According to a Chinese Proverb, “Each generation will reap what the former generation has sown.” Vancouver city hall’s Chinatown Revitalization Program is aiming to help the historic neighbourhood evolve for future generations, guided by the concept of cultural sustainability. They’ve got big plans, some money and a shot at pulling it off.
Can Chinatown reestablish itself as a social and commercial hub while retaining its cultural distinctiveness? Albert Fok, vice-president of the Vancouver Chinatown BIA Society and chair of the Chinatown Revitalization Committee, says he likes to envision Chinatown as the next Granville Island: a culturally distinctive place where people will want to live and work, and a destination for shoppers and tourists during the day and night.
Some work has already been done to help boost the neighbourhood. A program in Chinatown’s shops ensures signs are translated into English as well as Mandarin and Cantonese. This and other measures, including communication workshops, are helping merchants interact better with a larger customer base.
Alongside these business promotions, the arts and culture community is promoting festivals and cultural events. Youth and student groups are active in the neighbourhood. Cultural landmarks such as the Millennium Gate, Shanghai Alley, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Courtyard and historic landmarks have been completed, renovated and improved. And there’s a proposal to bring bright neon signs back to help turn the area from its currents status as an after-dark ghost town into an entertainment hot spot.
But the real key to Chinatown’s revival is a kind of acupuncture architecture: building up the important cultural nodes within the neighbourhood to support the rest. The priority is doing something about the aging Chinese society buildings before they crumble.
Chinatown was founded in the 1880s on the edges of False Creek around the intersection of Carrall and Pender streets. It began as an ethnic ghetto for Chinese immigrants, and the early history of Chinatown represents a darker time in Vancouver’s heritage.
Systemic discrimination inspired Chinatown’s residents to create a support network of benevolent societies and clan associations that looked after their own, many housed in their own buildings. Chinatown’s distinctive and colourful hybrid Asian-British Commonwealth architecture derives from that early period. Most of the society buildings are around 100 years old and close to the end of their years.
The City of Vancouver provided $500,000 in grants in 2008 for feasibility studies to see what can be done with five of these society buildings, mostly built on small 25-foot lots. (There are 32 heritage buildings maintained by 12 societies in all of Chinatown.) As in Gastown, the facades of the historic buildings could be retained while modern spaces are built up behind them.
“The most important social and cultural networks to make this a viable community will be the societies and clans and their service agencies,” says Vancouver City senior planner Jessica Chen. “They contribute to the soul of Chinatown.”
The Chinatown plan is ambitious, but its success is tied to the future of the Downtown Eastside, and that’s going to take more resources than the City has. “The province and the federal government must come up with a comprehensive plan for the neighbourhood and address First Nations issues,” says Vancouver City councillor B.C. Lee. “If we don’t take care of everything at the same time, one aspect will pull down all the other aspects.”
He emphasizes the need for the “new” Chinatown to be welcoming to a diverse crowd even as it pays homage to Chinatown’s ethnic heritage. “This place is a reminder of how we all started from humble status. It actually represents the spirit of Canada as a whole.”
Chinatown still faces huge hurdles. Given the dilapidated state of its key buildings, doing nothing means a continuation of Chinatown’s hard-luck status. But if the feasibility studies of the crumbling society buildings lead to real development based on architectural and cultural nodes, Chinatown will have a new foundation to build a sustainable community.
As another Chinese proverb says, “Be not afraid of growing slowly. Be afraid only of standing still.”
Jonathon Narvey is a Vancouver writer and principal of Writeimage.