VANCOUVER, British Columbia—Vancouver B.C.’s Chinatown is the ideal place to live for Chan Wai Ching, an 85-year-old immigrant from Guangdong, China. Ching has been living in the neighborhood for 20 years in low-income housing. She is close to doctors, grocery stores and her community. The neighborhood used to be more lively and crowded, Ching said in Cantonese through an interpreter. Now she notices the loss of traditional Chinese medicine stores, higher rents, expensive ice cream and coffee shops.
Ching thought it was absurd when a developer wanted to build a mid-rise condo in Chinatown just feet from a memorial to Chinese veterans and railway workers, honoring those who never got a proper burial. How could they build a condo there, she wondered, knowing the history of anti-Chinese discrimination? Since 2015, Ching has been organizing with young people and other seniors in the Chinatown Concern Group (CCG) against gentrification. She’s come to believe Chinatown should be “a place of revolution.”
In some ways it already is. The condo project, called 105 Keefer, was defeated in November 2017, when activists came out in such high numbers, and with such compelling testimony, that the City Development Permit Board rejected its application, throwing away three years of proposals and plans. It was the first time the board had ever said no to a proposal.
In June 2018, the neighborhood sent another strong message to developers wanting to build in Chinatown, when the city lowered the height and width limits for new buildings in the neighborhood, undoing upzones that were passed in 2011. Now, instead of being able to build between 120 and 150 feet, developers are limited to 90 feet, and maximum building widths shrank from 125 to 75 feet.
Vancouver’s general manager of planning, Gil Kelley, said in a statement at the time that the decisions came after three and a half years of listening to the neighborhood and hearing that the taller buildings brought downsides and little benefit.
These policies angered developers, but they felt like victories for some in the neighborhood. For the first time in years, some activists are hopeful for the future of Chinatown. A neighborhood in one of North America’s most volatile real estate markets, Vancouver’s Chinatown has experienced decline, loss of traditional culture, and the pressures of gentrification.
While Vancouver is one of the wealthiest cities in the world, over 40 percent of seniors in Chinatown live in poverty, according to 2015 data. Many of them “live in incredibly precarious housing situations,” says Andy Yan, professor at Simon Fraser University and expert on Vancouver’s real estate speculation, who has closely watched the recent activism in Chinatown.
In 2016, over 100 low-income tenants of the historic single-room occupancy (SRO) May Wah hotel were at risk of losing their homes after the Chinese Benevolent Association that owned the building put it up for sale. The building was bought by the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, and the residents allowed to stay.
A city memo from June 2018 for the mayor and city council reviewing the history of city rezoning and revitalization in Chinatown, outlines how quickly Vancouver’s Chinatown has been squeezed by gentrification.
Between 2006 and 2016, the population in Chinatown increased 28 percent, compared to 10 percent city-wide. During this period, the percentage of people speaking Chinese at home declined from 32 to 21 percent, compared to four percent city-wide. Between 2009 and 2016, Chinatown lost 50 percent of its traditional food businesses, including greengrocers, fishmongers, barbecue meat and butcher shops, as well as Chinese dry goods stores and restaurants, according to a study from the Hua Foundation.
The study shows three greengrocer shops were replaced by a martial arts studio, a tattoo parlor and a bicycle repair shop. An herbal shop became an ice cream shop, and a Chinese restaurant became a Las Vegas-inspired cocktail lounge.
In the early 1920s, Chinatown was a thriving neighborhood, with two Chinese schools, six theaters, a hospital, library, and many Chinese associations. The population started to decline in the following decades after exclusions on Chinese immigration and the Depression. Many Chinese residents moved into the adjacent Strathcona neighborhood and elsewhere in the city.
In recent years, waves of immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China have helped make Vancouver the most Asian city outside of Asia, with 43 percent of the population of Asian background, (around 20 percent of Chinese background). Most recent Chinese immigrants, however, have settled outside of Chinatown, creating suburbs like Richmond, which is 50 percent of Chinese origin.
The Expo 86 World’s Fair gave the neighborhood its Chinatown Millenium Gate. But the push to “clean up” the area before the fair exacerbated gentrification, according to longtime activist Sid Chow Tan. The neighborhood was never the same again. “The spirit of Chinatown is gone,” says Tan. “I don’t know if we can get it back.”
In 2011, the City adopted a rezoning policy, and an economic revitalization plan the following year. The rezoning allowed taller buildings in the neighborhood, intended to increase the number of market-rate developments, ostensibly in order to grow the neighborhood’s population, and thereby help small businesses. Tan was an early critic of the plan, noting that the city didn’t do a social impact study before the plan was adopted. “For the last dozen years or so we’ve had a developer-friendly City Council,” says Tan.
The rezoning had unintended consequences. Assessed land values in the neighborhood doubled from $1.9 million to $3.8 million between 2012 and 2016, five percent higher than the average in Vancouver. City staff monitored the newly-adopted plans, and noticed speculative behavior.
In 2015, the first of two large condos were built in the neighborhood, along with a Starbucks. It was a wake-up call for some in the neighborhood. “People saw the towers, and said ‘holy fuck, that’s not what we were in for,’” says Tan.
“When you’re putting million dollar condos in a neighborhood like that, inevitably what you’re going to see happen is gentrification,” says Melody Ma, a civic activists who started the #SaveChinatownYVR campaign in opposition to 105 Keefer. “Or we have that already, and it will just accelerate.”
The 105 Keefer project would have been the third mid- to high-rise condo in the neighborhood. After backlash to that project, the city realized its mistake.
The city memo from June 2018 acknowledged that the rezoning policy didn’t work as intended. “The pace of redevelopment has been fast, there are land speculation activities, new businesses have moved in but traditional businesses are closing or moving out,” the letter reads. “Overall, there is a sense that without intervention, the tangible and intangible character of Chinatown could be lost forever.”
“The city has a habit of just thinking land use tools would be the golden ticket, and I think for Chinatown they realized, oh maybe this isn’t how we do it,” says Ma.
The 105 Keefer condo project inspired massive opposition, on many grounds, starting with the fact that the final proposal included no affordable housing.
Not only would many neighborhood residents be unable to afford them, a lot of new housing in the neighborhood has been used for AirBnbs. “It’s not housing that they produced, it’s investment boxes,” says Yan.
Then there was the condo’s location, on parking lot just feet away from the Chinatown Memorial Monument, a memorial for Chinese veterans and railway workers. The condo would have been across the street from cultural resources like the Chinese Cultural Center and the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.
The memorial honors the lives of Chinese railway workers who were paid poorly for the back-breaking work of building the Canadian railways, a contribution that made Canadian nationhood possible, says Carol Lee, chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation. “Chinatown is the physical legacy of kind of that sacrifice and contribution.”
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“There were nightmare scenarios” for the condo, says Yan. “Frankly they’d probably stick another bar in that building, and some idiot will probably Youtube or Instagram them taking a piss at that memorial.”
Starting in spring 2017, hundreds of activists filled city council meetings to testify against the project. They included businesses owners, young people and seniors, some of whom were having their voices heard for the first time. Jade Ho, a volunteer with the Chinatown Concern Group, which mobilized low-income Chinatown residents and Chinese-speaking seniors, remembers hundreds of people coming to speak at City Hall hearings, often for hours. The activism built intergenerational bridges.
“Young folks were able to learn from the wisdom and the experience of the seniors and at the same time, young people were able to kind of build that space for the seniors to be able to speak up in their own voices, in their own language,” Ho says.
In November 2017, the Development Permit Board — composed of the city’s chief planner, chief engineer, and assistant city manager, rejected the fifth proposal for the project in a 2 to 1 vote.
It was a final rejected of the project, after an earlier version of the project (12 stories tall but with 25 units of affordable housing) was rejected by City Council.
“In my almost nine years as mayor, no issue or project has yielded such a passionate, emotional response as this rezoning application,” said then-mayor Gregor Robertson in a statement, quoted by CBC News, after he and the City Council rejected the proposal.
Members of the Development Permit Board said they rejected the condo because they agreed with activists that it wasn’t contextually-appropriate for the community.
The success of activists was a combination of factors. “All those pieces kind of came together in a way that I don’t fully comprehend,” says King-mong Chan, an organizer with Chinatown Concern Group. The group mobilized low-income Chinese seniors like Chan Wai Chin by knocking on doors and building trust with them. “I really think of it as people power,” says Ho. “People got together and forced the city to listen to us.”
Yan thinks activists succeeded because they mobilized people of all ages and ethnic groups, from all parts of the city. “Council looked into the chasm, and they had 400 people looking back,” he said. “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.”
The condo fight led to council restoring of zoning to what it was before the 2011 upzones.
Some in the neighborhood hope the new zoning will prevent more luxury development. “I think it will hem it in,” Yan said. Developers will now have to understand, “there’s a specific social license you must obtain in this neighborhood, or it’s going to be a grounding battle for years and you will lose.”
After the success in stopping 105 Keefer, Yan is feeling optimistic about Chinatown. “For planning in Vancouver, where goes Chinatown goes the rest of the city, and vice versa,” he says. In the 1960s, Chinatown was pivotal in stopping a freeway from being built through the city, helping Vancouver become less car-dependent than most major cities. People all over Vancouver are experiencing the effects of development, often disconnected to the people living there. “It’s about the future of the entire city of Vancouver, all the neighborhoods,” says Yan. “The idea that we’re all Chinatown, just as much as we are all the city of Vancouver.”
Not everyone was happy with the rezoning. Landowners and property owners banded together to form Chinatown Voices, claiming that most business owners were in favor of the existing zoning and for the 105 Keefer project. Chinatown Voices did not respond to requests for comment.
“There’s a lot of tension in the community,” around the rezoning, according to Helen Ma, Senior Planner with the city’s newly-created Chinatown Transformation Team. “I think it comes down to a little bit of difference in vision. Is everything new good for Chinatown, or should we have a balance of old and new? And I think for the city, we think having a balance is valuable.”
Ma of the #SaveChinatownYVR campaign notes that although the rezoning may help curb speculative development, it won’t necessarily stop more luxury development in the neighborhood. “If someone wants to redevelop their lot within the specific height limit and width limit and density and still build luxury housing, there’s nothing that could stop them at this point. It would be nice to have stronger policies that can.”
For Ma, stopping the condo and changing the zoning are major achievements in the context of Vancouver. It’s been exciting to see the neighborhood claim the public space, with the help of the city, by the memorial and next to the condo site with movie nights, popup markets selling Chinese vegetables and Chinatown goods. “The community can now rest from fighting all the time to thinking about how do we want to build up again,” Ma said.
For the Chinatown Concern Group, the downzoning does not go far enough. They are calling for a halt on luxury development until there’s as much low-income housing as market-rate housing in the neighborhood, and for all new development to be low-income. “We don’t see [the rezoning] as a victory, and I think it shows still the work that is ongoing,” says Chan.
They still want to see 100 percent low-income housing at the site, which is still owned by the developer. For now 105 Keefer is “sleeping.” It’s not clear what will happen with the site — the developer could come back with a new proposal, or perhaps take legal action.
For now, the Chinatown Concern Group is working on building a stronger foundation, “prepar[ing] for the next fights to come and these ongoing battles that we still have,” said Chan. Every two weeks, seniors meet, holding meetings alternately in Mandarin and Cantonese, to discuss new city policies and how to have their voices heard.
Says Ching, through an interpreter: “If we’re still alive another day, we’ll fight for what we demand.”