Start Saving Chinatown

May 12, 2016

By Henry Yu, Vancouver Sun |

I travel to cities around the world that have Chinatowns — San Francisco, Honolulu, Brisbane, Yokohama, even Amsterdam. I visit because of my research as a historian, but I also have a personal interest. When I was small, my grandfather used to walk me to Chinatown from our house near Commercial Drive. My four-year old legs would get tired and so he would always carry me the last few blocks. I loved the way the elderly men and women in the cafés would greet us, giving me candy and teasing my grandfather about how lucky he was to have a grandchild. We called them the “lo wah kiu” — the old-timers. My grandfather was one of them. He came to Vancouver as a teen in 1923, just before Chinese were excluded by Canada. He paid the Head Tax and spent his life working in B.C., retiring as a cook on an Alaskan cruise ship. Many of these elders, after long years of toil, gathered in Chinatown to eat and talk and joke with each other as they lived out their days.

I remember the sights and sounds of the streets — of fresh produce stacked on the sidewalks, of Cantonese shopkeepers yelling and laughing, of Mah Jong tiles clacking and rumbling like pebbles spilling on the floor. And the smell! Mouth watering scents of BBQ pork mixed with nose wrinkling odours unfathomable for a child. Chinese Canadians and non-Chinese alike enjoyed what scholars and heritage advocates call the “intangible character” of special places — the things that go on there, in contrast to the “tangible” elements such as the buildings themselves. Both are important for a heritage area, but these “intangible” elements are what helps us “feel” transported to another time and place.

When I visit other cities, I sometimes hear the phrase, “This used to be Chinatown …” What do they mean? The old heritage buildings remain standing, but something crucial has been lost. What is missing is what happens within the buildings and on the sidewalks — the “software” rather than the “hardware.” Vancouver’s Chinatown still has an interesting mix of older Chinese businesses and new non-Chinese. As John Mackie noted in a Sun story on March 24, 2016, this mix right now is almost ideal. But the balance will not last. Like two people on escalators watching each other pass, the older Chinese businesses will slowly disappear from view, eclipsed by luxury condos and trendy hipster bars.

Unless we help manage the mix of what goes on in Chinatown, we will soon be saying “This used to be Chinatown …”

This character of Chinatown — what goes on there, who lives there — it would seem obvious that this defines the place. But strangely enough the City of Vancouver right now defines Chinatown’s heritage only through architectural details. This is the legacy of 1970s era heritage policy, when things like the design of a window frame or the type of mezzanine defined heritage value. The rest of the world has moved on: UNESCO, the federal government, and the province of B.C. for instance, have all adopted “intangible character” as important in their heritage policy.

What this means is that when a proposal for rezoning in Chinatown such as the one for 105 Keefer comes up, city policy focuses on whether the windows and the mezzanine look like those in neighbouring buildings. Is that really all Chinatown is?

In 2011, the federal government designated Chinatown as a National Historic site. Recently in 2016, the province of B.C. recognized the heritage value of Vancouver’s Chinatown along with 20 other places around the province of historical significance for Chinese Canadians. HeritageBC also conducted a study that asked the public to tell what they valued about Chinatown. Unsurprisingly, answers such as the sights and sounds and smells of Chinese food and Chinese being spoken by Chinese elders dominated the list. They also saw those values throughout the blocks that the City of Vancouver defines as the Chinatown Historic Area (HA-1A — an area that encompasses Pender, Keefer, and Georgia between Gore and Carrall).

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