provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

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.