Vancouver to apply for UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for Chinatown

November 2, 2017

By John Mackie, Vancouver Sun |

Chinatown is a designated heritage district at all three levels of government — municipal, provincial and federal.

Now the city wants to make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“There are literally hundreds and hundreds of these designated sites all over the world,” said UBC history professor Henry Yu. “In essence the designation recognizes that this spot is important and significant, basically in human history.”

Yu is part of an advisory committee that has worked on the city’s “Historical Discrimination Against Chinese People in Vancouver” initiative.

It recommended that Vancouver issue a formal apology for discrimination among Chinese-Canadians. Council agreed this week, and will acknowledge “past legislation, regulations and policies” of old Vancouver councils towards Chinese residents.

When council gave a grant to help create the B.C. Sugar Refinery in the 1890s, for example, it stipulated that B.C. Sugar could not hire Chinese workers. At one point it was even city policy to not hire Chinese workers.

Councillor Raymond Louie moved the motion to make the apology.

“I think it recognizes a period of time where the city was actively participating in racial discrimination against Chinese people,” said Louie.

“We’ve done significant research to show that. The city should take its place in history alongside the federal and provincial governments in recognizing that its actions were wrong.”

The UNESCO World Heritage designation may take five to eight years to complete.

“There’s a process that takes awhile before UNESCO would be in a position to recognize it,” said Yu, speaking over the phone from Kyoto, Japan.

“The other (thing) is you have to earn it, by coming up with things like a management plan. You have to come up with a plan of how to manage Chinatown, in terms of maintaining its value.

“How are you going to handle the huge influx of tourists that are going to come? Because once you’re a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you’re on the map, so to speak.”

Chinatown has been in the news recently because the historic neighbourhood is under pressure from developers. A controversial redevelopment proposal, 105 Keefer, brought out hundreds of speakers, the most to speak on one project in decades.

The rezoning of 105 Keefer was rejected by council, but a proposal for a smaller building that fits within existing zoning will go before the development permit board on Monday.

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