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Chinatown newcomers reach out to long-time community

Vancouver’s Chinatown is changing fast as new businesses move into the area and community members worry about balancing revitalization with…

By Christopher Cheung , in Feature story Life , on November 26, 2014 Tags: , , , , , , ,

Tyler Russell speaks Korean and Japanese and is picking up Cantonese phrases.
Tyler Russell speaks Korean and Japanese and is picking up Cantonese phrases.

Vancouver’s Chinatown is changing fast as new businesses move into the area and community members worry about balancing revitalization with the neighbourhood’s heritage.

A few newcomers have discovered that meeting the neighbours is the first step to building relationships with the existing community.

Centre A, a gallery for contemporary Asian art, moved from the Downtown Eastside into Chinatown in 2013. Tyler Russell, who took over as executive director and curator this year, quickly realized that the gallery didn’t quite fit into the area.

“We were in the neighbourhood but we weren’t in the neighbourhood,” said Russell.

Then Mrs. Chang stopped for a visit.

The 96-year-old Chinatown resident walked into Centre A and asked Cantonese-speaking staff what the space was. They explained it was an Asian art gallery and Chang didn’t hesitate to offer some direct advice.

“You have to let the public know that you’re an art gallery and that they can come in!” said Chang.

Russell realized she was right. The gallery had no programming for the local community and did not even acknowledge Chinatown’s largest celebration, Lunar New Year.

Listen:
Russell on how he met Mrs. Chang. (1’45”)

Russell recruited Mrs. Chang, adding her suggested Chinese-language signs to the English ones in the front window.

This spring, the gallery hosted an exhibition on Chinese cultural practices with simple Cantonese classes and local field trips. Russell began to question newcomers and talk about how they related to the established community in Chinatown.

“Are there rites of passage/entry, gestures and postures that should be adopted to pay respect?” said Russell.

Chinatown for everyone

Albert Fok understands the importance of respecting the community, but the president of the Chinatown Business Improvement Association adds that fitting in is easy.

“Any astute entrepreneur should be aware of what makes this particular community unique. I think it’s very straightforward… You will blend in in no time and figure out your niche. I think it’s a good mix.”

Fok stresses that Chinatown is “open for everyone.”

“We’re not here to only serve the ethnic Chinese group,” said Fok. “Vancouver is a global city.”

It’s a balance between welcoming diversity and maintaining heritage. Russell hopes the area won’t become “Disneyfied” and turn into a touristy shell without authentic cultural connections.

“We need to do what we can when we have these precious gems of space like Chinatown to keep it prosperous and vital,” said Russell. “We need to acknowledge that’s the space we’re coming into.”

New neighbours

Olivia Cheung learned the traditions of the tea business from her father.
Olivia Cheung learned the traditions of the tea business from her father.

Russell continues to build relationships with community advocates and the gallery’s neighbours. He often pops into Treasure Green Tea Company next door to say good morning to owner Olivia Cheung.

Cheung took over the business from her father, who opened the teashop in 1981.

The neighbourhood is now filled with new restaurants and retail, from currywurst to bike repair to fusion cuisine.

Cheung believes destination shops are good for the neighbourhood.

“[New businesses] not only draw new groups of people, but groups of people who don’t really care about Chinatown,” said Cheung. “Then everyone can take that benefit of having a new neighbour.”

‘Pure multicultural exchange’

Jim Yee understands the fragile balance between revitalization and heritage firsthand. He is member of the Vancouver Chinatown Revitalization Committee and the president of the century-old Yee Fung Toy Society of Vancouver, located across the street from Centre A.

The revitalization committee has seen more attention to the area, especially since rents are the cheapest in Vancouver at $15 to $30 a square foot, but wants to make sure heritage isn’t sacrificed.

One of the Yee society’s tenants is 221A, a multipurpose artists’ centre, which has welcomed the society’s senior choir to perform at an event. Translations and cultural significance were explained and Yee calls it an example of “pure multicultural exchange”.

“You can live a very Canadian life without [that interaction] in some ways, but it would be much richer if we were all aware multiculturally,” said Yee.

Yee says there are businesses that remain a mystery to locals, in the same way Mrs. Chang was puzzled by Centre A, and he commends Russell’s ongoing effort to build community. Centre A’s latest exhibit includes meals for visitors.

Yee admits it’s hard to pin down exact criteria to help new businesses moving into Chinatown. His neighbour Russell says it’s simple: “Just say hi.”