Andy Yan • Photo by Chetanya Robinson

Over the last few years, much of Vancouver, B.C.’s Chinatown has mobilized against gentrification, insisting that development and revitalization projects do more to meet the needs of the neighborhood. In November 2017, a swell of neighborhood voices made history by convincing the Vancouver City Development Permit Board to reject the application for a proposed condo project, called 105 Keefer. It was the first time in its history that the Board rejected a project, agreeing with activists that the condo didn’t fit contextually into Chinatown. For many, the 105 Keefer project — which would have been built just feet away from a memorial to Chinese railway workers and veterans, and included no affordable housing — symbolized the ways that housing was being developed in Chinatown with little regard for its needs.

Andy Yan, an urban planner and director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., has studied Vancouver’s real estate market and the role of foreign capitol in it, among other areas. For Yan, Vancouver’s approach to its Chinatown, and the recent grassroots activism within it, represent a microcosm of the city as a whole, which is at a turning point. As Vancouver changes and grows, who is the city really for? “All my research is in how do we make a more inclusive city,” Yan says. “That’s the core of it.”

I spoke with Yan for the International Examiner’s three-part series on gentrification in Northwest Chinatowns, a series supported by the Solutions Journalism Network’s Renewing Democracy grant. The conversation, edited for length and clarity, focused on Vancouver’s Chinatown but touched on the history of white supremacy in the Northwest, and how Yan’s research was called racist by the former Vancouver mayor because it dealt with the role of overseas Chinese investment and ownership in Vancouver’s real estate market.

International Examiner: Why is Vancouver’s Chinatown such a hot market for development? Is it related to general trends in Vancouver’s housing market?

Andy Yan: For planning in Vancouver, where goes Chinatown goes the rest of the city, and vice versa. And it’s an interesting history, because really Chinatown was pivotal in the fight against the freeways, and as such it helped redetermine the foundations of contemporary Vancouver not being as car-dependent as certainly every other city in this neck of the woods. It similarly follows what’s happening in Vancouver today, that there is a tremendous amount of development in the city of Vancouver, but it has actually fundamentally come into this question of, who is it for?

So a lot of this has kind come into Chinatown, as well as many other neighborhoods in the city of Vancouver, and fundamentally challenges our traditional development models in the city, because for a long time, development in the city of Vancouver was kind of held up as a kind of international standard, without context, without a connection towards a history of the city.

Well, when we talk about development in Chinatown, it’s almost the complete opposite. There’s already a place here. And I can say this because I’m in the field, this idea of place-making — which is the obsession for urbanists, urban planners, urban designers — isn’t relevant in Chinatown, because the place has already been made. And I think that what’s actually key, and requires the changes in development. 

The kinds of developments that we see coming into Chinatown, for the most part, is housing that isn’t meant for the existing community. In Chinatown, if you look at the immediate neighborhood, we’re talking about an existing population here that’s 50 percent under our poverty measures. What happens to this existing population when you have all this new development coming to this neighborhood, as well as many others?

You can kind of think about the catalyst of what’s happened in Chinatown and in particular the 105 Keefer, as one of the turning points, saying what kind of city have we become? What kind of neighborhood are we becoming? And how it was able to tap into those concerns in Vancouver’s narrative?

That ultimately goes into the success and the persuasiveness of all the movements that have recently come out of Chinatown. It’s not to just say it’s about one neighborhood, but it’s about the future of the entire city of Vancouver, all the neighborhoods. And I think in that connection has been the success. The idea that we’re all Chinatown, just as much as we are all the city of Vancouver. And that was the turning point.

My gosh, to be in that council chamber when 105 Keefer came in. You had Councillors that did not want to turn this down, but they had no choice. They saw their political futures on that floor and how they will be remembered in history, and they just backed down.

It’s interesting, because you had a council that viewed themselves as centrist left, but then they made all these deals with developers. So they were in one way I think, themselves, really conflicted, and this was a reminder: You vote this in, we vote you out. 

The ability to project electoral accountability that gets you the most attention and gets you the most action. I think that that’s a really critical element, when you have not only the usual Chinatown suspects, but everybody from every part of the city show up and say how much they dislike this project — but not just as this project, but where the direction of the city was going, which I think won the day. And then using every channel possible. I mean the only thing we were missing were notes on bricks going through front doors. Social media was just utterly inundated on all channels, but also the traditional media.

You have to connect it up towards the larger city. I think that’s where the advocacy is its most powerful. Because if you end up as a nice little colony out in wherever, it just doesn’t work. But when you begin to network the neighborhoods together, watch out. Don’t build walls, build bridges. Contrary perhaps to what your current president is saying. And also extend the table. It’s between those two strategies of building bridges and extending the table. 

IE: What are the biggest challenges facing Vancouver’s Chinatown?

AY: There were particular economic forces that really created Chinatown as a neighborhood, but then also maintained it. But I think like many, many other parts of the city and region, that has shifted a lot. There used to be any number of garment factories around Chinatown, warehouses. We had people in the food production industry, we had people in the fisheries, processing fish, processing meat within this inner city neighborhood, which was invisible but critical. And it’s something I think that’s important to kind of revisit and kind of somehow rebuild that economic foundation of the neighborhood.

But I think coupled with that, there are ongoing issues of systemic social and economic exclusion in this neighborhood. When you look at those seniors who are living here, I think they live in incredibly precarious housing situations. The issue of SROs [single room occupancies], which I think parallel some of the concerns in Seattle, as a provider of last resort for private housing. It’s similarly precarious, whether in terms of availability to rent, to the health and human safety concerns. We actually see the shutdown of some of these SROs on pure concerns about health and human safety. So the biggest challenges in Chinatown are economic. They’re going to be ongoing in terms of housing.

I think it goes in towards culture. Like, how does Chinatown fit in towards how the city and region have changed, particularly with the different types of Chinese immigration? The original Chinese population that founded Vancouver’s Chinatown were working, middle class folks at the most, compared to really the sizable class changes of those who are now coming here as new immigrants. But then also those who are second and third generations. How do they feel connected or not connected with the neighborhood?

IE: Critics have said Vancouver relies on land use and zoning as a way to solve problems – how does this play into the approach to Chinatown?

AY: The dependency on development and land use really in one way reflects the limited powers of the city of Vancouver in not having the kind of financial basis, that say, what happens with American cities. The city of Vancouver, with its limited resources and really its jurisdictional power, really is focused on place, largely around development and land use.

But I think what goes into Chinatown is not only place-based challenges, but people-based. How do you work with the people who are living here? And work not only necessarily with their deficiencies, but with their strengths? And I think this is a really, really key element, is to look at Chinatown as a neighborhood with sizable social infrastructures that are not repeated anywhere else. If you even look at the ethno-burbs in the suburbs of Vancouver, whether it be Richmond or Surrey, they struggle with this issue of social infrastructure. But the interesting thing about Chinatown is that we actually have some very strong pieces of social infrastructure. They’re challenged — have no doubt, they’re significantly challenged in terms of generational change, in terms of under-investment and deferred maintenance. But I think that’s what makes Chinatown in Vancouver different and strong, is its social infrastructure.

Whether it’s social, cultural institutions, clubs – it means really memories – the idea of history. The fact that this is not an instant neighborhood, it’s actually one that has a patina of cultural practice, of cultural institutions, which has kind of created this neighborhood, unlike many, many other neighborhoods in the city of Vancouver.

It’s exchanges – where are good places to eat that really build community? Should you want your Chinatown to thrive, you need to have these types of transactions. And I think it’s these types of transactions that are not strictly financial. By focusing on just financial transactions, you actually miss this. It’s the idea of financial capital versus social and cultural capital. With Chinatown, it’s significantly challenged when we talk about financial capital, but when it comes to cultural and social capital, this is one of the richest neighborhoods in the city of Vancouver.

IE: For a while, Vancouver’s strategy to revitalize Chinatown seemed to be focused on zoning and building, with the theory that by making it easier for more condos to be built, they would increase the population base in the neighborhood, and thereby help local businesses. It seems the city has now acknowledged this was the wrong approach. Why did they think it would work in the first place?

AY: There’s a tendency of Vancouver to delve into the world of faith-based development. And that was a certain faith that by providing the market housing that it would automatically lead into a connection to the existing businesses. But that isn’t the case. What you find with much of the new housing in this neighborhood, it’s resulted towards a thriving AirBnb business, that hasn’t even necessarily produced the housing. It’s not housing that they produced, it’s investment boxes. And I think as such, the breaking of that faith.

I think that goes in towards this idea of directed housing policy as opposed to just a pure market-based policy. Because the market-based policy is going to be for those who can afford it. And those who can afford it aren’t necessarily the ones who are in desperate need of it. So I think that that is one of the unfortunate things in Chinatown is that missed connection. If you look at the erosion of that cultural and social capital, ironically that new development eroded that wealth base. It may have increased the financial base, in theory. But it eroded that cultural and social capital base.

On how institutional racism lingers in Vancouver:

AY: There’s still an ongoing element of racialization in this city. The joke is that the levels of white supremacy, we’re actually quite extreme in the city of Vancouver. The Pacific Northwest had this great, kind of ‘Who can be more white supremacist?’ There’s literally something call the Tacoma Solution. You may notice they don’t have a very large Chinese population — well because the Tacoma solution was, ‘run them out of town.’ There was a similar kind of movement in Bellingham, going after the South Asians, who came back to Vancouver and diffused into the Fraser Valley where there’s a much larger South Asian population. But then of course when these rioters showed up in Vancouver, they just decided, it’s labor day, we’re now seeing all these guys connected, let’s incite a riot. It became the first anti-Asian riot in 1907. We’re very good at our anti-Asian riots.

At that point they moved in, rioted the rest of the city, and then effectively went into Chinatown, busted the place up, and then went into our equivalent of Nihonmachi, Powell Street, and then basically were stopped dead. So there is a racialized history in there of explicit racialization.  

It’s thankfully disappeared for the most part. But what instead happens are these moments of institutional racism, or unconscious bias, that haunts the city. And in this case, it haunts Chinatown.

It’s this awakening of saying, ‘This is wrong. You have to challenge the system.’ And how we challenge the system together. It wasn’t tribal, it was actually nationhood. Because if you look at the video of who showed up it’s like, oh my god. It’s everybody, from everywhere. All ages, all ethnic groups, all parts of the city. I talk about how council looked into the chasm and they had 400 people looking back. And within that group it was a huge cross-section of class. It wasn’t the usual kind of low-income protester, it was just everybody.

And it resonated as a message to other practices in the city, which included this rezoning alignment. And it really showed that if you enter this neighborhood and you screw it up, there are political consequences – deep political consequences.               

IE: What does it take to create an affordable, inter-generational, culturally-vibrant Chinatown? 

AY: View things as the effect of a system, not one-offs. Understanding that these developments and these projects are part of a larger system, which requires an active participation in terms of changing that system. The ideas and the importance of public policy, the importance of public participation. The importance of political action, of actually understanding that if you want to make that type of housing happen, it’s not only on a local level, but it’s at a provincial and federal level, so as a consequence you’d better be prepared to engage at those levels, or at least work with people who can engage at those levels.

It’s fundamentally understanding that it’s not the site, it’s fundamentally the system. And I think that it’s understanding the level of government and decision-making processes that you inhabit, and knowing at what point can you make the biggest difference. And having a certain discipline. It is really hard to participate in these processes, but then also knowing when not to. When a particular process is down a certain pathway, it’s better to walk away with 80 percent than 100 percent of nothing. So it’s a series of political judgments, of not necessarily what you want or what you’re willing to do, but it’s also who you are. It’s not easy.

IE: Different Chinatowns around North America have declined – what are the long term chances of success in safeguarding Vancouver’s Chinatown, and what will it take to get there?

AY: The first thing is, I think the deaths of Chinatown — the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. It’s going to be different, it’s going to change. Like many other parts of the city, it does require a level of change, but the issue is change for who? And how do we direct that change? And I think that in a place like Chinatown, especially after 105 Keefer, I’m actually fairly optimistic. 

Not being afraid of changing ideas, but at the core of it, having a value of social inclusion. Of rebuilding and renewing, reinvesting in that social infrastructure.

Chinatowns begin as a small business incubator. Repositioning the regional role of Chinatown is I think another aspect of ensuring its ongoing vividness. It’s going to change, but I think that with these changes in policy, it’s going to at least help direct that change. But then at the same time, the change will happen, but the fight continues. The ongoing issue for a more just city, an idea of inclusion, of equity. And it’s system-wide. Every city is struggling with this. 

It all goes back to the importance of social infrastructure, of social infrastructure that is renewed and expanded with every generation. To be honest, one of the big challenges was actually the levels of patriarchy in this neighborhood. With 105 Keefer, it marked hopefully the decline of that type of patriarchy. Fankly it was the women who were doing it. I think that’s change that must happen.

IE: When it comes to your work researching speculative development in Vancouver, some said it’s racist to point out the role of foreign investment. Something similar came up in the Seattle mayoral campaign last year. One candidate, Cary Moon, proposed a tax to deter speculation. Her opponent, now mayor Jenny Durkan, said this played into anti-Asian racism. Is the foreign speculative development still a taboo subject, or are attitudes changing?

AY: I talk about it all the time, so it shows you where I sit on that spectrum. Because I think it goes into, what’s racist? I have a very distinct definition of racism which apparently is very different from all these other guys. My idea of racism is connected to a particular power system based upon white supremacy. 

What I think happens in Vancouver is, that type of research is called racist [as a tactic] to defend the existing power system, which ironically enough is extremely white supremacist and extremely exclusive for everybody. I am going to call out the investor, speculative class — the vulture class — but I’m there to talk about connections. That racism ultimately is about hierarchy and disconnection. I’m all about how connected we are, now than ever before, and it’s help reduce these systems of exclusion. And by not understanding these connections, we can’t possibly intervene in these systems of exclusion.

For those that called me the racist, what were they – they were typically white males with every interest in the real estate industry. So I’m like oh, that’s cute. I call it social hacking. It’s an awesome social shutdown code. By insinuating that, it’s intended to shut it all down. It’s so disingenuous. Rest assured, there are some pretty evil, racist elements in this conversation. But you know, until someone shows me how vaccinated Chinese Canadians are towards the craziness of this real estate market, I would, A, ask where can I get some, and B, say shut the hell up. Don’t you think Chinese Canadians are as worse off in this system as everybody else? This just shows our connection to Asia, to flows of capital.

What they weren’t expecting was for me to go hit the offense, to say, ‘As somebody whose great grandfather paid the Chinese exclusion tax, I really take your perspectives on anti-Chinese racism quite deeply.’ At that point you’re just like, you don’t get to speak for me. I was on the defense team on the foreign buyers tax, because the same kind of idiocy is going towards the claim that the foreign buyers’ tax is racist.  

There are certain model minority myths, like ‘oh well those guys can’t possibly be affected by what’s happening in the housing market, they must have equal access, they must have really easy access to the housing market. They must be all okay. Well guess what, that falls in towards an actual act of racism. Because last time I checked, I’m a Canadian. And this act was to defend Canadians against foreign investment and our residential real estate market.

For further reading, read the International Examiner’s three-part series on gentrification in Northwest Chinatowns, supported by the Solutions Journalism Network’s Renewing Democracy grant:

What can stem the wave of development threatening Chinatown International District?

With “people power,” Vancouver, B.C. activists stopped a condo in the heart of Chinatown

After grassroots victories, Vancouver, B.C. Chinatown turns toward revitalization

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