provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Speaking Against 105 Keefer

I was so proud to see so many young people, both Chinese Canadian and non-Chinese, so passionate about saving Chinatown savechinatownyvr that they came out to speak last week at the Public Hearing on the rezoning proposal for 105 Keefer. Their commitment and the intelligent and cogent points they made really give us all hope that the future of Chinatown, and of the city of Vancouver, is in the hands of thoughtful, engaged, and resilient young citizens who care about the society in which they live.

Follow their moment by moment commentary on Twitter:

There were two great opinion pieces written by Daphne Bramham in the Vancouver Sun about Chinatown:

From the last list that I saw, over 250 speakers had signed up, the overwhelming number of them opposed to the rezoning proposal. The outpouring of impassioned engagement, however, is itself a sign of a healthy democracy and I hope that whatever decision City Council makes, that all of those who have organized themselves, taken care of each other with food and support both virtually and in person, will continue to struggle for what they believe is right. Ganbatte!

My original text of remarks that I read as Speaker #116 on Friday, May 26:

My name is Henry Yu. I am a historian at UBC. I research Chinese Canadian and Asian Canadian history, with a particular interest in the role of heritage and historical memory in community building.
I have served for the past two years as the Co-Chair of the Province of British Columbia’s bi-partisan Legacy Initiatives Advisory Council following the 2014 provincial apology for historical anti-Chinese discrimination, a process that led to the designation of Chinatown as a Provincial Heritage Site of Significance in 2016, so that all three levels of government now recognize the importance of Vancouver’s Chinatown. I also serve on the advisory group for the examination of Historical Discrimination Against Chinese Peoples for the City of Vancouver, a process which is having Open House forums right now.
Chinatown is a subject of my research expertise, but also a place dear to my heart as a community volunteer and as a Vancouverite. Like most Vancouverites, I have never lived in Chinatown, but my grandfather and parents did, and I have visited it often with family and friends. It’s a place I know well as a scholar, but also a place with great personal meaning, full of my own memories and a part of who I am. It remains an enduring touchstone for who we were, who we are, and who we will be in Vancouver.  
I was born at VGH in 1967, the 100th anniversary of Canada, the same year that racial preference for white immigrants was finally removed from Federal immigration policy. Before I was born, anti-Chinese racism was the norm—for fully 2/3 of Canadian history, anti-Chinese laws and policies had the power of all three levels of government enforcing them—Chinese could not vote, could not receive city contracts, could not work for the city until the 1950s.
Chinatown was a product of that history, and it reminds us as no other place can of who we were. If we forget that history, if we erase it in our admirable aspirations to become a better society, we are in fact doing the opposite—we cannot know how far we have come, unless we know from where we began.
I turned 50 this year. My life has spanned the last third of Canadian history. I have lived and seen how those people who struggled against inequality and discrimination--many of them Chinese Canadian--have made society better for all of us by forcing Canada to live up to its ideals. Those few who struggled for justice, like Foon Sien Wong, like Nellie Yip, recently honoured with Federal plaques of recognition, like Roy Mah and other Chinese Canadian vets who fought for Canada even as they were treated as second-class citizens. They knew that a society is not just, if there was not justice for all, but only for some.
One of the letters supporting the rezoning of 105 Keefer called those who opposed it a “vocal minority.” Others have dismissed the youthful energy of opponents as somehow naïve or unreasonable. (pause) Perhaps those who ask for justice, to plead with others to do the right thing, will always sound too “vocal” and “unreasonable," but I would rather stand with those who speak a truth that will last the ages, those who will be remembered for being on the right side of history.
We should not forget how struggle has shaped us, how 50 years ago Chinatown fought yet another battle crucial to shaping who we have become. Perhaps there are many in this room now, including the Council, who are too young to understand the importance of the Freeway fight and how it would shape the whole city of Vancouver.
Chinatown helped stop the freeway, and Vancouver was the better for it. What lessons should we learn? 
1.     That we in Vancouver owe Chinatown, especially now that the Georgia Viaduct--the last vestige of the freeway--is going to come down. 
2.     That this is about the future, not the past. We don’t want to freeze Chinatown, we want it to become a dynamic community for the whole city and fulfill its role as a vital part of this city’s heritage and future.
3.     Sometimes, doing nothing is best.
Such a simple lesson, I know, but profound in how Vancouver is still being shaped by something that DIDN’T happen 50 years ago.
The developer is asking Vancouver to give it something it wants but does not have. That’s what rezoning is, to get something that wasn’t allowed in the original rules. That’s why we are here. That’s why the community has a say in a public hearing like this. CHAPC, your representative of Chinatown, has said no. Chinatown has come together and said no four times to this rezoning, there is a good reason for it.
Do nothing. Take the safe option. Say no. Don’t make something that you cannot unmake.
With the freeway, all the things that we have become—a dense residential downtown, a livable city with mild car traffic, an amazing place to live and work—would not have happened if the freeway had been built.
You are in a lose-lose situation right now. Whichever decision you make, someone will be unhappy. But if you choose to say no, and then work with all of this energy of young and old who have come together, just as they did half a century ago to fight the freeway, you can transform the city, starting with this little corner at the center of Chinatown. Draw on the enormous expertise and knowledge around the world about how to develop heritage conservation areas. Work with these passionate young men and women who have been drawn together by this struggle. Work with the developer to make them whole and happy somewhere else.
Make a lose-lose into a win-win. Do nothing on this proposal, and yet do something profound with this political energy and will that has been created both for and against it. Work with everyone who has come out against 105 Keefer to make a better plan for this key piece of property. This public hearing is almost unprecedented in the depth of public involvement. I would love to know the numbers in terms of livestream viewing for this public hearing, and wonder if it might eventually be among the highest for anything this City Council does, period! 
Work with all the stakeholders to come up with a comprehensive, widely consulted approach that draws on the Chinatown Vision that you approved in 2012. Build on what will become a reorientation of Chinatown towards False Creek now that the Georgia Viaduct will come down and False Creek Flats will be developed.  
Say no. Take the easy way out. Do no harm. And leave your mark on history just as the freeway fight left its mark on Vancouver’s history.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Public Hearing on 105 Keefer on May 23

The public hearing to consider the re-zoning of 105 Keefer in Chinatown will begin on May 23. This is the letter I sent opposing the proposal.

Dear City of Vancouver staff and City Council

This letter formally expresses my opposition to the 105 Keefer Street rezoning proposal. Currently, my research and teaching at UBC focuses upon Chinatown's heritage and history, as well as it's future development as a signature community and destination site for all of Vancouver. Chinatown was a large part of my childhood. But I am not alone in seeing Chinatown as a crucial asset for all Vancouverites, whether they grew up there or not. Even though Chinese Canadians now live in every neighbourhood of the city, and other clusters of businesses and restaurants provide services that historically were located in Chinatown, there is no other place in Vancouver that can become the centre of gravity and place for meaning-making and heritage that Chinatown represents. The history of Chinatown as a neighbourhood dating back to before the founding of Vancouver makes it a unique site that once lost, cannot be recovered. 

Chinatown is a special part of Vancouver, and it needs to be a dynamic and vital community which retains its special characteristics even as it changes. Vancouver cannot afford to allow 105 Keefer to be rezoned for such an underwhelming proposal. Although this building would not face opposition if it were located 5 blocks southward, it is the fault of the developer that they chose the wrong location. The city cannot change its zoning and its commitments made in the Council-approved Chinatown Vision of 2012 in order to rescue a developer from its bad decisions. The fact that three rezoning proposals have already failed indicate that the mistake is on the part of the developer. The adage in real estate of the top three factors for all development decisions being "1. Location. 2. Location. 3. Location" is clearly belied by the poor decision-making of the developer in choosing this location to plan a condominium development that requires rezoning. Why should city taxpayers and the local neighbourhood pay for their mistake? Why should we rescue them from their lack of awareness of simple neighbourhood plans and desires, which took over a decade to create through the consensus-building process into which community members and City Planners put so much effort?

Approving this project will set a precedent for future projects that creates an unsustainable path and corrosive effect that in essence debilitates the strategic goals set out and approved by Council in the Chinatown Vision. As a minimum consideration, I urge you to not approve the rezoning application for the following narrow yet important criteria under existing rezoning criteria:

- The Keefer Triangle is a culturally significant site for both the community and all of Vancouver that should not be used for residential condos. 

- The height of the proposed building is significantly and disproportionately greater than the buildings next to it, in particular the protected heritage buildings that abut it on Pender

- It is more massive and dense than all the buildings next to it, with an FSR that is multiples higher than any other part of the city, let alone Chinatown

- There is insufficient seniors housing as a Community Amenity Contribution when the opportunity cost of the development is considered. 

The rezoning proposal was rejected by the City of Vancouver Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee, from which the City of Vancouver should take direction. There is a reason that the rezoning proposal has been rejected already three times by community groups, by CHAPC, and by a broad spectrum of those who care about Chinatown from all across Vancouver. It is not the right use of a crucial anchor space in Chinatown, and once it has been improperly used, the devastating effects on the whole neighbourhood will be irreversible. The opportunity cost of a failed and inappropriate use of this important location will have consequences far beyond the existing space, since the proposed building adds nothing to Chinatown and in fact creates a huge deficit by squandering a crucial site that could leverage surrounding heritage and public use sites. 

It would be politically untenable and undemocratic to have a representative committee such as CHAPC be ignored in such a high profile decision that goes to the heart of why CHAPC exists in the first place. It would be an insult to the community volunteers who in good faith work on that committee, and lead to a corrosion in faith in city government. The consequences for every city project moving forward in Chinatown but also city wide would be irreparable. This is the line in the sand that has been drawn, and the political cost to City Councillors will be high if it is approved, but perhaps more devastating will be the widespread belief among so many young Vancouverites who have come out in opposition to the 105 Keefer development that their voices are not being heard and that their passionate devotion to the future of Chinatown is being dashed. The fallout from such a blow is hard to calculate, but I would predict that it will have severe consequences that go far beyond 105 Keefer. This rezoning proposal has been a tipping point for the last three years, and how it is solved will reflect upon City Government for decades to come. 

I urge City Council to create a process by which we can have a win-win for all, rather than the lose-lose which an approval of the rezoning will create. Even the developer will lose if this rezoning is approved. Whether they realize it or not, the building they propose will never be accepted even after it is built, and their brand and the building itself will become a symbol for generations to come of their folly and the weakness of the City Council in the face of the hard decisions that they are elected to make. 

Although there are many possible uses that do not squander the location's importance and possibilities, we should have a considered and consultative process with the proper planning tools (cultural and social planning, as well as developer incentives), so that the site can be considered in the context of a broader plan for the Keefer Triangle/Square and south Chinatown entry.  

We need to wait for a proper plan for Keefer Triangle/Square and the south entrance to Chinatown. This is vital because of the development that will follow the Georgia Street Viaducts being removed and the False Creek Flats being rezoned. If we do not actually create a plan that uses the rezoning of this crucial site with some strategic purpose, then why are we allowing a rezoning?  

At the memorial for Joe Wai in early February, the parallels between this moment and the freeway fight were clear. Not only were veterans of that struggle clear in how they saw the connection, most of the 100s of attendees were girding themselves for a similar struggle and inspired by the death of Joe Wai to not squander his life's work by allowing a rezoning that he literally spent his final days opposing. 

As with the Chinatown Freeway and Strathcona struggle four decades ago, this is a generational fight that will define the history of the city itself. Do you want to be on the wrong side of history? 

Dr. Henry Yu

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Under Fire: Community Screening & Discussion

An event coming up on Saturday, May 27, that I'll be attending that will be well worth it (and mouthwatering as well!) The film is a wonderful look at how BBQ meat and Chinatown activism have been entwined, and was made by ACAM student Christy Fong (who is currently leading a group of UBC and CUHK students through Kaiping (Hoiping) in China, and long-time researcher and project manager for many of our UBC Chinese Canadian history projects, Denise Fong.
See you there!

Under Fire: Community Screening & Discussion 

Join us for the screening of Under Fire: Inside a Chinese Roasted Meats Shop in Vancouver produced by Christy Fong and Denise Fong, followed by a panel discussion on historical and contemporary activism in Chinatown. Produced in 2016 for UBC FIPR 469a, Under Fire has screened at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival and was a nominee for the VAFF Best Canadian Short Award 2016.

Date: May 27 2017
Time: 1 - 3 pm
Location: Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Gardens (Carrall Street entrance)

This documentary short brings you into the kitchen of an East Vancouver grocery with an unexpected menu item: roasted pig. Discover the secretive cooking methods and Chinatown’s historical struggles with this iconic dish against municipal, provincial, and federal legislation. Featuring rare soundbites from “Pender Guy,” the 1970s grassroots radio program.

Panel moderator: Joanna Yang
Panelists: Christy Fong, Denise Fong, Fred Mah, June Chow

Admission is free with registration, - RSVP here.

Monday, May 15, 2017

City of Vancouver Community Forums on Historical Discrimination Against Chinese in Vancouver

You are invited to attend a community forum:
Historical Discrimination Against Chinese People in Vancouver
This initiative is in response to a Council motion directing staff to: 
• research on past civic laws, regulations and policies that discriminated against Chinese residents in Vancouver;
• consult with the Chinese community, and;
• recommend steps and actions in support of reconciliation, including a public acknowledgement and formal apology.
As space is limited, registration is required to attend the forum. Please select one of the following:
Wednesday, May 17, 6 - 8 pm 
Vancouver Public Library, Central Branch, 350 West Georgia Street, Alma VanDusen and Peter Kaye Room
Wednesday, May 246 - 8 pm 
Vancouver City Hall, 453 West 12th Avenue, Ground Floor, Town Hall
Saturday, May 27, 10 am – 12 noon 
SUCCESS Choi Hall, 28 West Pender Street, (conducted mainly in Chinese)
These forums will provide opportunities to inform interested public on the preliminary research findings and to gather feedback on potential steps and actions which can prevent discrimination against any
individual or groups in the future.
For more information: Phone 3-1-1 or email:

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The 70th Anniversary of the Repeal of Chinese Exclusion

Lillian Eva Dyck, Victor Oh and Yuen Pau Woo: Canada’s sordid history of treating Chinese-Canadians as ‘undesirables’

As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation, another anniversary must not go overlooked. May 14, 2017 marks 70 years since the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act, the only law in Canadian history to bar a specific ethnic group from coming to Canada.
Today, roughly 1.5 million people of Chinese descent live in Canada. Although most arrived over the past two decades, the first significant wave began in the 19th century. Chinese migrants came to Canada during the 1850s for the gold rush in British Columbia’s lower Fraser Valley. Chinese prospectors earned little money because they were prohibited from working in mines until others had moved on from them.
Another wave of Chinese migrants came between 1881 and 1885 to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. They were exposed to harsh weather conditions and were tasked with the most dangerous and backbreaking jobs of building bridges over valleys and digging tunnels through mountains. These conditions led to 600 deaths, among the more than 15,000 Chinese labourers.
The Chinese head tax created poverty and fractured families.
After the railroad was completed in 1885, many Chinese labourers remained in the country. Some headed for the prairies and eastern Canada, but most stayed in B.C.
Once Chinese labour was no longer needed, the government passed laws to limit and then prohibit Chinese immigration. In 1885, Sir John A. Macdonald’s government enacted the Chinese Immigration Act, which imposed a $50 head tax (more than $1,000 in today’s dollars) on all Chinese immigrants.
The head tax created poverty and fractured families. The majority of Chinese immigrants were men who came to the country to find work. The costly head tax forced them to leave their wives and children behind. Families that paid the fee would spend years paying off the outstanding debt.

On July 1, 1923, the federal government implemented the Chinese Immigration Act, banning Chinese immigration altogether. Other policies further restricted their ability to vote, hold public office, or practice law or medicine. Municipalities enacted additional policies. For instance, Vancouver barred Chinese from swimming in public pools.
Since the Chinese Immigration Act took effect the same day as the anniversary of Confederation, this day became known as “Humiliation Day” among Chinese-Canadians. In protest, some Chinese-Canadians closed their businesses and boycotted Dominion Day (the precursor to Canada Day) celebrations every July 1 until it was repealed. This community felt compelled to reject the nation’s birthday.
It was not until 1947 that the federal government repealed the Chinese Immigration Act, in large part due to the lobbying efforts of activists from across Canada, including lawyer Kew Doc Yip. There was also broader public support for the repeal, as a result of Chinese-Canadians’ significant contribution to the Second World War effort. However, restrictions on Chinese immigration and other discriminatory laws remained in place.
King said Canada had the right to determine who it considers ‘desirable future citizens.’
In the House of Commons that year, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King said Canada had the right to determine who it considers “desirable future citizens.” “Large-scale migration from the Orient would change the fundamental composition of the Canadian population,” he said.
It took another 20 years for this attitude to change. In 1967, Canada introduced a points-based policy that gave Chinese equal opportunity to immigrate to Canada. It allowed immigrants to apply based on education and skills. By the 1980s, Chinese immigration was on the rise, enhancing the status of Chinese communities across the country.
Finally, on June 22, 2006, the Canadian government, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, issued a formal apology for the Chinese Immigration Act. It was an important step towards reconciliation. It reaffirmed to Chinese-Canadians that they are full and equal members of Canadian society and that their contributions were valuable to Canada’s development.
Lillian Eva Dyck, Victor Oh and Yuen Pau Woo are Canadian senators of Chinese descent.