Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Future

Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. The past and the present juxtaposed in Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden.
The past and the present juxtaposed in Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden.
I am at Vancouver’s Chinatown, and the sun has finally broken through the heavy clouds so typical of the city’s winter seasons. Rainwater pooling in the streets like a shattered mirror, erratically reflecting pieces of the sky and the worn structures underneath.

I start to put together those scattered reflections as if playing a puzzle game, naming and matching them to the objects they reflect. To my left, the murals beside the herb shop extend freely to its terracotta roof tiles. To my right, the narrow building with recessed balconies leads up to a banner. The banner is inscribed, in calligraphy, the surname of a family benevolent association.

This is not the only puzzle present. Underneath the fresh layers of paint and stylish lampposts of Chinatown’s revitalization efforts are the pieces of a past that is fast being replaced by a sanitized narrative – one that aspires to attract and educate, but inevitably requires letting go some of the unadorned memories of the ordinary souls who once called this place home, at time much more menacing and much less forgiving.

Still, overflowing with a desire to explore and an imagination ready to run wild, I resolve to play detective for the day and sniff out anything that could give me a glimpse into that murky past. My version of it, as I am well aware.

Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. The Millennium Gate, built in 2002, is the entrance into Vancouver's Chinatown. Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. Vancouver Chinatown street view. Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. Many buildings in Chinatown are built shoulder to shoulder, with recessed balconies and ornate Western-style railings. Calligraphed Chinese banners take a central spot at front of the buildings. Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. Left: Sam Kee building is the world's narrowest building at only six feet wide. Right: a souvenir shop on Chinatown's Pender Street.

Underneath the fresh layers of paint and stylish lampposts of Chinatown’s revitalization efforts are the bits and pieces of a past that is fast being replaced by a sanitized narrative.

Vancouver’s Chinatown took shape during the late 1890s after a wave of Chinese workers arrived the region to work for Canadian Pacific Railway’s construction projects. With the establishment of tenement buildings, restaurants, tailors, and other businesses, Chinatown began to expand and assert itself as a distinct ethnic enclave.

Due in part to the widespread discrimination and hostility, such as the 1907 Anti-Oriental Riot, many Chinese benevolent associations were established. They provided mutual protection and facilitated a smoother transition for immigrants. This led to a community that was virtually self contained, complete with its own schools, clinics, libraries, theatres, clan associations, and other public amenities.

From the 1930s onwards, Vancouver’s Chinatown started a long decline due to withering economic activities from the Great Depression and the introduction of 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, which completely prohibited Chinese immigration to Canada. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that Chinatown began to revitalize, as middle-class immigrants and foreign investment from Hong Kong poured into the city.

By the end of the century, as wealthy Chinese immigrants took up the prime neighbourhoods that were once reserved for the upper middle class Anglo-Saxons, Chinatown became less of a self-segregated ethnic enclave and more of a cultural relic, culminating in its designation in June 2010 as a National Historic Site of Canada.

Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. A dried goods shop in Chinatown. Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. Left: hundreds of glass jars line the walls of the dried good specialty shops, displaying unusual ingredients sourced from the far-flung corners of the world. Right: a shop in Chinatown selling religious supplies. Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. Left: seafood shop in Chinatown. Right: Chinese BBQ shop. Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. A traditional barbershop in Chinatown.

Chinatown became less of a self-segregated ethnic enclave and more of a cultural relic, culminating in its designation in June 2010 as a National Historic Site of Canada.

As I walk through the Millennium Gate and its flanking lion statues, old buildings begin to grow in numbers. They are narrow and thin, painted with bright colours and built shoulder-to-shoulder. Many are constructed with red bricks with recessed balconies, ornate Western-style railings, and roof parapets.

Though the buildings themselves are visibly oriental, many feature columns and cornices built in the Greco-Roman tradition. Calligraphed Chinese banners hanged at the front-centre of the buildings, written and stamped by individuals important and respected by the community.

While the buildings are mostly owned by the clan associations of Chinatown, the ground floors are rented to restaurants and shops selling religious supplies, herbs, dried goods, and tourist souvenirs. A rare few still carry the neon signs prevalent in the 60s, but most have resorted to letters printed on the tents extending to the sidewalks.

Bargain hunters roam while shop owners seduce passersby with their “liquidation” discounts. Glass jars cover the walls of herb shops, displaying unusual ingredients sourced from far-flung corners of the world. It is chaotic but strangely logical.

Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. Moss-green roof tiles and stone columns are prominent features of Chinatown's historical architectures. Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. Autumn foliage in Chinatown's public parks. Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. The rear entrance to Chinatown's Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. Bamboo pathway inside the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden.

While the buildings are mostly owned by the clan associations of Chinatown, the ground floors are rented to restaurants and shops selling religious supplies, herbs, and tourist souvenirs.

And then I fixed my attention on a small alley beside a chic Western hair salon, one of the few Caucasian-run establishments that has recently moved into the area because of its lower rent and heritage status. This alley, called the Shanghai Alley, is the most historically significant alleyway of Chinatown. It once served as Chinatown’s social and cultural hub, the centre of all happenings.

Decades of redevelopment, however, has rendered it quiet and sterile. In place is a modern interpretation of the row houses that used to be here in the 1940s. The West Han Dynasty Bell monument is the only artifact linking the present to the past.

Still, to walk here and smell the herbs and concrete thousands have smelled before me provide for an emotional link necessary to fill in the missing pieces of my imagination. My mind starts to bring back the street that was once lit with warm neon signs. People in their suspenders and trilby hat gathering in front of the row houses, sharing photos of their families in China.

The street is alive and vibrant, accompanied by Chinese opera music, bartering cries, and steaming buns of the nearby shops. Erhu melodies and clackings of slamming mahjong swirl through the alleys as heavy smokes seep through its gambling parlours and opium dens.

Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. A building in the Shanghai Alley. The narrow pathway beside is the Suzhou Alley, where much of the community's activities evolved around. Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. Part of Chinatown's revitalization effort is the installation of decorative lampposts featuring Chinese dragon sculptures. Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. A large abacus artwork with stylized beads in the newly developed area of Chinatown. Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. A Chinatown mural.

To walk inside this alley and smell the aroma of herbs and concrete thousands have smelled before me provide a certain emotional linkage necessary to fill in the missing pieces of my imagination.

Without warning, I was interrupted by a fellow sightseer asking for direction. And just as abruptly, that whisper of imagination fades into the cold limestones. Then it starts to drizzle.

An afternoon in Vancouver’s Chinatown left me with more questions than answers. What exactly is Chinatown? Is it a mirror image of somewhere far away, or is it just a theme park created out of Westerner’s fascination for the mystical far East?

Or maybe it is what Chinatown used to be in Vancouver, a fusion of two cultures trapped in a time in the past? Losing its role as the de facto ethnic enclave for the immigrants, how should it redefine itself?

In a series of efforts to boost tourism and business activities, where is the fine line between trying hard and trying too hard?

History is defined by change, and Chinatown is nothing without it. But what constitutes organic change versus synthetic ones? Do they even matter? Should gentrification be seen as a natural part of historical progress in-line with Chinatown’s legacy, or should efforts be made to preserve a certain part of it? What should be preserved? This interplay between identity, authenticity, and adaptability illustrate many of the challenges facing Chinatown and its future. Interestingly, a quote that perhaps would shed some light on such confounding subject is found on a mural inside Chinatown itself:

“知人者智,自知者明。勝人者有力,自勝者強。” – 老子

“It takes knowledge to understand others, but it needs a clear mind to know oneself. It takes strength to surpass others, but it requires a strong will to surpass oneself” – Lao Tsu

Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. It takes knowledge to understand others, but it needs a clear mind to know oneself. It takes strength to surpass others, but it requires a strong will to surpass oneself - Lao Tsu Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. The Vancouver headquarter of Taiwan's Kuomintang, the political party in control of China before Mao Zedong took over in 1949. Vancouver Chinatown: Past and Present. Coup Salon, one of the few Caucasian-run establishments that has recently moved into the area because of its lower rent and heritage status.

 

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