Why do we need a People’s Vision for Chinatown?

Rising property values and rents are slowly displacing the Chinatown community. Three out of every five Chinatown residents are poor and nearly every benevolent society offering affordable housing has a waitlist, yet the vast majority of housing being built in the neighbourhood is at market-rates. Long-time cafes and grocery stores can no longer afford the increased commercial rents, and expensive restaurants, boutiques, and banks have opened in their place.

Less than a century ago, Chinatown was an internal colony. Chinese workers laboured in mines and on the railroads, and then in sawmills, canneries, laundries, groceries, restaurants, and domestic service, even while they were subjected to legislated discrimination and physical violence from white settlers. From the 1800s through the 20th century, municipal, provincial, and federal governments disqualified Chinese residents from voting in elections; prohibited new immigration from China; restricted Chinese workers and businesses; and segregated Chinese residents into undesirable locations, including Vancouver Chinatown. Chinese residents endured by building housing, schools, businesses, and community associations together in Chinatown.

Today the land in Chinatown is increasingly valuable to investors and developers. The adjacent downtown area has densified and deindustrialized, with towers replacing factories and warehouses. The coal gas manufacturing plant on Keefer Street has closed. As the boundaries of Vancouver have shifted east and south, Chinatown is no longer on the edge of the city, but at its centre. The location of the neighbourhood is now extremely desirable, but the working-class community cannot afford the rent increases. Existing government policies are only worsening socioeconomic inequality. Zoning and tax policies value real estate speculation and development profit more than the community members who pay rent and earn wages; heritage policies are focused on protecting only cultural objects, not the people in the community.

We need a vision for the social and economic development of Chinatown that serves the people of the community, especially those who are most likely to be displaced by gentrification. Our community members have the greatest need to remain in Chinatown. Chinatown is not a collection of old buildings and exotic signs, but a living community that has been built over one hundred years so that our people could remain independent, even if they are poor, immigrant, senior, do not speak English, or have otherwise been excluded from society. We have developed the People’s Vision for Chinatown because we will organize and fight to remain.



Chinatown Action Group members at the Demovictions Squat, 5025 Imperial Street in Burnaby. July 2016. Credit: Yuly Chan