‘It could be lost forever’: Community working on economic strategy to save Vancouver’s Chinatown

Click to play video: 'Chinatown Unmasked: Community working on economic strategy to save Vancouver’s Chinatown'
Chinatown Unmasked: Community working on economic strategy to save Vancouver’s Chinatown
Economic revitalization is seen as one of the most essential - yet difficult pieces of the puzzle when it comes to bringing people back to Vancouver's Chinatown. In the third and final installment of 'Chinatown Unmasked', Kristen Robinson looks at how the community is working together to make visitors feel safe again in the heritage neighbourhood that's been in decay for years. – Jul 28, 2021

Economic revitalization is seen as one of the most essential – yet difficult pieces of the puzzle – when it comes to bringing people back to Vancouver’s Chinatown.

The heritage neighbourhood has been in decay for years and now, the Chinese community is trying to forge ahead and make visitors feel safe again.

Click to play video: 'Chinatown Unmasked: COVID-19 exacerbates crisis on the ground'
Chinatown Unmasked: COVID-19 exacerbates crisis on the ground

When Jade Dynasty Restaurant resumed serving its steamed and fried delicacies in 2019 after a major renovation, manager Connie Deng hoped young people would also return to Chinatown.

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“The old style is gone,” Deng told Global News.

Since COVID-19 hit, Deng said the Pender Street dining room is one of only two dim sum restaurants left.

“I’m feeling sad for Chinatown,” she said.

Two blocks west, and in what the Guinness Book of Records recognizes as the world’s shallowest commercial building, Rod Chow is defending his late father’s focus to keep Chinatown alive – with the iconic neon that once dominated the neighbourhood.

“We wanted to bring it back and kind of make it a catalyst to bring people back to Chinatown,” the Jack Chow Insurance president told Global News.

While the famous Jack Chow Insurance building lights up the area each night, the city of Vancouver is pushing for a UNESCO designation, which would see Chinatown protected and preserved as a world heritage site.

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“It will be very important for Chinatown’s future,” said senior city planner and Chinatown Transformation Team Co-lead Helen Ma.

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“It would mean having international recognition for its special history, its culture and heritage.”

The process to submit a UNESCO application could take years, and many say Chinatown can’t wait.

“I think this is the tipping point,” said Carol Lee with the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation.

“I think there’s a time when we realize if we don’t do something now, it could be lost forever.”

Lee’s grandfather, Ron Bick Lee, opened the Foo Hung Company import-export business in 1921 and was one of the pioneers of Chinatown.

As an entrepreneur and full-time volunteer, she now leads the charity committed to bringing the heritage area back.

Solving safety and social issues is the biggest challenge – but Lee said Chinatown was built on resilience.

“I think that so much of what we’ve had to do historically, we’ve had to do it on our own,” said Lee.

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First settled in the 1880s, Vancouver’s Chinatown is one of the oldest and largest in Canada and has evolved over time.

“This used to be a neighbourhood where if you were Chinese, you had to be here, you had to live in the neighbourhood,” said Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association president Jordan Eng.

Due to discrimination and segregation, Chinese immigrants were clustered together in the area.

The result was a self-contained and distinctive neighbourhood that grew with the city of Vancouver and reflected the contributions and struggles of Chinese-Canadians over the decades.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Chinatown became an entertainment hub for the broader community, Eng told Global News.

As the population moved out in the 1970s, he said Chinatown turned into a place for new immigrants.

The area’s surviving culture stems from the historic concentration of Chinese-Canadian businesses, services, cultural facilities and community associations, according to its National Historic Site of Canada website.

Click to play video: 'Chinatown Unmasked: historic neighbourhood often feels ignored by government'
Chinatown Unmasked: historic neighbourhood often feels ignored by government

Eng and Lee are not waiting for outside help to see Chinatown flourish again.

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The Vancouver Chinatown Foundation is working with the community and hopes to launch an economic development strategy this fall.

Two of its projects: the Chinatown Storytelling Centre cultural space and 58 West Hastings, a 10-storey building with 230 social and affordable housing units, are set to open later this year.

Building on the local Business Improvement Association’s ‘Demystify Chinatown’ campaign, the goal is to make Chinatown a destination to rediscover.

“It’s intriguing, it’s different, and it’s an integral part of the history of our city,” said Lee.

“We will find ways to get people to come back.”

Chinatown is already seeing a diversity of new businesses said Eng, with 60 restaurants, coffee shops, bars and food services within six square blocks.

He believes the construction of the new St. Paul’s Hospital on Station Street in nearby False Creek Flats – which is expected to open in 2027 – will have a huge and positive impact on Chinatown.

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“I think we’ve got great things coming,” said Eng, who believes we will see “quite a different” Chinatown within a couple of years.

“Let the people who come down to Chinatown feel safe,” Deng said.

Chinese Benevolent Association president and Cultural Centre chair Fred Kwok is also working to sell the public on the future of Chinatown.

“Try to bring confidence back in people’s hearts,” said Kwok.

“I see signs of improvement I see hope.”

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