It’s in the Community: How COVID and Gentrification Challenge Chinatown

A new generation of Chinese-Canadian community leaders are working to protect Vancouver’s Chinatown 

Wen Zhai // Contributor
Grace Choi // Illustrator

The pandemic has made life difficult for all, but it has disproportionately impacted communities like Vancouver’s Chinatown, which is situated in the Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Canada. This fall, the Vancouver Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group (VCLSG) put forward a letter outlining certain measures the city could take to reduce the impact of COVID on Chinatown business and arts organizations, like increasing the frequency of street cleanings and investing in a community stewardship program.  

“Chinatown has been affected by COVID-19 more than other communities, because it was already hurting, basically. So, folks who were marginalized before the pandemic are being further marginalized,” said Kimberley Wong, co-chair of VCLSG. Founded in 2017, the VCLSG is a committee staffed with community members dedicated to pushing back against the ongoing gentrification of spaces by large companies.  

VCLSG convened partially because of 105 Keefer, a development proposal first put forward in 2014 concerning a residential building in the historic Keefer Triangle. Initially a 12-storey residential building with 111 market residential units and 25 senior social housing units, the proposal was eventually whittled down to nine-storeys, with all social housing units removed. The project is currently waiting for approval of their rezoning permit to move forward. 

The space that 105 Keefer is supposed to be built on is significant to the Chinese community because it borders the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Gardens, Chinatown Plaza, as well as the Chinatown Memorial Monument at the intersection of Columbia and Keefer St. 

“The Memorial is actually a space that I think of my ancestors being at. It commemorates both WWII Chinese-Canadian veterans, who fought in the war without having citizenship or the right to vote, and also Canadian Pacific Railway workers,” Wong explained. “105 Keefer was a proposal to dwarf all those three things,” she added. 

For many community activists like Wong, 105 Keefer poses a threat of gentrification to working-class Chinese people in the neighborhood. “I don’t think anybody would openly say they are pro-gentrification,” Wong observed.“People will say they are pro-business, or pro-development and phrase it like that, because the businesses are hurting in Chinatown.”

VCLSG is composed of people from clan associations, non-profits, and businesses, and is run by individuals like Wong, who co-chairs with Michael Tan, the youngest person ever to hold leadership in Chinatown. It was formed in the hope of bringing people to work together as one community amidst polarizing projects like 105 Keefer. 

Wong believes by ‘upgrading’ Chinatown, developers make it inaccessible for people who have no choice but to live there.  One of the biggest issues many businesses in Chinatown face is waste of all kinds on their doorsteps, including human waste. Wong believes this happens  because there is a lack of  infrastructure and not enough resources to ensure people have a place to live with dignity. “I am all about housing first. I think that we should really prioritize housing people first and then move on to other things,” Wong said, “things like drug abuse, sex work because of institutionalized racism, [and] institutionalized poverty.” 

Wong’s ancestors first settled in Chinatown five generations ago. “Chinatown before it was named Chinatown by British Imperial officers was a very marshy space…close to industry, close to pollution. It was loud, there were a lot of pests, it was very wet and not very good for building on, so that was where they put all of the workers…all the racialized and low income people,” Wong explained. “And that’s no different now.”

Chinatown from the beginning was multiethnic and multicultural, populated by not just Chinese people, but other people from Asia. “It was a community space that flourished out of resilience,” Wong noted.

Wong believes it is precisely because of this history that the gentrification of Chinatown has become such a hot topic. Close to the city center, Chinatown is desirable to mostly affluent white upper-class people who don’t understand the cultures nor the complex issues that exist in Chinatown.

VCLSG tries to ensure the legacy of Vancouver’s Chinatown as a neighbourhood that has significance for many diverse communities of colour. They work with municipal systems on behalf of Chinatown and work with local Indigenous Nations, urban Indigenous people and other racialized groups to help people of colour work with each other, instead of against each other.

“People of color are stigmatized by the city of Vancouver because [the municipality] was created by the forces of white supremacy. And their goal is never to particularly give power back to the community, but rather manage what the community can and cannot have, depending on what is favorable for them,” Wong said. 

In the early 1960s, a freeway was proposed going straight through Chinatown to make Greater Vancouver more easily connected at the cost of demolishing local communities. Part of that freeway proposal, the Georgia Viaduct, was built in 1972 and demolished Hogan’s Alley, a neighborhood in Strathcona which was the epicenter of Vancouver’s Black community. “It exemplifies how Chinatown and other racialized and low-income communities have again and again not been served by the city of Vancouver.”

The most immediate change Wong wants to see from the city of Vancouver is to make consultation processes accessible to non-English speaking racialized communities. “It almost feels like you have to have a mini PhD to understand planning language.”

COVID-19 has also brought many accessibility concerns to VCLSG around how to equitably organize meetings online. “A lot of the work that we do relies on relationships and trust. And it’s very hard to form that via Zoom,” Wong said, citing people who are old, have internet access difficulties, those with visual or auditory impairments, and technology and language barriers. As a result, VCLSG has had a difficult time getting the resources needed to ensure communities are safe and holding together, and to ensure elders living in isolation have access to food. 

Post COVID-19, Wong wishes to see more businesses stay in Chinatown. “A lot of vacancies in our neighborhood are really, really hard felt by the residents and the people who work and live in that community,” she emphasized. Ideally, Wong hopes to see Chinatown as a space for intergenerational knowledge sharing, where people can be amongst  multi-generational families and learn about Chinatown’s history and living culture. 

“There’s a lot of really tactile instances of culture and heritage that are very fast slipping away from us,” said Wong. “All of the work is being done because people care about their communities. But if there is no community to care for and to fight for, there’s no reason or way for us to be here anymore.”

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