VANCOUVER — As dusk fell over Chinatown recently, a line formed outside the entrance to Kissa Tanto, a stylish Japanese-Italian eatery named Canada’s best new restaurant this year by enRoute magazine. A trio suited up for the downtown office towers nearby sipped cocktails over candlelight at the Juniper Kitchen and Bar. Around the corner, twentysomethings seated at share tables gorged on vegan pizzas at Virtuous Pie.
Hip new restaurants and glass and concrete condos in Canada’s largest Chinatown have, some say, injected a youthful vigour into an area that has been stagnant for years.
Gone are the days when produce and seafood stores spilled their wares onto busy sidewalks and shoppers haggled with shopkeepers to “peng di la!” — drop their prices even more.
Today, only three barbecue meat shops and a handful of fishmongers and produce stores remain. One of the largest Chinese grocers, the cavernous Chinatown Supermarket, sits empty — save for an industrial sink at the back and two fluorescent tube-lights that still flicker in one corner.
Are we witnessing the death of Chinatown, not only in Vancouver, but across North America?
A report in 2013 by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund warned that Chinatowns in Boston, Philadelphia and New York were “on the verge of disappearing” due to “accelerated gentrification.”
Calgary’s city council recently gave tentative approval to an application to build a 27-storey tower in the heart of that city’s Chinatown that members of the Chinese community say will obliterate the small-retail charm of the neighbourhood.
Meanwhile, the “trendification” of Toronto’s main Chinatown continues, and the complexion of the city’s Chinatown East is changing as many Chinese business owners flee to the suburbs.
But it is Vancouver’s Chinatown that is undergoing the most profound change, landing on the National Trust for Canada’s annual list of Top 10 Endangered Places this year. “Relentless development” in Chinatown, which lies in the shadows of the city’s business district and next to the Downtown Eastside, was blamed.
“Without better control on new development and efforts to sustain local businesses, Chinatown’s unique character will be lost,” the charity warned.
City planners and local activists face difficult questions: How do you retain the heritage of the neighbourhood while attracting new businesses and young people? Should Chinatown continue to cater to mostly working-class immigrants? Should new businesses be required to exhibit a certain level of “Chineseness” and if so, how do you achieve that without being accused of racism?
Critics worry that left unchecked, Chinatown could become a “Disneyified” version of itself — kitschy facades and an ornate gate, devoid of any sense of history or an immigrant population base.
“Absent some kind of policy to retain some kind of intangible cultural character, it’ll be gone,” says Henry Yu, a history professor at the University of British Columbia.
Look at what happened to Washington, D.C.’s, Chinatown, Yu said: It is now home to a Hooters.
Following the completion of the CPR railway in 1885, out-of-work Chinese labourers formed clusters of businesses and services across Canada — groceries, restaurants, laundromats and rooming houses. These “Chinatowns” served as gateways for new arrivals to the country and as places of respite for those in between jobs at mining or logging camps.
They were a mostly bachelor society, and looked after their own. Clan associations gave out loans, helped settle disputes, assisted with mail delivery and oversaw the return of remains to China when somebody died.
Following the Second World War, as Chinese immigration opened up, Canada’s Chinatowns underwent significant transformations and attracted non-Chinese visitors, whose fears of these neighourhoods as vice-ridden had relaxed.
The number of Chinese restaurants and lounges exploded, offering dishes to suit unaccustomed palates: sweet and sour pork, chop suey and the all-you-can-eat buffet. It was the era of flashing neon lights and bamboo-stylized lettering — the “Chinatown font,” as Yu calls it — that would become popular backdrops for Hollywood movies and TV shows.
But this growth didn’t come without challenges.
In the 1960s, during the automobile’s ascendancy, Vancouver officials wanted to construct a freeway that would cut through a large swath of Chinatown. Residents successfully fought back but not before Tom Campbell, Vancouver’s mayor at the time, denounced opponents as a bunch of “Maoists,” “Communists,” and “pinkos.”
Around the same time, Calgary’s Chinese community similarly had to fight against a proposed freeway — dubbed the “downtown penetrator” — that would have imperiled that city’s Chinatown.
Much of Toronto’s original Chinatown was razed in the 1950s to make room for a new City Hall and civic square.
Migration from Hong Kong to Vancouver in the 1970s and ’80s led to a flourishing of Chinatown businesses that catered to the new arrivals’ more cosmopolitan tastes.
It wasn’t long before some merchants started branching out, setting up new groceries and restaurants closer to where these new Hong Kong Chinese immigrants were settling: first in East Vancouver, then in the wide-open suburbs.
It was the beginning of the dispersal of Chinese businesses outside of old Chinatown — what Yu calls the “first death knell for Chinatown.”
This dispersal was exemplified on a recent Saturday in Richmond, B.C., at a packed T&T Supermarket. The B.C.-based grocery chain is a one-stop shop for Asian bakery items, hot foods, frozen dim sum and produce.
One T&T shopper, Simon Ho, 54, said Vancouver’s original Chinatown is for the older generation and its businesses are not progressive enough. “You’ve got the biggest Chinatown here in Richmond.”
The rise of suburban Chinese enclaves is being replicated across North America — from the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles to Markham, Scarborough and Richmond Hill outside Toronto.
In the fall of 2010, on the 125th anniversary of Vancouver’s Chinatown, Mayor Gregor Robertson and several dignitaries were on hand for the official unveiling of a giant mural depicting Lao Tsu, the Chinese philosopher, sitting on a water buffalo against blue skies, soaring birds and green mountains.
The mural, the mayor said, was a “window into the past” and “something that stitches our community closer together for the future.”
Today, the mural is no longer visible, obscured by construction of a six-storey, 65-unit condo building, a symbol of the neighbourhood’s transformation.
Besides upscale eateries, the retail mix in Chinatown now includes an artisanal ice cream parlour, a longboard store, custom furniture store, pot dispensary and a streetwear store that sells $145 belts.
Norman Lau, 54, who comes to the area to worship and visit friends, said he likes the diversity — he called it “East meets West” — and said the changes are “making the face of Chinatown look better.”
The infusion of new businesses has livened up parts of Chinatown, especially at night, said Justin Tisdall, a co-owner of Juke, a new eatery that features gluten-free fried chicken.
New businesses are injecting money back into the local economy, he said. His restaurant buys its fish, vegetables, herbs and spices from local vendors.
“I think when you get something that has a huge heritage and a lot of classical character to it, with some new life coming in, people want to be a part of that,” he said.
Klaus Erich von Hochgotz, the owner of Klaus’s Kaffee Haus, said he has tried to fit in to the community: decorating his store with a modern Chinese aesthetic; serving a Chinese strudel made of minced pork, bamboo shoots, water chestnut and Chinese mushrooms; even hiring a local dance troupe to perform at the opening.
“I wanted the neighbours to see that I belong here too,” he said.
But Chinatown’s gentrification, critics say, is not about what’s been added, but what’s been taken away.
Bundled in their winter coats, a small group of seniors — under the banner of Chinatown Concern Group — held a protest recently outside a new Italian grocery and espresso bar, waving placards and complaining that the neighbourhood had become unfamiliar to them and had turned into “Coffee Town.”
The same group is fighting a proposal to turn a parking lot into a 13-storey condo building, arguing the developer’s pledge to allocate 25 units for low- to moderate-income seniors, and a social gathering place for seniors, is inadequate.
“To many seniors, Chinatown is their community. It’s where they find their sense of belonging. It’s where they know they can find someone who speaks their language. There’s a fear that will be lost,” said Chanel Ly, a seniors outreach worker in the area.
Calgary’s Chinatown is also in the throes of its own redevelopment battle following an application to build a 27-storey residential-commercial tower in the neighbourhood. Opponents say such a tower would dwarf surrounding buildings and detract from the area’s unique culture.
After the city spent nearly half-a-million dollars gathering feedback from the community, city council tentatively approved the project this month, but gave the applicant a two-year deadline to finalize the plan.
Critic Terry Wong, a member of the Chinatown District Business Revitalization Zone, said the project marks further encroachment of Calgary’s downtown business district into Chinatown. “How do you put an Asian motif on the 25th floor?”
“In the past, city councils haven’t really given Chinatown and its citizens attention, consideration, respect and support. We were hoping this time they would say, ‘You have a 106-year history … let’s make it the best Chinatown ever.’ ”
So far, Toronto’s main Chinatown, while home to many new fusion restaurants, has largely been insulated from large-scale redevelopment. Experts attribute this partly to a greater tolerance for older buildings in the city, and the fact the neighbourhood is nestled in an area populated by university students.
However, in Chinatown East, new condo buildings have sprouted up around the neighbourhood, drawing young professionals. A Texas-style barbecue joint, an artisanal bakery, and a bar with a retro vibe have moved in to cater to this new demographic.
Kerry Jang, a Vancouver city councillor, and Yu, the UBC historian, are friends. Just don’t get them started on Chinatown.
In Jang’s eyes, Chinatown should be a reflection of what being Chinese is like in Vancouver. And right now, Chinese are living “the multicultural dream,” so it only makes sense that Chinatowns are moving away from being an ethnic enclave, with the businesses and demographics becoming more mixed, he said.
“Do I start discriminating against a (non-Chinese) business? I don’t want to be part of that conversation. … I’ve spent my entire life trying to be integrated in this country.”
Yu said no one is calling for an ethnic test for new businesses. “It’s not about, ‘Are you Chinese?’ or else we won’t let you open a business,” he said.
He says he is advocating to keep mom and pop stores around for as long as possible and incentives for young entrepreneurs — maybe in the form of interest-free loans — to set up in Chinatown.
“I don’t mind, cool hip places. Just not 100 per cent of them,” he said.
In the summer of August 2015, Heritage BC, on behalf of the province’s ministry of international trade, asked the public what “intangible heritage values” in Vancouver’s Chinatown were worth preserving.
The official report has not yet been released, but a 91-page draft copy obtained by the National Post shows “participants felt strongly that Chinatown’s entrepreneurial and business history is a significant heritage value of Chinatown that needs to be preserved and protected.”
There was also broad recognition that seniors were the “glue” that kept the community together and that there should be more support for them and for intergenerational activities.
Calgary, which has been directed by city council to overhaul its 30-year-old planning document for Chinatown, received similar feedback during public consultations earlier this year. Among the biggest worries were the need to keep Chinatown “distinctly Chinese” or “distinctly Asian.”
How much feedback cities will incorporate into long-term planning remains to be seen.
Vancouver city is exploring caps on building density, utilizing laneways for retail space and the idea of designating certain businesses as “legacy” businesses, said Karen Hoese, acting assistant city planner.
But critics question the city’s sincerity about preservation. One proposal would allow buildings to have 200-foot-wide footprints, roughly a half-city block, which would turn much of Chinatown into “bulldozer bait,” they say.
Another idea would require developers who want to build condo buildings that exceed the current 90-foot height limit to allocate 20 per cent of units for seniors social housing.
Asked why the city couldn’t keep the height limit and the social housing requirement, Hoese responded: “I think we’d be successful in stopping any development from happening then. … The economics just don’t support that.”
Some American cities seem to be getting the preservation message. In Boston, where luxury high rises and boutique hotels have encroached on Chinatown’s edges, a land trust has been created to buy properties and keep them affordable for residents.
In San Francisco, businesses that have been around for 30 years or more, and have made significant contributions to the neighbourhood, can apply for grants under a new legacy business program.
In Seattle, the non-profit Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation Authority, tasked with making sure the area remains a “unique ethnic neighbourhood,” recently hired a retail recruiter whose job is to curate prospective businesses with an eye for those that will “complement the neighbourhood.”
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for Vancouver’s Chinatown comes from within. Many shopkeepers are getting up in age, with no succession plans in place. Their Westernized children have moved on and aren’t interested in following in the footsteps of their immigrant parents.
Susanna Ng, 61, owner of the busy New Town Bakery since 1980, said she’s not sure how long she can keep going, and her grown children do not want to take over the business. “I’d like to pass the torch … but right now it’s hard to recruit people,” she said.
But against a backdrop of unprecedented change, one family’s 27-year-old dumpling business trudges along.
On a recent weekday afternoon, William Liu, 28, was at the back of Kam Wai Dim Sum spooning a small ball of pork onto a thin circle of dough, then pinching the edges together to make a dumpling. He makes hundreds in a day.
Until about two years ago, Liu was on a very different career trajectory. He was in his final year of studying voice performance at UBC, poised to go on to graduate school in New York to study opera.
Then one day after classes in fall 2014, Liu’s father, who was suffering from kidney failure, pulled him aside in the store. “He asked if I would support his decision to sell the business,” Liu recalled.
Liu was confronted with one of the biggest decisions of his life: forget school and keep his father’s legacy going, knowing it would lead to a gruelling work schedule; or follow his opera-singing dreams, knowing it would spell the end of the family business.
Liu dropped out of school. His father had a successful kidney transplant in August 2015.
“I had to basically give up my dream, but you know what? It didn’t really matter. Seeing my dad recover was all worth it.”
As the store’s operations and sales manager, he works seven days a week — with a break on Sunday mornings to sing in church.
But Liu said he’s filled with pride knowing that the family business soldiers on at a time when so many other businesses around them have closed.