood, and many people affectionately call them Joe Wai Specials. At the time, Vancouver was a West Coast backwater, but the freeway fight put it on the map, and federal housing programmes were later inspired by Wai’s housing. “It was all based on community participation,” says Hayne. “That was new.”

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Chinatown residents march in opposition to a redevelopment project that would have wiped out an entire block of the neighbourhood, 1968. Photo courtesy Hayne Wai

The next generation

50 years later, Chinatown is at another crossroads. Some are calling the plans to rezone parts of the neighbourhood “a freeway of condos,” and a new generation of activists has emerged to fight the changes. On a rainy Wednesday evening, two of them, Doris and June Chow, are sitting in a booth at New Town Café, a Pender Street cha chaan teng famous for its affordable Hong Kong-style dishes. June looks into her mug and takes a sip. “It feels like the freeway fight all over again,” she says.

The Chow sisters aren’t old enough to remember the freeway fight first-hand – they were both born in the 1980s. But they often came to Chinatown to visit their grandmother, who lived in the Chinese Freemasons building near Pender Street. Doris began working at a social services organisation on the Downtown Eastside, whose cheap hotels and social housing have made it a haven for low-income people, many of whom have problems with mental health or drug abuse. She noticed many Chinese seniors making use of the area’s social services and became perplexed by the lack of Cantonese-language support for them.

Like the sisters’ grandmother, many of Chinatown’s residents are elderly men and women who speak only Cantonese, and they have few places to gather, socialise and receive support, other than the clan and regional associations that had been set up decades earlier by some of the earliest Chinese settlers. “It opened up this whole world,” says Doris. “It made me realise there are a lot of gaps in this neighbourhood.”

It wasn’t until their grandmother died in 2013 that the sisters realised how they could help. Stumped by Chinese funeral traditions, they turned to their family’s Hoy Ping Benevolent Association for advice, and they ended up getting involved in its day-to-day operations as directors. They founded a group, the Youth Collaborative for Chinatown, and began hosting Cantonese lessons. They also organised events that brought seniors and young people together, like outdoor mahjong sessions next to the Chinese-Canadian war veterans’ memorial, one of the few public gathering spaces in the neighbourhood.

Both sisters remember when Chinatown’s restaurants and grocery stores were bustling, and they have watched as shop owners and the city government have made efforts to revitalise the neighbourhood’s businesses. Many of the proponents of the new condo developments argue that they will once again infuse Chinatown with life. But June and Doris say the focus on economic revitalisation misses a big part of the picture, because Chinatown isn’t just a commercial district, it’s the heart of Vancouver’s Chinese community – a cradle of Chinese-Canadian history and a refuge for an historically marginalised community.

“What can young local-born Chinese do to make a difference?” asks June. “There is cultural heritage that they can practice and learn. It’s the expression of the community. Even mahjong is a skill that allows you to interact with seniors and allow the relationship to continue.”

A couple of weeks later, the plum trees of Keefer Street are in full bloom, and June Chow is making her way to the Yu Shan Society on nearby Pender Street. Founded to support immigrants from the Panyu region — now a suburban district of Guangzhou — the society occupies a compound that dates back to 1889. Chow’s work in Chinatown has made her a familiar face, and she has a standing invitation to pop into the neighbourhood’s many societies and associations, who by her estimation own a third of the land in the area.

The clatter of mahjong tiles echoes through a narrow staircase as Chow makes her way upstairs. “This is the big living room,” she says, gesturing to a hall filled with seniors playing games. Nearby, she passes by a wall of cupboards. “You see all these mailboxes?” she asks. They’re for the housing units inside the association, which are home to seniors like Chow’s grandmother. Not everyone in Chinatown came to Canada by choice; many were brought over to care for family members, and many don’t speak English. For them, Chinatown’s affordable housing is the only safe space they have in Vancouver.

Chow steps outside onto a breezeway connecting the association’s three buildings. Laundry lines are strung across a small courtyard. Next door rises the Wing Sang Building, built the same year as the Yu Shan Society. It was originally owned by Yip Sang, one of Chinatown’s most successful merchants, and it contained a school, shops and housing. As it was expanded over the years, it spanned a small lane known as Market Alley, which was packed with small shops and opium factories. The building was given heritage protection in 1999, but in 2004, it was purchased by real estate promoter Bob Rennie, who turned it into a private museum.

“It’s a deal where Bob Rennie said, ‘I’ll do your renovations if you give me your space,’” says Chow, as she passes through a narrow alley back towards Pender Street. The building was preserved, but not necessarily its heritage. Outside the Rennie Museum, a pair of security guards eye passersby with a stern expression. “There’s an invitation-only show by Solange tonight,” explains Chow, referring to the acclaimed singer.

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Family table at Bao Bei. Photo by Peter Bagi. Courtesy Bao Bei

The key to the future

Chinatown’s associations seem opaque to outsiders. Even many Chinese Vancouverites find them daunting; few of the affluent Hong Kong migrants who came to Vancouver in the 1980s and 90s became members. But in many ways they are the lifeblood of Chinatown, providing affordable housing and commercial space. Chow’s association owns several shop spaces on Main Street. One is occupied by a Chinese barber, another by a jewellery shop displaced from Pender Street by a rent hike. Another is vacant. It was home to a Chinese medicine shop, and Chow says the association is looking for something similar; they recently rebuffed an inquiry from an art gallery. 

She worries about the future of the associations. Although they are landowners, Vancouver’s surging real estate market has caused property taxes to soar as well, and there may come a point when many associations cannot afford their tax bill. There is also the question of declining membership. It is rare for the young generation to become involved; Chow and her sister are an exception. In the future, she says, “shared experiences will have to count more than clan or regional ties.”

Something like that is already happening to Chinatown’s retail scene. As the neighbourhood gentrifies, many young entrepreneurs of Chinese descent are making a point of opening their businesses in Chinatown. “It made sense to open here,” says restaurateur Tannis Ling, who opened Shanghai-influenced brasserie Bao Bei on Keefer Street in 2009. “People thought I was crazy, but I thought they were crazy for thinking that.”

Bao Bei proved to be a success, and Ling recently opened Kissa Tento, a Japanese-Italian restaurant a few blocks away on Pender. “In all of Vancouver, this feels like one of the only true neighbourhoods, with a real sense of place,” she says. “I wanted to have a stake in the area, not just a one-off.”

Ling spread the word to her friends. When chef Douglas Chang was looking to open Ai & Om Knives, a Japanese knife shop, Ling convinced him to put down stakes in Chinatown. He was reluctant at first. “But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made,” he says. “Chinatown is slowly being choked to death.” On one side, the social problems and crime of the Downtown Eastside threaten to spill over – both Ling and Chang have had problems with burglars. On the other side, gentrification risks wiping out Chinatown’s Chinese character. “We have to pave the way for the future,” says Chang.

The battle over Chinatown’s redevelopment may be just the thing it needs for that future to be articulated. But the Chow sisters say there still needs to be more recognition of the neighbourhood’s cultural importance. “Very few know the meaning of Chinatown because it isn’t in the textbooks,” says Doris. “When we talk about Chinatown, we always talk about what we overcame. Vancouver itself is getting more and more homogenous, as all the ethnic communities are moving into the suburbs. If [Chinatown disappears], it says we don’t care about the soul of the city, we don’t care about diversity.”

Chinatown has faced extinction before, first from racist mobs, then the Chinese Exclusion Act, then by overzealous highway planners. Now it risks drowning in a tide of upscale apartments and trendy businesses. If it disappears, it will take along with it the most tangible proof of Chinese people’s contribution to Canada. “When you think about this a little bit too much, it becomes dystopic,” says June. “You don’t know what you’ve lost until you have lost it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Chow sisters’ grandmother lived in the Hoy Ping Benevolent Association. In fact, she lived in the Chinese Freemasons building. We apologise for the error.

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