Noted journalist Daphne Bramham in the Vancouver Sun has written an article that should be required reading for everyone in Metro Vancouver. She has cogently described our intentional neglect and universal ignorance of the deboning of Vancouver’s Chinatown. We somehow conveniently forget that it was the 17,000 Chinese labourers who built the railway across Canada between 1881 to 1884. Those workers, their descendants and others left the legacy of this very special part of the city. It was also Strathcona residents that were largely responsible for Vancouver not being cleaved in half by the building of three storey high ten lane highway in the late 1960’s. As a city we owe a lot to the legacy left by Chinatown and Strathcona. Where is the outrage of what is happening to this very special part of the city? Why isn’t this a civic, provincial and national priority?
Daphne describes the universality of the shiny city Vancouver has become, looking like any other place. She rues that the unique places ” are rapidly disappearing, and none is at greater risk than Chinatown, which teeters on the edge of extinction despite being designated a National Historic Site in 2011. It is so close to the edge that Carol Lee of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation fears that without a concerted local, provincial and national effort it may be lost by the end of this year.”
“The neighbourhood has been eroded one neon sign, one family-run business and one clan building at a time. But at greater risk than the bricks, mortar and unique streetscapes blending Chinese and late 19th century Canadian architectural styles is the neighbourhood’s cultural heritage. Hipsters have heralded gentrification. Trendy restaurants, skateboard shops, coffee bars and cannabis dispensaries may be the tipping point.”
“Design guidelines meant to maintain a ‘Chinatown look’ are often overlooked and building heights have been dramatically increased. … Intense speculation is driving up rents and displacing long-time residents, many of them seniors, who are central to the area’s rich cultural identity…Today, the neighbourhood is dotted with empty storefronts. Aging shopkeepers struggle to carry on with fewer customers and ever-increasing taxes. But the most vulnerable are seniors — many of whom are frail, female, Cantonese speakers living at the poverty line.
Some will be at Tuesday’s public hearing protesting a proposal to build a 12-storey, luxury condo building at Keefer Street and Columbia. The plan does include 25 units of social housing, but only eight of those will be available to those with the lowest incomes.
The building itself, according to the heritage consultant’s report to council, “respects the historic Chinatown context by not attempting to mimic or replicate its area neighbours. Indeed, the building’s form, scale, massing, materials and colours will help distinguish the building as a contemporary addition. In other words it will stick out like a sore thumb.”
“Myriad things have contributed to Chinatown’s decline, including decaying, century-old buildings that are expensive to repair, the encroaching chaos and dysfunction of the Downtown Eastside, and the disinterest and even disdain some Vancouver-born Chinese have for a ghetto that their ancestors worked so hard to leave.”
“Vancouver’s history is so recent that some of its retelling still hurts. But that is all the more reason this unique neighbourhood and community should be given the help it needs to survive and thrive.”
The full text of Ms. Bramham’s editorial comment and the work of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation can be read here.