Another article on our doomed Chinatown by Kerry Gold in the Globe and Mail:
Gentrification isn’t just nibbling at Chinatown’s edges. Thanks to rezoning changes, it’s taking major bites out of the neighbourhood. …  Class inversion is happening in cities throughout North America. Urban cores used to be the domain of low-income groups, while the wealthier demographic lived in the suburbs. In recent years, wealthier groups are choosing urban living and pushing low-income groups to the outskirts, or further.

“You have to ask, ‘Where is this coming from? Who are you serving?’” asks Kevin Huang, executive director of the Hua Foundation, a non-profit for young Chinese-Canadians. Mr. Huang is also committed to supporting the people who form the tight-knit Chinatown community, and who are now under threat of displacement. …

“With this rezoning, I think this is a battle for the soul of Chinatown, and what does it mean for us as a city in terms of diversity and inclusion,” Mr. Huang says. …

“We seem to be treating Chinatown as a development site instead of a community,” civic historian John Atkin says.

The old mom-and-pop shops are already hurting, faced with mounting property taxes and aging ownership. The educated next generation doesn’t always want to take over the old business. And those new corporate retailers wouldn’t be able to buy from within the neighbourhood or from small local farms the way current businesses have for a century. The old local economy of Chinatown – a model of sustainability before it became a buzzword – would be destroyed….

Melody Ma, a self-professed “policy wonk,” grew up attending dance classes in Chinatown. Both Ms. Ma and Mr. Huang see the city’s failure to prioritize people, with their histories and traditions and lives, as the problem. Other cities have adopted culture as an integral part of their urban planning, including New Westminster and Montreal, so they’ve asked Vancouver City to consider doing the same. …

“That means developers will have to make sure they consider the needs of the community prior to even talking to city hall – that we’re recognizing the culture and history and the aspirations of the people who live there,” she says.

It’s more than the buildings. Unless the culture is preserved, the place becomes commodified and soulless, she says. To thwart displacement, the city offers up bigger building potential in exchange for a few units of social housing. But what good is social housing if a community is wiped out? …

Small businesses such as Mr. Mah’s face deeper challenges if the city doesn’t craft policies to protect them. …

But pressure on the community will only intensify because the area is in the crosshairs of future densification. A couple of blocks away, the viaducts will come down and the new St. Paul’s Hospital will transform the historic area into a hub of high-tech medical care.

Ms. Ma says “it was a mountain to climb” just getting council to agree to consider culture as a priority.

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘How do we place a culture or community first – rather than just follow finance?’”


I am a loss to understand what is wanted for Chinatown – or what is even possible.  

Should it be a goal to “prioritize people, with their histories and traditions and lives,” if it means we’re intending to preserve a cultural product that was a consequence of one of the most racist periods in our history.  Chinatown was a ghetto in the worst sense of the word.

Is the desire to exclude anything that doesn’t reflect that era?  

And even if there was an inherent racism in that assumption of exclusion, how can a zoning code preserve or even encourage businesses no longer wanted, no longer viable?

The forces of time and change mean there is essentially no hope to maintain the cultural moment of Chinatown.  Surrounding development forces, the removal of the Viaducts, a new St. Paul’s and changing demographics guarantee that.

Why would we set ourselves up for failure?

Shaping urban form and use is the purpose of zoning and development bylaws.  Saving a culture is not.  And that’s as true for the gay village on Davie and the Punjabi Village on Main as it is for Chinatown on Main.


  1. Remember Robsonstrasse? Nothing left. I don’t miss it – it was a creature of its time and any attempt to artificially prop it up would have been a mistake in my opinion. Same goes for Chinatown etc. The key phrase is: “The educated next generation doesn’t always want to take over the old business.”
    If the city can set policies that encourage the Chinese themselves to keep Chinatown alive and thriving that would be a good thing. It would also have to be allowed to change with the times, densify, diversify. China isn’t sitting still, why should Chinatown? But the main driver has to come from the culture that created it and not from excessive outside intervention.

    1. Except it [Robsonstrasse] was never done properly. It was never made into ‘a thing’ … which is the pedestrian street that has proved successful elsewhere, it was made into a failed hybrid of car/pedestrian space with the failings of both and the strength of neither.
      Chinatown has mostly ceased to be ‘a thing’ … it certainly was, but now it needs to either become more like it was, or be allowed to become less.
      Doug Saunder’s points about chinatown’s (collectively) becoming ‘Arrival Cities’ is a good one … they were a launching point for new immigrants. They have not been that way for a long time, however, so unless that aspect is added also (namely, affordability, but also ease in setting up business, lax zoning, and a general laissez faire attitude to bylaw enforcement), they will not be able to become what they were in any case, because the reasons that made them vibrant have moved on to other places, and they are unable to serve that role anymore.
      Unless a magic wand of affordability and lax rules gets waived, even if chinatown is preserved, who will live there?
      Each city in Europe has a castle, these are preserved perfectly, and no-one from those places ever visits – they are relevant for tourists only. The very few which are vital to the city, are those that have been updated to be useful to the city – not locking them in amber but allowing them to be adapted to new use. In a lot of ways, this is the same process for preserving any historic area of a city, if it is too ‘locked’ it loses relevance to the city in which it exists, and in-so-doing also loses use to those who are still there (because it loses the vibrancy which made it viable in the first place).

  2. The Aberdeen Mall and the Crystal Mall are what the new generation of Chinese descendants want, as well as others that want to experience Asian shopping or restaurants. The area immediately next to and around the old Chinatown has become a complete and utter madhouse. It’s all too late now.
    A few years ago we used to go to Park Lock Restaurant on Main and Keefer for dim sum. It’s closed now. Everyone has gone to the suburbs.
    Why risk the discomfort and insanity of the area when you don’t have to? Yes, it is uncomfortable to see young people wasted and squirming on the sidewalk.

  3. Shaping urban form and use is the purpose of zoning and development bylaws. Saving a culture is not. And that’s as true for the gay village on Davie and the Punjabi Village on Main as it is for Chinatown on Main.

    I tend to agree – but the City of Vancouver has done exactly that to the north in the DTES – by preserving its “culture”.

  4. Why not demolish and redevelop a neighbourhood with character? It does seem to be getting in the way of Vancouver’s goal of becoming the most architecturally banal city in the world.

  5. The use of zoning to preserve a single culture is inherently discriminatory and rightly illegal. Just ask any zoning practitioner in the US how this has worked out. The most zoning can do in this case is to codify ground floor commercial land uses in new developments and hope that it continues to attract a specific type of commercial tenant and implied clientele. Ground floor commercial units could be limited to a certain square footage and retail type. Zoning is a blunt tool.
    But we can assume that “zoning” in this case is a shorthand for some formal, legally-binding policy approach by the City. if so, then good luck with that. Neighbourhoods change. They’ve always changed. Don’t believe me? Just ask a Tslilel-waututh how his old neighbourhood under the Burrard Bridge has changed. He’ll give you an earful.

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