Witnesses say staff at city-owned mall tried to stop seniors, used insensitive language, summoned police.
by Michelle Gomez
Posted: Jun 27, 2023
Organizers and witnesses say mall management, accompanied by a mall security officer, asked the seniors to leave and called a police officer to the scene. (Stephanie Leo)
The City of Vancouver has apologized for an incident last month in which a group of low-income seniors was asked to leave a shopping plaza during a tai chi meetup.
According to witnesses, mall staff made culturally insensitive comments and attempted to physically stop the seniors from practising the Chinese martial art in the Chinatown Plaza Mall — which is owned by the city and managed by EasyPark — on the morning of May 26.
“It was sad and heartbreaking to see,” said Sean Cao with the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, who organizes the bi-weekly tai chi meetups.
“They don’t feel welcomed.”
As the seniors were preparing to start their exercise around 8:50 a.m. PT, mall management asked them to leave and threatened to call the police, Cao said.
When the seniors decided to go ahead with their tai chi session, the mall staff “tried to get physically close to the seniors … they sort of touched their arms to stop the movements,” said Cao.
Cao and another witness, Stephanie Leo, both said they heard a mall staff member make the same discriminatory comment.
“They were saying things like ‘this isn’t China, this isn’t Hong Kong, you can’t just gather and work out here,'” said Leo, a volunteer for the Yarrow Society who arrived at the plaza shortly after 9 a.m.
Cao said the staff also asked anyone who did not speak English to “step aside.”
A police officer who works at the Chinese Community Policing Centre was flagged by a mall employee while walking nearby, according to a statement from the Vancouver Police Department.
“The officer spoke with a representative from the mall, who had concerns about the group gathering there without permission … it took about three minutes for the group to gather its belongings and leave,” the statement said.
In a statement to CBC News, the city said it sincerely apologizes for the way the situation was handled, and that it contacted the Yarrow Society in early June about the incident.
“We’re unable to verify if culturally insensitive comments were made, but the city does not tolerate racism of any kind,” the statement said.
Cao said bringing the police into the situation was an extreme and disproportionate response, particularly for a group of seniors between the ages of 70 and 95.
The Yarrow Society is asking the city to grant the seniors permission to use the space for their morning tai chi sessions, arguing there is no other suitable place in the neighbourhood.
It said their previous meeting location, the Sun Wah Centre, lacks air conditioning and is too small to safely accommodate the growing group, which now consists of over 50 low-income seniors living in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside.
Cao has helped run the tai chi sessions, which happen Monday and Friday mornings, since 2021.
He says it gives seniors the chance to make new friends, get some exercise and connect with their community.
The mall opens at 8 a.m. but at that time most of the shops are still closed, said Cao.
“It should be a win-win situation. It can benefit and support seniors’ wellbeing and also supports the businesses in the empty shopping mall, bringing energy into the space.”
In its statement, the city said it has not granted the Yarrow Society permission to use the space and is reviewing various implications, including impact on tenants and liability.
Leo says Chinatown lacks a community centre to host programs for seniors, which can add to a sense of not belonging that many of them feel.
“We have to do these ad hoc programs like Yarrow is offering so seniors can gather,” she said.
- The article was first published by the CBC News.
- Michelle Gomez is a writer and reporter at CBC Vancouver. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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