Wednesday, December 6, 2023
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The Man Society heritage building in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

Saving society buildings key to Chinatown revitalization

It’s been a big year for Chinatown. After a decade of on the part of the City of Vancouver and…

The Mah Society heritage building in Vancouver's Chinatown.

It’s been a big year for Chinatown.

After a decade of on the part of the City of Vancouver and the , the storied district has been revived as an almost fashionable destination, and the feeling in the streets is that what was once a thriving commercial and cultural hub may yet be again.

With of Chinatown, it should be a vibrant draw. But the area still faces enormous hurdles – not the least of which is what to do with its crumbling buildings.

Chinatown’s first settlers arrived in the 1880s. When  turned the area into an ethnic ghetto, residents built a support network of to look after one another. Many provided housing, and it was from this period that much of Chinatown’s grew.

By the 1960s, Vancouver’s Chinatown was the second largest in North America, a distinct and lively cultural district near the heart of the city.

But 20 years later, as new Chinese immigrants increasingly chose to settle to the south in Richmond, or near Victoria Drive in East Van, the area was in steep decline, and many of the society buildings were abandoned and fell into disrepair.

This short film chronicles the evolution of Chinatown through its architecture:


In 2005, the Chinatown Revitalization Program released a that looked at the historical, social and architectural significance of society buildings. Its findings were telling.

Today, there are 32 heritage buildings maintained by 12 societies. Though the City has in place a  to encourage conservation and façade preservation, a sizable injection of money will be needed to save most of these buildings, and the real character of Chinatown.

In the meantime, here are a few recent developments bringing renewed interest to the district:

1. In October last year, Bob Rennie opened a private art museum in the oldest building in Chinatown. Built in 1889, the building had been empty nearly 30 years before getting its $10-million facelift.

2. In January, council lifted height restrictions in Chinatown from 90 feet to 120 feet (roughly 12 storeys) with an eye to attracting new residential development.


welcoming visitors to the area. Symbolically, it may just herald a return to a vibrant nightlife.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user .


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