Segregation and squalor

First settled in the late 1800s, Chinatown was home to migrants mainly from China’s Guangdong province, who were segregated to a small swampland area because of racist policy.

The area was far from homogenous, also housing early Japanese, Black and Sino-Vietnamese settlers, to name a few. As scholar Kay Anderson has written, the name and concept of Chinatown comes from an orientalist perspective, reflecting how white Anglo-Saxons imagined this ghettoized area. Chinese people did not claim Chinatown; they were isolated there.

This is about more than just the developers looking to profit from Chinatown.

The Canadian government attempted to deport the Chinese after their labour was exploited to build the Canadian Pacific Railway across the western part of the country. Social studies textbooks represent the construction of this transport system as the “making of Canada” — without the railroad, which allowed early colonizers to expand westward and head off U.S. expansionism, there would be no Canada. As a society, we talk much less about the 70,000 Chinese labourers who were exploited, killed and rendered disposable by the Canadian government.

After the railway was built, the Chinese were denied the opportunity for more work. The Chinese head tax of 1885 and Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 prohibited family reunification and essentially banned more Chinese from migrating to Canada. Those already here were left in squalor in Chinatown.

Communities tried to build tight-knit family and social networks to help one another. The social clubs and family Chinese Benevolent Associations are a vestige of this era and remain important in today’s context.

Condos and compromise

In the past few years, a handful of community builders and activists have called attention to the rampant growth machine politics that are pushing development in the neighbourhood, and criticized the “condo-fication” of the historic Chinatown district.

The condo towers that sit in Chinatown, on the corner of Main and Keefer, resulted from a compromise intended to increase residential density and stimulate commercial activity through residential foot traffic and the provision of “community amenity contributions,” which provide a modest amount of public amenity money in exchange for higher buildings. This compromise, officially known as the Historic Area Height Review, has indelibly transformed Chinatown’s landscape.

More market-rate condos will just displace the racialized and poor.

Lifting development restrictions meant that interest in Chinatown condo development skyrocketed, with a combination of troubling consequences. First, occupants of the new developments do not seem to be frequenting the local “mom and pop” shops enough to keep them going. Second, these shops are now closing due to increased rents caused by the new capital interests in the neighbourhood. Third, residential rents are increasing, as Chinatown is being marketed as “hip and trendy” alongside comparative housing-market pressure. Finally, there has been a big increase in land assembly efforts, which basically means buying up adjacent lots to build more monster condo towers.

The overall result is displacement of the residents and small businesses that make up the soul and memory of Chinatown.

Many activists in Chinatown are merely asking developers and the City of Vancouver to encourage sensitive development in the area. More market-rate condos will just displace the racialized and poor. New condominium developments were intended to bring in more residents who would bolster local commercial activity. But this new commercial activity has not supported existing assets and has instead displaced them.

Development and dispossession

Moreover, condo developments have made minimal contributions to the neighbourhood in relation to the community’s desires and needs. For the latest condo development proposal, 105 Keefer, the community had to fight tooth and nail for the developers to even consider housing for seniors. The developer’s second proposal included only 25 units, a far cry from the required 3,300 units identified in a 2011 University of British Columbia study.

Chinatown is the result of a history of struggle that continues.

However, this is about more than just the developers looking to profit from Chinatown. This is about a historic district that should matter to everyone on this land, regardless of ethnicity or era of migration. Chinatown remains a neighbourhood of dispossession, symbolic of human rights violations targeted at the racialized people who helped build the country.

The history of Chinatown matters as much as any of the nation-building stories that glorify white European settlers.

A shared heritage worth defending

Changes in Chinatown have not gone so far that there’s no point to intervening. In fact, the opposite is very much true. Chinatown is the result of a history of struggle that continues.

Many people believe that the neighbourhood should be the responsibility of the Chinese and that recent Chinese wealth should be harnessed as the solution. But Chinese investment in Vancouver and historic Chinatown are unrelated. We don’t all know Chen Mailing, the tycoon duck farmer who bought that $51.8-million house — and no, we cannot just expect that he’ll save Chinatown with his money.

To not protect Chinatown would be a failure to recognize the important contributions that the Chinese, and other racialized Canadians, have made to this country. It’s part of all our histories and migration stories.

We should also defend Chinatown because of the many poor and racialized people who live there. Contrary to dominant perceptions, being poor and being Chinese are not mutually exclusive. The racialized poor inhabit the most vulnerable spaces in our country.

We must recognize that Chinese people were one of the building blocks of this country and work to ensure that Chinatown remains a living library of the stories and lives of people who have struggled to build such a diverse community.