Vancouver’s Chinatown Crisis: It’s about Canadian history.

The matter of Chinatown is an issue that has been heating up over the past few months as the city attempts to move forward with rezoning Chinatown in a way that does not take social, cultural or historical matters into account. It’s a contentious and emotional matter. I don’t often write op-eds or comment on political matters, but this is an issue I feel that needs greater awareness, and what I propose is to look at the issue through a different lens.

Some reading material to get up to speed on the topic:

The matter at hand is specific to rezoning and development of one major property, next to a memorial for Chinese Canadian wartime contribution in the past. This development will overshadow and essentially obscure the memorial. With rising land values and continued pressure for increased development, we know that Chinatowns across the continent are becoming a target for development. That development forces out low-income seniors who call Chinatown their home. Regardless of the social reasons for why they are now in the position they are in — they are among our city’s vulnerable population and need our support. Additionally, the development will change the landscape of Chinatown, and with rezoning, pave the way to removing the last traces of Chinatown’s character.

But how do we preserve Chinatown in a way that is both socially responsible (providing the much needed social housing for aging low-income seniors), and economically viable (the city doesn’t want to just give away land, and developers want to make money of building luxury condos) — while revitalizing the significance of Chinatown? What even, is the significance of Chinatown in our modern times?

Social and political forces are directly clashing on this matter and it’s hard to see which side will win. The social and cultural implications are clear — build large developments and Chinatown will cease to exist. Don’t develop and Chinatown continues to crumble away. Big corporate donations to the government have resulted in a political push to make these projects happen, regardless of the public backlash and protest. Nobody seems to have a good answer that can fulfil both social and economic needs of all the stakeholders involved. Hard lines have been drawn on both sides of the argument. Anyone who’s versed in negotiation knows that this is an impasse.

I’m a pragmatist — I recognize the business and economic drivers that are causing Chinatowns to get replaced by fancy condos across the continent. But I’m also a socialist — we have a responsibility to care for the city’s vulnerable population. That’s why we live in Canada and that’s part of what Canadian values exude. What saddens me greatly then, isn’t just the racism, ignorance and bigotry that comes up (we all know how the internet trolls like to come out) but the indifference that people have about Chinatown’s fate. I’ve heard and read statements like:

  • Richmond is already one big Chinatown — hell, all of Vancouver is just one big Chinatown now.
  • I can buy everything I need from T&T anyway
  • Who cares? Chinatown is so ghetto now that nobody wants to go there. It’s not safe.
  • Chinatown isn’t relevant.

My issue with these comments is that they are indifferent to the importance of a crucial piece of British Columbian history. Demographically, the Chinese subset of the Asian population is I’m sure, not an insignificant percentage in the GVRD, and that’s a byproduct of immigration policy and organic population growth over the past decades. But let’s put aside the numbers for a moment, and let’s put aside the social responsibility issues that are being raised. The Chinatown issue is about the history of Chinese in British Columbia since the mid-1800s. We’re talking about people who risked everything to try and build a new future for themselves and their families in the face of insurmountable challenges right here — in the “wild west” of Canada. The same people who had a symbiotic relationship with the First Nations communities during the mining boom, pre-Confederation, to support each other in the face of discrimination. The same people who died by the hundreds, if not thousands, to build the railroad that connects our province to the rest of the country. Where the government instituted a head tax that was designed to force and keep as many Chinese out of the country as possible. Chinatown represents that history, in Vancouver.

As Canadians, we’re too polite to talk about things like discrimination and bias because according to our culture, we are better than that. The reality is that right now, there is the resentment about property prices over the past decade and it’s very focused on one demographic. The emotions are still fresh and in everyone’s minds. Housing affordability really sucks — I get it.

What I propose here is that the emotional reaction to the housing crisis doesn’t have a place in decisions regarding preservation and restoration of Chinatown. What does is the fact that we are talking about something that represents a crucial piece of Canadian history, and when we look at the significance of that history and how we are supposed to pride ourselves on the rich cultural history of Canada, shouldn’t we consider the importance of preserving what Chinatown represents?

Canadians’ pride as an inclusive, multicultural nation means we should also fight to preserve and celebrate the roles that everyone has had in the building of this great nation. In this particular case , Chinatown represents a big piece of that history — so let’s fight to preserve it, instead of bulldozing it for new condos. Finding a way to preserve over 150 years of sacrifice and contribution, that have laid much of the foundation of how Vancouver has grown to where we are today should be the goal here. Developers, city council and the community need to sit together and come up with a longer term, viable solution — not one that just satisfies economic and political interests.