provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Friday, October 14, 2016

All Our Father's Relations and Under Fire Premier at VAFF

Very proud of my friends Sarah Ling and Alejandro Yoshizawa, and my friends the Grants, for their wonderful upcoming film All Our Father's Relations, as well as Christy Fong and Denise Fong for their short film Under Fire: Inside a Chinese Roasted Meats Shop, which will debut the same day November 6 in the afternoon. Christy and Denise made their film in Al's class last year, and it was nominated for Best Canadian Short at VAFF this year! Get tickets as soon as you can!

World Premiere of All Our Father's Relations
As one of the Community Partners of the 20th Annual Vancouver Asian Film Festival, it is our pleasure to invite you to the world premiere of All Our Father's Relations, which is nominated for the Best Canadian Feature Award.

Date: Sunday, November 6, 2016
Time: 4:30pm
Location: Cineplex Odeon International Village Cinemas

General Admission: $8 (includes the VAFF membership)*
Tickets: (available now on a first come, first-served basis)
CCHSBC Members Group Ticket Special! Members wishing to purchase 6 or more tickets are eligible for a 10% discount. Please email to get the code.

Synopsis: All Our Father's Relations tells the story of the Grant siblings who journey from Vancouver to China in an attempt to rediscover their father's roots and better understand his fractured relationship with their Musqueam mother. The Grant family and their story reveals the shared struggles of migrants and Aboriginal peoples in the past and today.

Director: Alejandro Yoshizawa
Producers: Sarah Ling, Alejandro Yoshizawa, Jordan Paterson
Executive Producers: Howard E. Grant, Henry Yu

With deep gratitude to the Musqueam Nation whose unceded lands this film was made on, and the Grant family for sharing their story.

*If you already have a VAFF membership, then General Admission to 'All Our Father's Relations' is $6. 
An Evening of Storytelling
Join us for an evening of storytelling about the intertwining heritage of First Nations and Chinese communities in BC, inspired by the exciting documentary film All Our Father's Relations.

Meet and speak with key storytellers from the film - Larry Grant and Howard E. Grant, filmmakers - Sarah Ling and Alejandro Yoshizawa, CCHSBC Board Member Hayne Wai, and more.

Date: November 1, 2016
Time: 7pm
Location: Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

General Admission: Free

This programme is presented by the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden as part of the Heart of the City Festival, in partnership with the Vancouver Asian Film FestivalHapa-palooza Festival and CCHSBC. 
Canadian Shorts: Under Fire
Discover the secretive cooking methods and Chinatown's historical struggles with the iconic dish - roasted pig - against municipal, provincial, and federal legislation in this documentary short featuring rare soundbites from "Pender Guy", the 1970s grassroots radio program.

Under Fire: Inside a Chinese Roasted Meats Shop in Vancouver is the BCSA: VAFF Best Canadian Short Award 2016 Nominee.

Date: November 6, 2016
Time: 2pm
Location: Cineplex Odeon International Village Cinemas

General Admission: $8 (includes the VAFF membership)*

*If you already have a VAFF membership, then General Admission to 'Under Fire' is $6.
Copyright © 2016 Chinese Canadian Historical Society of BC, All rights reserved. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Is the B.C. Property Levy on 'Foreign Buyers' a New Head Tax?

Henry Yu is an associate professor, Department of History, University of British Columbia.
I was recently asked whether the 15-per-cent property tax imposed by the B.C. government on "foreign buyers" is a new "head tax." My questioner was referring to the Chinese head tax in effect between 1885 and 1923, which only Chinese immigrants were forced to pay, and for which the federal government in 2006 apologized as racist legislation.
There are similarities between the two, but also differences. First, Chinese nationals, and in particular those from Mainland China, were the obvious target of the new B.C. tax. Although there was no use of the word "Chinese" in the legislation, introduction of the 15-per-cent tax followed several years of news stories decrying the alleged effect of buyers from Mainland China on affordability in the Vancouver housing market.
The use of the term "foreign" was telling. B.C. Finance Minister Michael de Jongstated that "while investment from outside Canada is only one factor driving price increases," the tax would "manage foreign demand." For those who are railing against Chinese buyers from overseas, the word "foreign" pointed the finger without naming them. There had been no public outcry about wealthy British migrants or American actors buying vacation homes. Surely the law was not in response to them?
There is no doubt that overt anti-Chinese legislation is no longer permissible in Canada. People of Chinese descent are now able to become Canadian citizens, enjoying rights such as voting and being licensed as doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants – things they were denied before 1947. They were unwanted as immigrants, legally excluded from 1923 until 1947 and not until 1967 were racial preferences removed from immigration law and barriers against non-whites removed.
For the first century of Canada's history, those with Chinese ancestry – even if they were born in Canada – were considered permanently "foreign" and legally treated differently. Are there any echoes of the conflation between "Chinese" and "foreign" today?
Less than 30 years ago, after Expo 86, media stories decried Vancouver becoming "Hongcouver" because Chinese migrants from Hong Kong were supposedly driving up housing prices. Chinese were considered a problem and a threat, but the anti-Chinese fervour did not last. We might ask why. Was it because Hong Kong Chinese became Canadian citizens and proved they belonged through their hard work and giving back to Canadian society through their philanthropy? Was it because studies found that the effect of Hong Kong Chinese buyers was only a minor factor in rising housing prices? Considering the long history of anti-Chinese racism in British Columbia, what is surprising from a historical point of view is not that there was that Hongcouver moment, but that it abated so quickly.
The B.C. government apologized in 2014 for its role in historical anti-Chinese legislation. The province had split the $23-million (equivalent today to more than $1.5-billion) of proceeds from the Chinese head tax with the federal government. That money helped to pay for infrastructure – bridges, roads and public buildings – in a period before the creation of income tax. One of the proposed uses for revenue from the new 15-per-cent foreign-buyers tax is the building of affordable housing. There has been little complaint about funding an urgent need such as publicly subsidized affordable housing this way. Should there be?
The word "foreign" is an interesting word. It means different things to different people. In your mind's eye, whom do you see when you think of the term? What colour is their hair? What language are they speaking? Years ago, there was an advertising campaign from one of our major national breweries featuring a series of people stating "I am Canadian." The images, one after another, featured no visible minorities. Have we left behind the conflation of "foreign" with being non-white?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Great "China Clipper" Normie Kwong

Still mourning the loss of one of our greatest Canadians, the "China Clipper" Normie Kwong. I had the honour of meeting and knowing The Honourable Norman Kwong because he and his wife Mary Kwong are the parents of one of my best friends, but I had known his story long before I first met him because he was an inspiration to so many kids (and adults) in Canada.

One of the great memories of my life will always be sitting down with Normie and Mary for an afternoon interviewing them with my student Jennifer Yip, who then edited highlights from the interview into an online short called "Clipping Barriers" (embedded above).  We had so much visual material from his career as a CFL star, as businessman and part owner of the Calgary Flames, as GM of the Calgary Stampeders, and as Lieutenant Governor of Alberta because his wife Mary and Normie's sister had carefully collected and saved newspaper clippings throughout his long and important career. We were able to digitally scan the materials and my student Woan-Jen Wang was able to put them in archival order before helping arrange their donation to the Alberta provincial archives, where those interested in his life and impact on Canadian society can use them for research.

As those who knew him well and spoke at his state funeral on September 13 attested, he was a warm and funny man who could put someone at ease as much through teasing and joking as through his genuinely kind heart. Deepest condolences to the Kwong family, and to all Canadians, for the loss of this truly historic figure.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

History shows racism has always been a part of Vancouver real estate

History shows racism has always been a part of Vancouver real estate

From Vancouver's founding in the 1850s to the arrival of Hong Kong immigrants in the 1980s and debates around foreign money in 2016, race has never been far from the centre of the city's real-estate industry
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  • Chinese immigrants began settling in Vancouver in the 1850s but, after 1884, were barred from acquiring land directly from the Crown. By that time, merchants were well-established at locations along Carrall Street (pictured above in 1897) but the new laws put them at a distinct disadvantage to white land owners. James Matthews / Vancouver Archives
A message was recently scribbled across an overpass in Delta. “Stop the Asian invasion,” it reads.
Last summer, in Nanaimo, a real-estate advertisement that included Chinese writing was spray-painted over with a swastika and the words Go away.
These are visible manifestations of a racism that has grown out of British Columbians’ frustration with real-estate prices that have surpassed the affordability of many long-time residents.
And according to members of Vancouver’s various Chinese and Asian communities, there are other, more numerous but less-visible examples.
In a telephone interview, Thanh Lam said she has noticed animosity toward wealthy home buyers from Mainland China in her work as a mentor for the children of new immigrants to Vancouver.
“What I see is a lot of exclusion,” she said. “People assume that they are well off when they are not. Even if they are financially sustainable or if their families are financially okay, people don’t seem to have a lot of empathy for what they are going through.”
Lam described it as no less than a feeling of “discrimination”.
“It is really easy to place the blame on foreign buyers, and it is really easy to scapegoat the Chinese community,” she said. “But there are so many different types of Chinese people here and from many different migration paths.”
Will Tao is an immigration lawyer based in downtown Vancouver. On the phone from Shaoxing, China, where he happened to be visiting family, Tao delivered a list of anecdotes he’s heard from clients and friends. For example, he began, a young Chinese man he knows who drives a sports car repeatedly gets pulled over by police despite never exceeding the speed limit.
“I’ve had Chinese colleagues who are real-estate agents; they feel like they have to actively work hard to try and convince clients that they are not one of them [selling to foreign buyers],” Tao continued. “The first thing they have to say is, ‘I don’t deal in that; I don’t deal with Chinese clients. I am not that kind of practitioner’.
“I think that they have to justify that, as a Canadian citizen born here, is a sign that there is racial tension,” he said.

“The first moment where Chinese were unwanted”

In British Columbia, issues of land and race have intersected many times before.
Patricia Roy is a professor of history at the University of Victoria and the author of The Oriental Question: Consolidating a White Man's Province, 1914-41.  In a telephone interview, she explained that in the 1860s and 1870s, as white people settled what is today B.C., they began confining First Nations people to reserves.
The overwhelming majority of the remaining land belonged to the Crown, she told the Straight. Individuals could acquire land from the government by outright purchase, by leasing for such purposes as cattle ranching, or by "preemption", which allowed settlers to receive large tracts of land from the Crown for only nominal fees.
But by 1884, Roy continued, the arrival of thousands of Chinese workers building the Canadian Pacific Railway led to a growing anti-Chinese sentiment among the white ruling class. In turn, the provincial government enacted legislation denying Chinese people the right to buy, lease, or preempt Crown lands.
“White people could acquire land from the government at little or no cost,” Roy said. “Chinese people could not acquire land directly from the government…However, they could buy land from private owners.”
A two-tier system was set in law, and those rules remained in effect until after the Second World War.
“The Chinese were discriminated at every turn,” Roy concluded.
In the early 1900s, real estate was already a booming industry for Vancouver. According to a paper by UBC professor David Ley, in 1911 there was one real-estate agent for every 150 residents. “It was difficult to avoid the realtors,” reads a passage of that paper that might remind today’s homeowners of mailboxes stuffed with pamphlets inquiring if they’re ready to sell.
A white-dominated press was already making an issue of Chinese-immigrant spending on real estate. But in a twist of irony, the complaint was that they were not investing enough in housing, as a 1907 cartoon published in the Saturday Sunset depicts.

A cartoon published in a Vancouver newspaper in 1907 illustrated white residents’ unhappiness with how they perceived the living conditions of Chinese Canadians.
Simon Fraser University
Henry Yu, a UBC professor of history and expert in Chinese Canadian studies, places tensions in today’s real-estate industry in this context of earlier conversations around the same issues.
“From a historian’s point of view, this goes right back to the founding of Vancouver and to the founding of British Columbia,” he said. “Who could preempt Crown land? Who could take this free land? Only people from Europe. And so, right away, began this idea that only migrants coming from certain places are reaping the benefits of colonial land acquisition.
“That was one of the privileges of white supremacy,” Yu added. “That was the first moment where Chinese were unwanted.”

“No Asiatic, Negro or Indian”

From Vancouver’s founding in the late 1800s, legacies of racist land policies remained with the city, and debates tinged by xenophobia have been repeated.
In 2014, the National Post unearthed a collection of documents that illustrate how land titles were used to exclude minorities from specific properties and areas of the city.
“No Asiatic, Negro or Indian shall have the right or be allowed to own, become tenant of or occupy any part of [the property],” reads the title for a piece of residential land in South Vancouver.
A property title for a parcel of land in Victoria that’s dated 1952 similarly forbids transfer of the property to “anyone other than members of the Caucasian race”.
Such covenants are still included in property titles today, though an amendment to the B.C. Land Title Act renders them void. As they make clear, other visible minorities have been discriminated against alongside Chinese Canadians.
Kai Nagata recounted how his great-grandfather, Kumazo Nagata, travelled from Japan to B.C.’s Mayne Island in 1900. In September 1907, he was in Vancouver when anti-Asian racism that had been building throughout the Pacific Northwest boiled over into riots.
“My great-grandfather ran back to the Powell Street neighbourhood, where the Japanese community was centered,” Nagata, a writer and former journalist, told the Straight. “The mob arrives, the police are totally ineffective, and there is a street battle on Powell Street where the Japanese workers and the Caucasian mob got into it pretty good.”
The riot continued for three days and left many Chinese and Japanese properties badly damaged.

During the Second World War, Japanese Canadians saw the government confiscate and auction their property while they were held in internment camps. Vancouver resident Kai Nagata’s grandfather was held at Hastings Park (pictured above) before he was transferred to a long-term facility.
Public Archives of Canada
Four decades later, after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, Kumazo’s son and Kai’s grandfather, John Nagata, was removed from his family’s home on Mayne Island and confined at Hastings Park as part of the government's program of placing Japanese Canadians in internment camps.
Upon the Second World War’s conclusion, John and his family were allowed to leave the internment system, Nagata said. But by then, their property had long since been auctioned off.
“My analysis of the internment story is economic as well,” Nagata said. “It was an attack on anybody with Japanese heritage. And the response of the government was to seize the land.”
Much later, the Nagata’s received monetary compensation, but only a fraction of what their property was actually worth.
“My family has an interesting relationship on Mayne Island with the descendants of one of the families that obtained some of that land at auction,” Nagata said. “The Campbell Bay Music Festival takes place on a farm property that, at one time, was owned by my family. My grandfather is the guy who cleared that land.”
Today, Nagata said he sees his great-grandfather Kumazo’s third and fourth-generation Canadian descendants caught up in similar issues.
“My grandmother has been told to go back to China,” he said. “I think that we are treading over some very familiar ground if we choose to make this debate about how people look and what language they speak.”

A conversation Vancouver has had before

To understand how familiar today’s more heated rhetoric around Vancouver real estate feels to residents with long memories, one only has to watch a few minutes of a 1989 segment produced by BCTV, the network that became Global News.
The year before, the provincial government had sold the former site of Expo 86—a massive tract of land encircling the east end of False Creek—to Hong Kong developer Li Ka-shing for $340 million. Residential real-estate prices had skyrocketed more than 40 percent in recent years.
“The calm and serenity of Vancouver is nothing short of an illusion these days,” says a narrator near the beginning of the program.

Video of 1989 documentary on Asian investment in Vancouver
Concerns for foreign money in Vancouver real estate that aired in a 1989 segment produced by BCTV will sound familiar to people paying attention to today’s conversations about the same issue.
Global News
A man with a thick Scottish accent opens the segment. “I think something is going to have to be done about all the things that they are buying up,” he says. “Maybe some kind of law being passed, because they are buying everything, aren’t they?”
A narrator offers context.
“The problem is money and who owns it,” she says. “Every year, Hong Kong investors spend $2.5 billion in Canada, most of it on real estate.”
There are more concerns from locals. Then a voice for the government argues that its authority to regulate the sale of private property is limited.
“I think that Vancouver is seen as a very solid investment at the moment,” says a representative for the city. “Those are business decisions that are made irrespective of whatever we could do.”
A 1988 letter that a Shaughnessy resident sent to city council offers a sample of the public’s reaction to that wave of immigration and investment from Hong Kong.
“We—fairly reasonable people—fear the power that the Hong Kong money wields,” it reads. “We resent the fact that because they come here with pots of money they are able to mutilate the areas they choose to settle in.
“These people come—with no concern for our past—they have not been a part of the growth and development of our beautiful city—they have not been paying taxes for years,” it continues. “They have no right to devastate the residential areas.”
A 1992 letter from another resident of the same neighbourhood complains of properties used as vehicles for investment. “Now many of the people who own homes in the area don’t live here,” it reads. “The homes are empty. These homes are investments, perhaps one of many.”
In a telephone interview, Michael Goldberg, a professor emeritus at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, recalled that the interest in foreign ownership that ballooned those years prompted him to study who, exactly, was buying Vancouver real estate in the 1980s.
Newcomers to Canada from Hong Kong were active in the market, he found. But so were buyers from the United States, Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands. Interprovincial migration was also a “dominating” factor, he said. But, Goldberg added, all anybody wanted to talk about was money from Asia.
He said he sees the same thing happening today when, last May, for example, it was reported that China’s Anbang Insurance Group was purchasing the Bentall Centre, a four-building complex in Vancouver’s business district. Goldberg noted that the property is surrounded by similar towers owned by German firms.
“And yet what attracted attention was when a Chinese insurance company picked up parts of Bentall Centre,” he said. “That area is owned either by Canadian pension funds or by German interests. But that’s not very deserving of a headline.”

 A question of identity

Debates around the role of Chinese money in Vancouver real estate have shifted over the course of the past two years. They were once dominated by the phrase “foreign buyer”, with anecdotes about empty homes in Point Grey that served as little more than safety deposit boxes. But in March 2016, the City of Vancouver released a study that analyzed B.C. Hydro data that showed single-family and duplex homes have a vacancy rate of just one percent.
From there, debates shifted to revolve around the issue of foreign money and questions of how local residents could compete with newcomers who brought vast sums of wealth from businesses abroad.
On July 7, the provincial government released preliminary data on Metro Vancouver home sales that alluded to how difficult it could be to separate foreign money from local buyers. The province’s analysis found that for a three-week period in June, foreign buyers accounted for just 5.1 percent of homes sold across Metro Vancouver. If foreign money is playing a large role in Vancouver real estate, the study suggests, it is finding its way into the market through buyers that the government counts as domestic.
Yuen Pau Woo is a former CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and a senior fellow at both UBC and SFU. He told the Straight how he has watched the debate shift as described above, which makes him wonder if the next turn in the conversation will move to immigration.
“If it goes in that direction, we’ve got to ask ourselves, are we a country that is open to immigration or not?” Woo said. “Do we welcome newcomers or not? Do we embrace openness or not?”

Monday, July 11, 2016

Vancouver advocates aim to save Cantonese as language loses ground to Mandarin

Vancouver advocates aim to save Cantonese as language loses ground to Mandarin

More than 389,000 people in Canada speak Cantonese according to a 2012 Statistics Canada report but some in Vancouver worry the language is fading

Canadian-born Claudia Kelly Li and her seven-year old niece, Alanis Wong, both speak Cantonese but Li says elders should not shame the younger generation into learning Cantonese because it doesn’t work.
Jennifer Gauthier / Metro 

Canadian-born Claudia Kelly Li and her seven-year old niece, Alanis Wong, both speak Cantonese but Li says elders should not shame the younger generation into learning Cantonese because it doesn’t work. 
Cantonese has been the most prevalent language spoken by the Chinese-immigrant community in Vancouver for decades but now advocates say the language is under threat.
More than 389,000 people in Canada speak Cantonese according to a 2012 Statistics Canada report but changes in immigration trends and pressure from the Chinese government to establish Mandarin, the national language, as the dominant tongue in Hong Kong is having a dire effect on the southern-Chinese language.
But there is hope among some academics and long-time Vancouver residents that the city can remain an outpost for the Cantonese language and culture.
“Language tends to be frozen by migration. If you leave some place, you tend to speak the language as it was spoken at the moment you left,” said Henry Yu, a UBC professor whose research focuses on Chinese-Canadian studies.
“That’s why there’s hope that in a place like this, if we have a Cantonese program, it can last a long time.”
UBC became the only university in Canada to offer a Cantonese program in 2015, thanks to a $2 million donation from the Watt brothers, who are long-time Vancouver residents and UBC donors.
At first in Vancouver, when they opened a Chinese school, they were taught in Cantonese, but now almost all have changed to Mandarin,” said Chi Shum Watt, who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in the '70s.
“I want to keep [Cantonese] alive, if possible.”
Watt, a retired accountant who lived in Vancouver’s westside for most of his life and now lives in the endowment lands, saw the change in migration and language firsthand.
More than 400,000 immigrants from mainland China, who mostly speak Mandarin, entered Canada between 1997 (the year of the handover of Hong Kong to China) and 2009, compared to only 50,000 immigrants from Hong Kong, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. This marks a significant change in migration patterns because in the 13 years before the handover, Hong-Kong immigrants outnumbered mainland China immigrants three to one.
This dramatic migration switch, coupled with the growing influence of China’s economy, where business is conducted in Mandarin, makes the preservation of Cantonese a lofty goal.
The heyday of Cantonese and Hong Kong’s influence in the world is over, said Yu.
“Hong Kong was the bastion in the 80s and 90s for Cantonese.”
The Chinese government has been successful in making Mandarin the dominant language in Hong Kong, he said.
“Within China it’s actually over the tipping point. Mandarin is the dominant language. It’s the language of power, it’s the language of education – it’s the language of civilization now.”
But Vancouver represents a unique opportunity for Cantonese immigrants and their children, who now live far away from the realities of Chinese politics. It’s possible Vancouver can become a last “outpost” for Cantonese, said Yu.
“Because of the large number of people who came in the 70s and 90s, who came from Hong Kong, are shaped by that moment in Hong Kong’s history where a sense of being of Hong Kong identity – of Cantonese at the heart of it – was so strong.”
At the direction of the Chinese government, schools in Hong Kong are starting to teach in Mandarin, which means that even new immigrants from Hong Kong often choose to speak Mandarin when they arrive in Vancouver. One of the only remaining sources of new Cantonese speakers is the offspring of Hong Kong immigrants and their children.
But some of those offspring are turned off by the pressures put onto them by their elders.
Claudia Kelly Li (shown here sitting with niece Alanis Wong) says language is an important way through which youth can connect with their heritage.
Jennifer Gauthier
Claudia Kelly Li (shown here sitting with niece Alanis Wong) says language is an important way through which youth can connect with their heritage.
“We can’t shame our young people about not being able to speak a certain language,” said 30-year old Claudia Li, who co-founded the Hua Foundation, an organization that aims to help Chinese-Canadian youth connect with their heritage.
“Yes it’s important to preserve Cantonese language and it’s important to understand how we can best do that with the interest that people have today.”
Li was born in Canada to parents who immigrated to Vancouver from Hong Kong in the 80s. Helping youth connect with their heritage with language, food, and traditions is her life’s work, she said.
But persuading Canadian youth to learn Cantonese when Mandarin is undoubtedly the more useful of the two languages is a battle few parents win, said Yu.
Li, who credits her Cantonese proficiency to her relatives who only speak Cantonese, agrees.
“If you grow up as a 2nd generation or 3rd generation Chinese-Canadian … a lot of my friends have chosen to learn Mandarin,” she said.
But there is hope because some youth continue to learn Cantonese, including both people whose parents or grandparents speak it and Mandarin-speakers who want to add Cantonese to their repertoire.
Students in UBC’s Cantonese program come from a wide variety of backgrounds, instructor Raymond Pai told Metro in June.
Watt, who made the program possible with his and his brother’s donation, acknowledged that UBC can only play a small role in the efforts to preserve Cantonese.
“It can never replace Hong Kong. If Hong Kong people start to speak Mandarin, then I think Cantonese will be gone in 20 years or so,” he said.
But if Cantonese can be preserved, it will happen in Vancouver, said Yu.
“I’m hopeful that [the program] gives us momentum and as people realize and think about what we’re talking about right now, that other people will step forward and say yes – this is worthwhile.”

Monday, May 16, 2016

"This Used to be Chinatown..."

The rezoning proposal for a high density condo development at 105 Keefer in the heart of Chinatown is coming up again for a third time. I wrote an Opinion piece for the Vancouver Sun on why we should say no.

105 Keefer elevations for rezoning application
Image from:

“This used to be Chinatown…”
We should say “no” to rezoning at 105 Keefer for a 3rd time
by Henry Yu
Vancouver Sun, Friday, May 13, 2016

I travel to cities around the world that have Chinatowns—San Francisco, Honolulu, Brisbane, Yokohama, even Amsterdam. I visit because of my research as a historian, but I also have a personal interest. When I was small, my grandfather used to walk me to Chinatown from our house near Commercial Drive. My 4-year old legs would get tired and so he would always carry me the last few blocks. I loved the way the elderly men and women in the caf├ęs would greet us, giving me candy and teasing my grandfather about how lucky he was to have a grandchild. We called them the “lo wah kiu”—the oldtimers. My grandfather was one of them. He came to Vancouver as a teen in 1923, just before Chinese were excluded by Canada. He paid the Head Tax and spent his life working in B.C., retiring as a cook on an Alaskan cruise ship. Many of these elders, after long years of toil, gathered in Chinatown to eat and talk and joke with each other as they lived out their days.

I remember the sights and sounds of the streets—of fresh produce stacked on the sidewalks, of Cantonese shopkeepers yelling and laughing, of Mah Jong tiles clacking and rumbling like pebbles spilling on the floor. And the smell! Mouth watering scents of BBQ pork mixed with nose wrinkling odours unfathomable for a child. Chinese Canadians and non-Chinese alike enjoyed what scholars and heritage advocates call the “intangible character” of special places—the things that go on there, in contrast to the “tangible” elements such as the buildings themselves. Both are important for a heritage area, but these “intangible” elements are what helps us “feel” transported to another time and place.

When I visit other cities, I sometimes hear the phrase, “This used to be Chinatown…” What do they mean? The old heritage buildings remain standing, but something crucial has been lost. What is missing is what happens within the buildings and on the sidewalks—the “software” rather than the “hardware.” Vancouver’s Chinatown still has an interesting mix of older Chinese businesses and new non-Chinese. As John Mackie noted in a Sun story on March 24, 2016, this mix right now is almost ideal. But the balance will not last. Like two people on escalators watching each other pass, the older Chinese businesses will slowly disappear from view, eclipsed by luxury condos and trendy hipster bars.

Unless we help manage the mix of what goes on in Chinatown, we will soon be saying “This used to be Chinatown…”

This character of Chinatown—what goes on there, who lives there—it would seem obvious that this defines the place. But strangely enough the City of Vancouver right now defines Chinatown’s heritage only through architectural details. This is the legacy of 1970s era heritage policy, when things like the design of a window frame or the type of mezzanine defined heritage value. The rest of the world has moved on: UNESCO, the Federal government, and the Province of B.C. for instance, have all adopted “intangible character” as important in their heritage policy.

What this means is that when a proposal for rezoning in Chinatown such as the one for 105 Keefer comes up, city policy focuses on whether the windows and the mezzanine look like those in neighbouring buildings. Is that really all Chinatown is?

In 2011, the Federal government designated Chinatown as a National Historic site. Recently in 2016, the Province of B.C. recognized the heritage value of Vancouver’s Chinatown along with 20 other places around the province of historical significance for Chinese Canadians. HeritageBC also conducted a study that asked the public to tell what they valued about Chinatown. Unsurprisingly, answers such as the sights and sounds and smells of Chinese food and Chinese being spoken by Chinese elders dominated the list. They also saw those values throughout the blocks that the City of Vancouver defines as the Chinatown Historic Area (HA-1A—an area that encompasses Pender, Keefer, and Georgia between Gore and Carrall).

Chinatown’s character is defined by more than just the design of its buildings. So what should we do?

1) Manage the business mix

Is it anti-capitalist and an affront to private property rights to manage the business mix of a place? Of course not—we do it all the time, in mall food courts and places such as Granville Island. Optimizing business activities creates a special character for a place and makes more money for everyone. Making sure we don’t lose BBQ meat shops and fresh produce stores and restaurants like Phnom Penh and Newtown Bakery is crucial for keeping Chinatown a place worth going to.

But so is keeping enough Chinese seniors there who will continue to buy fresh produce and meat from those stores, and who show that this is a Chinatown that is still living and breathing and speaking Chinese.

2) Make affordable housing for more Chinese Canadian seniors in the area

A 2011 UBC study showed that there was the need for over 3000 affordable housing spaces for Chinese Canadian seniors over the next decade. We have many Chinese Canadian elders who require culturally sensitive care—nurses that speak Chinese, food that they are used to eating. The Simon K.Y. Lee SUCCESS Seniors Home in Chinatown has a multi-year waiting list. It would be cost-efficient and make sense to concentrate and coordinate the elder care services needed by Chinese Canadian seniors in one place. What better place than Chinatown to meet that need and at the same time honour the contributions that Chinese Canadians made to Vancouver and British Columbia? Elders also bring grandchildren and children to visit and so clustering seniors in Chinatown also brings in families.

But who should manage this mix? That involves a little bit of coordination. All three levels of government have recognized Vancouver Chinatown as an important historical site, now they should work together to enrich its heritage value.

3) Designate Chinatown as Vancouver’s second Heritage Conservation Area

Late last year, City Council voted to create Shaughnessy as Vancouver’s first Heritage Conservation Area. Whatever you think about taxpayers investing in the heritage value of Shaughnessy, it actually makes more sense for Chinatown to have a specific set of policy tools as a Heritage Conservation Area. It is one of the top tourist sites in B.C., and it serves as a powerful symbol of the important place of Chinese Canadians in our shared history.

But Chinatown is not Shaughnessy. It needs different policy tools. What goes on in Chinatown and who lives there—that’s what makes it distinct. We need the right policy tools and partnerships to renovate and manage many of the heritage properties in Chinatown, as well as manage the mix of businesses, services, and cultural programs.

If we do these three things, we can pay respects to those like my grandfather who paved the way for us and contributed so much to our common history. We need to again say “no” to the proposal for luxury condos at 105 Keefer. At the same time, we can create a special place that--like Granville Island--is a valuable asset of which we are all proud, and worth visiting for Vancouverites and tourists alike.

Dr. Henry Yu is a professor of history at UBC and currently the Co-Chair of the Legacy Initiatives Advisory Council advising the Provincial government on how to recognize the historical importance of Chinese Canadians in British Columbia.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani

Henry Yu on A Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani, Roundhouse Radio

Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani


Click links below or listen to all episodes on-demand at (scroll the right hand side menu):

Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani – Henry Yu (November 18 2015)
Professor Henry Yu joins us to talk about revitalization in Chinatown, what heritage means to Vancouverites and what development means for the neighbourhood – yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Sense of Place – Professor Henry Yu
UBC Professor Henry Yu is an expert on Asian / Canadian history. He brings us the story of the fight over 105 Keefer in Chinatown, and the future of it as a heritage area. Henry Yu is Minelle’s guest on Sense of Place this morning.

Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani – Henry Yu (Dec 2, 2015)
Guest host Carol Thorbes speaks with UBC historian Henry Yu about historic First Nations and Chinese settlements up the Fraser River.

Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani – Henry Yu (Dec 17, 2015)
Guest host Jen Moss speaks with UBC History Professor Henry Yu about the fight to re-zone 105 Keefer Street in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani – Henry Yu (Dec 23, 2015)
Guest host Carol Thorbes speaks with Henry Yu, a UBC historian, on the narrative of white supremacy and foreign investment in Vancouver. Read Henry’s Mainlander piece
here or here
Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani – Henry Yu (Jan 6, 2016)
Minelle speaks to UBC History Professor Henry Yu about what he thinks should be built at 105 Keefer Street, an empty lot in Chinatown that is the proposed site of a controversial condo development.

Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani – Henry Yu (Jan 13, 2016)
Minelle speaks with historian Henry Yu about the similarities and differences between Vancouver’s & Honolulu’s Chinatowns.

Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani – Henry Yu (Jan 20, 2016)
Guest host Jen Moss speaks with UBC History Professor Henry Yu about the evolution of Chinese food in North America and closer to home – in Vancouver.

Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani – Henry Yu (Jan 27, 2016)
Guest host Carol Thorbes speaks with UBC history professor Henry Yu about midwife Nellie Yip, and Dr. Madeline Chung, who delivered over 6,500 babies in Vancouver during her career (including Dr. Yu himself...).

Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani – Henry Yu (Feb 3, 2016)
Guest host Jen Moss speaks with Henry Yu, history professor at UBC about ‘Vancouver specials’ and what was great about living in one

Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani – Henry Yu (Feb 10, 2016)
Guest host Jen Moss speaks with Henry Yu, UBC professor of history about the intricacies of the Lunar New Year.

Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani - Henry Yu (Feb 24, 2016)
Professor Henry Yu speaks with Minelle about race and the media.

A Sense of Place

My passion and work is in cultural and feminist geography, and understanding how race works in the city.  Vancouver is rich with fascinating people and stories. Sense of Place is for Vancouverites who are ready to dive deep into a world of greater understanding.  Oh, and I also just happen to love pop culture, particularly TV dramas.
I understand the value and importance of place and belonging.  It’s what citizens long for. Unfortunately, isolation and marginalization continue to exist in Vancouver. Why? We'll find out. The reality is, locations hold meaning.  And histories.  By connecting with our communities, we connect with each other.
I intend to look beyond the obvious, to question even the seemingly good work. We'll be edgy, provocative & pithy.  How do we chart out creative serendipity in our city? With that framing, I’ll take you through conversations with ‘unlikely allies’, ‘tempered radicals’ and those facing major personal ‘turning points’.

About Minelle

Minelle is an author, journalist and Associate Professor of Human Geography and Planning, and the Program in Journalism at University of Toronto-Scarborough. She has written two books: Mixed Race Amnesia: Resisting the Romanticization of Multiraciality and Global Mixed Race. She has worked in the not-for-profit sector in Vancouver for the former firm IMPACS – Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society - and sits on the steering committee of UBC’s journalism school. She is former President of the Association for Canadian Studies and has won several awards, including a Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Award for her contributions to journalism. She is a former CBC TV journalist who worked on The National. Minelle took a sabbatical from University of Toronto to take on this exciting role at Roundhouse Radio. She's enthusiastic about what Roundhouse represents - inspiring active community citizenry. Roundhouse’s commitment to solutions-oriented programming echoes Minelle’s own professional passions – to encourage a heightened sense of human flourishing for all Vancouver residents. "Roundhouse hopes to be a conduit for so many underrepresented groups in this city. As a person of colour, of mixed race descent, I’m obviously supportive of that project. I’m personally committed to entertaining audiences, but also educating and inspiring listeners to shed light on the complexities of city life today."