In face of gentrification, economic pressures, residents and advocates are trying to revitalize neighbourhoods.
by Yvette Brend
William Liu, 35, gave up dreams of singing to come home to help run and expand his family's dim sum shop. (Yvette Brend/CBC)
William Liu grew up near his family’s frozen dim sum shop that opened in downtown Vancouver in 1991, later moving to a location on nearby East Pender Street, where freezers today brim with bao buns and leaf-wrapped sticky rice.
Liu, 35, had different plans for his future.
He was pursuing a master’s degree in music in New York City and auditioning at The Juilliard School when his dad suddenly needed kidney surgery.
So in 2014 he came home instead. Now, as CEO of Kam Wai Dim Sum, he rings in customers and works on wholesale deals, seeking to expand the family business in recent years — and keep it running.
That sacrifice ultimately prevented the closure of another legacy mom-and-pop business in Vancouver’s struggling Chinatown.
Across North America, historic Chinatowns are under threat, eaten up by development and gentrification, and ultimately changed as rents soar, often driving out legacy businesses, longtime residents and seniors. In Vancouver, specifically, the pressures on Chinatown are visceral, with decaying buildings and concerns about public safety and cleanliness rampant in the neighbourhood, which sits next to the Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood that has struggled with poverty, drug use and homelessness.
“To see that deterioration [in Chinatown] through those years has been really disheartening,” said Liu. “That is why I really wanted to come back to bring new life and new hope into the community.”
Liu is one of a growing number of people trying to revitalize the neighbourhoods where they grew up, some doing so despite the fact their families left for cheaper land in the suburbs years ago.
Vancouver’s historic Chinatown was hit particularly hard by economic downturns, the city’s housing and opioid crises, and then slammed by the pandemic, according to Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program.
But Yan says people like Liu are part of a growing social push to preserve and revitalize these historic places.
“Chinatowns are part of Canada, part of what it means to be Canadian,” he said. “The story of Chinatown is how immigrant entrepreneurship is nurtured in this country.”
He believes the country’s Chinatowns are far from dead — and more relevant than ever, with Canada planning to welcome hundreds of thousands of newcomers in the next few years.
Big Fight in Little Chinatown
Montreal documentarian Karen Cho is using storytelling to fight for Chinatowns. Her new film, Big Fight in Little Chinatown, premiered in Montreal on July 3 and is currently on a North American screening tour.
“I could see how so many of these Chinatowns that I knew and loved were in periods of decline and, in the case of Montreal, active erasure,” said Cho. Her own grandmother was born in Montreal’s Chinatown and often took her there as a child growing up; the other side of her family has roots in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Her film explores the growing fight — in cities from Edmonton to New York — to save communities where she says many Chinese families first started out, forming a community and safe refuge from societal discrimination.
In her documentary, Big Fight in Little Chinatown, Karen Cho explores the gentrification of Chinatowns in Montreal, Vancouver and New York. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)
It looks at how North America’s Chinatowns grew and bloomed in the 1950s, but then, as families moved to the suburbs in the 1980s and 1990s, Chinatowns began to struggle.
The big challenge now, according to Yan, is finding the right kind of economic development — something that leaves room for working-class families.
“Are these neighbourhoods that should be put under glass? Or do they have the ability to grow and thrive and change?” Yan asks in Cho’s film.
Some opportunities have already been lost. In the 1960s, Toronto built Nathan Phillips Square and a new City Hall in St. John’s Ward, the city’s first Chinatown. Many businesses were forced to close and eventually set up shop farther west, in today’s current Chinatown along Spadina Avenue. (There’s also a second hub in Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood.)
But Cho’s film documents the active fight in other places — like New York City, where thousands of protesters rallied last March in Columbus Park against plans for a new 29-storey jail they say will cast a shadow over the city’s Chinatown.
When Cho began filming during the pandemic, she says she began to fear she’d end up documenting the demolishing of Montreal’s most historic block, including the old Wings noodle factory.
“It’s important to tell the history of these places, because the people in these neighbourhoods often get erased. Their story gets erased,” said Cho.
The challenges of revitalization
Back in Vancouver, Michael Tan says his mother cried when he moved back to Chinatown as an adult.
To his parents, Chinatown was a place where they struggled financially when first coming to Canada, he said, working hard to escape to the suburbs in Surrey. But to Tan, it was a place of rich memories, tied to his grandparents and cultural roots.
So Tan persisted and now volunteers at the Chau Luen Society, which offers affordable housing for low-income seniors in the neighbourhood. He also fights to preserve affordable housing and authentic legacy businesses as a city appointee on the Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group (LSG).
Michael Tan works with the Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group and the Chau Luen Society in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
“There’s heavy pressure driving up rents for the storefronts, so a lot of legacy cultural businesses are not going to be able to afford the rents,” said Tan.
He said he’s loath to see chain stores overtake longtime family businesses, or luxury condos replace historic structures and history.
Philanthropist Carol Lee founded Vancouver’s Chinatown Foundation and has worked hard to attract economic development to the neighbourhood. But she and others trying to revitalize this historic part of Vancouver are not blind to the issues of homelessness, drug use and economic realities on their doorstep.
“I don’t think there’s anybody that’s really … enthusiastic for big box or chains,” she said. “I think the beauty of Chinatowns has been that they were populated by these mom-and-pop kind of stores. But we have to understand that those aren’t always easy to run in a neighbourhood like this.”
Vandalism is shown in Vancouver's Chinatown neighbourhood on April 13, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
Liu agrees it’s tough, but worth the work. Recalling his grandfather walking him and his sister through the streets of Chinatown as a child, he says it’s difficult watching seniors and businesses get squeezed out of their own community as rents and property values rise beyond reach.
While he sometimes belts out a tune at work, his smooth baritone filling the dim sum shop, he says forgoing his passion for singing is a sacrifice he’d make again.
“It was difficult, but it was actually extremely easy. Because at the end of the day, it’s really all for the family.”
The article was first published by the CBC News.
Yvette Brend works in Vancouver on all CBC platforms. Her investigative work has spanned floods, fires, cryptocurrency deaths, police shootings and infection control in hospitals. “My husband came home a stranger,” an intimate look at PTSD, won CBC’s first Jack Webster City Mike Award. Got a tip? Yvette.Brend@cbc.ca
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