The past and present of Chinatown
Slider images: Photos of Chinatown from the City of Vancouver Archives matched with photos of the locations today.
Top (left to right). Former Ming’s is today’s Fortune Sound Club, CIBC building on Main Street, East Pender and Columbia Street looking west.
Bottom (left to right). The East Hotel on Gore, buildings on East Pender and Columbia Street facing north, Foo’s Ho Ho on East Pender.
When she was young, Claudia Li’s grandmother would bring her to Chinatown on her trips to buy groceries. She was amazed by the number of people her grandmother knew, calling out to passersby and shop owners by name.
Today, Li helps organize a team of young Chinese-Canadians determined to protect Chinatown’s unique and intimate community. Individually, they have led Cantonese workshops for non-Chinese, organized sporting events from street hockey to kung fu, assisted seniors with computer work and have helped what determine what constitutes as Chinatown character at city planning workshops.
Connecting the old and the new is one of Li’s passions. She co-founded Hua Foundation, a non-profit which launched its first project last summer to create bilingual and seasonal veggie guides for Chinatown grocers, blending knowledge of traditional veggies with a modern interest in eating local.
The youth group has the same goal: reinvent the neighbourhood, while respecting its heritage, and bridge cultural and generational gaps. They hope everyone will feel welcome, not just the ethnically Chinese.
“Many people who grew up in Vancouver have fond memories of coming to Chinatown,” said Carol Lee.
Lee is chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Revitalization Committee, a group of neighbourhood leaders who tackle issues regarding the area’s future, from alerting key needs to the city to advocating Chinatown’s unique qualities to developers. The youth group was organized by members of the revitalization committee.
Many have gotten involved out of a concern for the future of the historic neighbourhood. Chinatown was established in the late 1800s as an enclave for immigrants, mostly from southern China. It was a thriving hub for the Chinese community, but struggled after the ‘70s due to competition with satellite “Chinatowns” elsewhere in Greater Vancouver.
Three condo developments are currently under construction on Main Street and there are fears of gentrification and loss of the neighbourhood’s identity.
A history of activism
It’s more than Chinatown’s identity that’s stirring youth interest today. Youth are exploring their own identity as Chinese-Canadians through their work in the neighbourhood. However, they’re not the first ones to do so.
Fred Mah, a Chinatown advocate with over half a century of volunteerism in the neighbourhood, remembers the ‘60s and ‘70s when youth involvement was the strongest. Sports like badminton, basketball, table tennis and volleyball were the gateway to more interest in Chinatown.
Community-building events established the strong base of youth volunteers that was crucial to activism in the area, such as the fight against the freeway the city wanted to build through Chinatown and the city’s efforts to close barbecue shops due to strict health regulations.
Youth interest in the neighbourhood slowly declined after the ‘70s as the Chinese community grew elsewhere in Greater Vancouver.
A group called Chinatown Next in the 2000s tried to modernize activities for younger crowd with outdoor movies, talent contests and even DJs and break dancing at the annual night markets, but they struggled with recruiting new leaders.
“In Chinatown, youth means anyone under fifty,” said Edmund Ma, one of the group’s organizers.
The youth group meets at the Hua Foundation office, which opened September in Chinatown.
The office space is above the headquarters of the Mah Benevolent Society of Vancouver. The staff hope it will serve as a clubhouse to mobilize young people and a space for community events.
It’s a clubhouse for the new generation, not unlike the clubhouses of clan associations in Chinatown that have existed for decades.
“When the opportunity came up it seemed perfect,” said Megan Lau of the Hua Foundation.
“We had all these memories and fond connections with Chinatown.”
Watch Chanel Ly say how her parents met in Chinatown, where her father worked at a meat shop. Ly works as an SRO tenant advocate and supports Chinese seniors with housing and health needs. She realized having amenities within walking distance is crucial to seniors.
Collaborations and conversations
One is the sheer number of associations and organizations who have managed themselves independently for decades, making planning, let alone communication, difficult.
In addition, many Chinatown groups are also not ready to welcome involvement from a younger generation. Some have done things their way for over a hundred years.
“Most of the senior people pay lip service,” said Fred Mah with his decades of volunteering. “They say want younger people in there, but at the same time they still want to control everything.”
Mah believes stirring up youth interest in Chinatown is another challenge, something Edmund Ma has seen firsthand.
Like Fred did in his day, Edmund helps out everywhere he can: the night market, kung fu lessons, joining groups like the heritage buildings association and his family’s benevolent society.
It can be tiring work, which is why numbers and having key, dedicated individuals are important.
“There’s so much stuff to be done with so few people,” said Edmund. “Chinatown just needs people… Everyone minds their own business now. It used to be a community. A real community does exist here but it exists behind closed doors.”
It’s not easy making those intergenerational connections, especially when language is a challenge for some, but today’s group of youth are determined to maintain a spirit of collaboration.
“We’re progressive and forward thinking,” said Edmund, “but we also respect tradition and how things used to be.”
Watch Kathryn Lennon perform “This Daughter’s Tongue”, her poem on learning her ancestral languages. Lennon brings ideas from Edmonton’s Chinatown, where she worked with a team of diverse ages to plan events. She writes poetry and often uses it to explore Canadian diversity and her heritage as Irish-Cantonese. She also helped plan a Cantonese workshop for English speakers at Centre A last May, where she is a director.
Fred commends the younger generation for being patient with the process. He said, “If you work alongside [the other associations] and accept some of their ideas, then they will gradually accept you.”