Skateboarders are the latest sign of change in Chinatown, with at least ten skaters moving into one of the neighbourhood’s oldest buildings.
“People want to live [in Chinatown]. The skaters have been a great asset to the building and the area,” said Randy Clyne, a local business consultant. It was Clyne who suggested the skaters move into the Chinese Freemasons building one year ago.
The building was largely vacant for decades before the skaters arrived. The Chinese Freemasons “were worried about the trustworthiness of bringing young people in. They had some problems with transient types,” said Clyne.
He was able to convince the Chinese Freemasons to rent out a room to two entrepreneurial skaters: Mischa Farivar and Graham Buksa. They moved in to the Chinese Freemasons building on East Pender Street after renovating the space themselves.
“We spent $3,500 fixing the place up,” said Buksa, who owns Rayne Longboards. His company’s sales and marketing department is located on the second floor.
Shortly after moving into the apartment, Farivar set up Flatstop Longboards in the storefront below the apartment. Since then, more skaters have moved into the rooms upstairs.
“There is no shortage of inspired, talented and somewhat lost kids in skateboarding who are looking for a place to call their own and feel comfortable,” said Farivar.
Getting to know one another
Farivar and Buksa live on the same floor as an elderly Chinese couple. Above them, the Chinese Freemasons run their office and a mah-jong club meets daily to play.
“The building is a good community in itself,” said Tommy Watson, a skater from Austin, Texas, who moved into the building six months ago.
The skaters may not speak Chinese, but that has not stopped them from getting to know their neighbours.
“When the door gets jammed, we’re all there trying to figure it out, gesturing and stuff like that,” said Farivar. He said the skaters are comfortable in their new surroundings and hoping one day to break in to the games upstairs.
“Everyone in the building is eager to learn how to play mah-jong,” said Farivar. “I’m just disappointed we don’t have more rooms available.”
Andy Chou, a 20-something who works at the Chinese Cultural Centre on the next block, walks by the Freemasons building every day. He often sees the skaters leaning on the balcony railing, chatting.
“I think they try to appeal to the Chinese community. They understand,” he said. “At the entrance of the store they hang duilian.” Duilian is a Chinese couplet that is often written on strips of paper beside an entrance.
Ongoing neighbourhood change
The skaters’ arrival in Chinatown is the unexpected and slow-developing result of another initiative that started five years ago. In 2009, the City of Vancouver set up the Chinatown “active storefront program” in an effort to give the shops a much-needed facelift.
Since then, entrepreneurs have opened shops such Blim on Pender Street. However, living space in Chinatown is still scarce.
Clyne worked as a consultant for the non-profit organization that ran the program. He said that he was very pleased with the results. But he also received requests to find residential rental space.
“There is a shortage of appropriate space in Chinatown,” he said, citing poor building maintenance as a major obstacle.
Long-time members of the Chinatown community see the newcomers as a positive addition.
“The influx of new residents, particularly the non-Chinese segment, will add new dynamics to the revitalization of the Chinatown,” said Jun Ing, vice-president of the Chinese Benevolent Association.
For people who grew up in the days of traditional Chinatown, the skaters and other newcomers represent a significant shift in the neighbourhood.
Liz Lee, long-time employee of iconic Foo’s Ho Ho Restaurant, is matter of fact about what’s happening. “Chinatown is going to change, and it’s not going to be the Chinese who change it.”