Daily Durning: From Chinatown to Metrotown

Durning picks up another piece from The Guardian by author Madeleine Thien:

Vancouver’s Chinatown came into being in the 1880s as Chinese migrants fled the region of the Pearl River Delta in the wake of political violence that claimed an estimated one million lives. In Canada, Chinese migrants took on the railway’s most dangerous jobs while earning less than half the salary of their white counterparts. When the railway was completed, the workers, intent on sending remittances home, found jobs in sawmills, coal mines, tanneries and brickyards. But their presence drew an ugly backlash from mainstream society. … 

The ‘Oriental city’

Across North America, Chinatowns developed a parallel civic society, providing schools, benevolent associations, libraries and a complex social organisation. Gradually, a self-protective architecture evolved: colourful facades that would satisfy an outsider’s desire for a contained, exotic experience – and an inner world that could meet the everyday needs of Chinese workers segregated into an increasingly crowded space.
It is a little known fact that the brightly painted facades of the oldest Chinatown in the US, in San Francisco, were designed in 1906 by the architect-engineers T Patterson Ross and AW Burgren, who were hired by Chinese merchants to dream up deliberately exoticised architecture.
In American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighbourhoods, journalist Bonnie Tsui documents how the “oriental city of ‘veritable fairy palaces’, was a conscious, east-meets-west attempt by Chinese merchants to change the community’s image … and ensure its continuing survival.” The Chinese merchants wondered if their frontier-style buildings were livened by elaborate flourishes, would mainstream society’s fear of the outsider diminish? Might they even enter the colourful gates, drawn to the exotic world on their doorstep?
By 1910 Vancouver’s Chinatown began to incorporate flying eaves, glazed tiled roofs and other stately decorations. Ironically, the ornamentation which they hoped would convey dignity and social cohesion added to a pervasive misconception: that the Chinese utilised such details because theirs was a community of perpetual aliens, incapable of adapting to a new environment. Ross and Burgren’s architecture became emblematic around the world. …

From Chinatown to Metrotown

In the 1980s, many Chinese immigrants to Vancouver hoped to prosper and leave behind the struggles of Chinatown, but I suspect they believed, and hoped, the enclave would persist. Its sometimes kitschy atmosphere allowed for memory without sentimentality, nostalgia freed from rigid tradition. Its alleyways and buildings are the physical evidence of a discriminatory history, as well as a population that “has always flourished in a community form”, as the journalist Tsui observes.
That is all changing. The Chinese working class and poor communities are being displaced here, powerless against the unified forces of developers backed by city re-zoning and incentivising plans – the price of individual condos in two recent developments is between $1 and $2m.

In Everything Will Be, Julia Kwan’s powerful 2014 documentary on the demolitions and losses in Vancouver’s Chinatown, Bob Rennie, the owner of Vancouver’s largest real estate firm, insists that “the Chinatown that your parents enjoyed here is gone forever”, and says the city must look to the future.
Developers claim they are preserving the neighbourhood, but the fact remains that the heart of the community – meaning its people and their livelihoods – are currently fighting for their existence.
Meanwhile there is now a new Chinese enclave where Vancouver blurs into Burnaby. Where the old Chinatowns were low-rise shopfront streets and alleyways, this new area, with its glass skyscrapers, shopping malls and a plenitude of restaurants specialising in Chinese regional cuisines, reflects a shifting global order. The predominant language is Mandarin.
This area, Metrotown, has a strong resemblance to the urban live-work neighbourhoods built beside rapid transit stations, and near to vibrant green spaces in Shanghai, Hong Kong or Singapore. Architecturally, it resembles an Asian metropolis, rather than an imagined oriental aesthetic. Metrotown carries the tension of a new Chinatown, which is no longer an area with distinct borders, or something that can be contained by exotic gates.
Full story here.


  1. Who is speaking for those having their affordable rental homes near Metrotown demolished in favour of the “new Chinese enclave” of expensive highrises? Certainly not Mayor Corrigan.

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