How Well Do You Know International Village?

The city’s oddest mall has a part to play in the development of nearby Chinatown. That’s assuming anyone thinks to consult it.

August 31, 2015

In the year of the goat, on an unremarkable Tuesday, life at International Village is spooling out in a string of Vancouverist vignettes. From a bench in the mall’s atrium, two elderly Asian women oversee a pair of toddlers, one Chinese, one cherub-white. Adjacent sit the kinds of people who need a resting place at this forgotten crossroads: older men from the Downtown Eastside, aboriginal and not; older men from Chinatown. Away from the circle of benches, a fellow in a ballcap buys a six-pack of toilet paper from Rexall Drugs. Up on the second floor, a smattering of customers in the echoing food court study, listen to earbuds, or grab a quick Sri Lankan lamb roll or Thai curry before heading up to the cinemas on the floor above.

Betty and Roger Burr are two idlers killing time before a matinee of Selma. Burnaby residents, they know the area well. Betty, whose British accent speaks to growing up Chinese in India, still likes to come down to Chinatown to get herbal supplies, buns at New Town Bakery, and produce at T & T. They bought their wedding cake, way back when, at a Chinatown bakery.

Like many in Vancouver, they make use of what they can in the area while puzzling over all that is wrong with it. If you were to stop and look, you’d see that the mall—with its ornate carved wall frieze by then-local designer David Hornblow, its arched skylights, its modernist floors—is one of the city’s more beautiful commercial buildings. But its oddball tenants (furniture store, shoe and cellphone repair shops, boutiques of Chinese artifacts, kids’ books, jade jewellery, African crafts) plus all that empty space on the second floor don’t reflect its original intentions. But then, only half a block away, Chinatown isn’t what it once was either. As a former nurse, Betty’s not worried about walking the patchwork of streets—Chinatown and not quite Chinatown—west of Main along Pender and Keefer. She used to treat the kind of strung-out, sketchy-looking people she sees here—they don’t alarm her. The whole thing, she says, is “just sad.”

***

There are places in Vancouver that feel integral to the public empire. Robson Square. The seawall. Waterfront Station. Gastown. Official Chinatown is in that group, with its benevolent-association buildings and its overlay of non-Chinese memories of exotic family dinners. But this vague borderland—the mall, T & T across the street, the cluster of condos above? Not so much. It’s a fold in our space/time continuum.

A hundred years ago, this area— now called Crosstown by some, International Village by others— was pressed up to the edge of a self-contained Chinese village inside Victorian Vancouver. The mall’s eastern wall borders what was once Canton Alley, a jammed double row of tenements. The Texas Lake Ice and Cold Storage shed stood where the mall’s northeastern doors are now, but Pender Street to the west didn’t even exist in city directories until 1928. In 1931, freight and warehousing operations started to populate that block. Later, the area became home to CP tracks—the diagonal orientation of International Village memorializes one of those lines—and a streetcar depot. By 1967, the site was an empty lot.

The city sold the land to Li Ka-shing as part of the post-Expo 86 package, but it took 10 years of mulling, planning, public hearings, and rezonings before anything happened. Chinatown merchants worried the extension would eclipse the neighbourhood. Others hoped new residents and businesses would help revitalize it. Because by that point, the traditional neighbourhood—everything east of Canton Alley (torn down in 1949) to Gore—was suffering. At its height in the 1920s, the district crammed 13,000 into its few blocks. By the end of the war, that was down to 7,000, as new generations of Chinese migrated first to Strathcona, then to Oakridge, Burnaby, and southeast Vancouver; the new Chinese arrivals of the 1980s and ’90s didn’t even stop in Vancouver, going directly to Richmond and Coquitlam. By 2001, the total population of Chinatown was 775, with only 300 who had Chinese as their first language.

International Village finally opened in December 1999. The name came from city planners’ idea that the area should become an all-nations market. A giant metal globe (another Hornblow creation) reinforced the idea. Six months before the opening, news broke that instead it was going to be a high-fashion competitor for downtown shoppers, but the owners, now Hong Kong-based Henderson Developments, backed away, leaving the place with a set of movie theatres and no distinct retail identity. It remains that way, even as almost 2,000 residents have moved into the towers within a block, a fifth of them Chinese speakers.

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Tourists on guided trips generally don’t see west of the Chinatown gate that marks the intersection of Pender with the former Canton Alley. Bob Sung, a fourth-generation Vancouverite, does a four-hour food and history tour. He starts at the Sun Yat-Sen garden and moves east, bypassing T & T, the Guangzhou bells outside the mall, and International Village itself. “There’s nothing of any interest,” says Sung. His clients are 20 percent Asian, almost exclusively from elsewhere in North America.

At Chinese New Year, the mall’s managers—ambivalent about whether International Village is an Asian-themed mall or not—throw themselves into the traditional parade and festivities organized by the Chinese Benevolent Association. But there the exchange ends. They have been cut off from Chinatown’s business community, in part because of a decision among that group—worried about the mall being too dominant—to exclude it as a business-association member.

It’s also almost invisible to the people in Chinatown trying to figure out how to save the world they grew up in. Carol Lee is one. In the East Pender headquarters of her successful Linacare company, Lee details her latest ventures. Sometime before Christmas she is aiming to re-open Foo’s Ho Ho, a legendary restaurant at the corner of Pender and Columbia. She has the old menu and is studying it because she—with a group that works with her at the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation for Community Revitalization, which they kicked off four years ago—has decided that simply letting the market decide everything is not going to serve Chinatown. Among the founders: Carol’s father, Bob Lee; London Drugs chairman Brandt Louie; businessman and major philanthropist Robert Ho; and real-estate developer Caleb Chan. They want to encourage property owners to think about what kinds of renters will keep Chinatown from becoming little more than a stage set.

“We need to evolve, yes,” says Lee, “but what are those things we save? Chinatown isn’t Chinatown if you don’t have Chinese businesses, people, and culture. And once we change, we cannot go back.” The Chinatown in Washington, D.C., tried to adapt. It is now an area filled with chain stores whose nod to Chinatown is having Chinese-language signs. Everything else is gone.

“While we are revitalizing, we must not lose sight of what is so valuable,” says Henry Fung, a former science researcher who is Lee’s business partner in Linacare. “We don’t want to turn into Gastown or Yaletown.”

***

In a way, the problem for Chinatown parallels the one at International Village. Neither seems to have full control over its identity. Jordan Eng, vice-president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association and a broker who specializes in the area’s real estate, says International Village might confuse visitors used to western malls because its retail selection is so scattershot. “In a western sort of mall,” says Eng, “the landlord controls everything,” producing a curated set of stores that define the mall’s identity.

Chinatown, too, suffers from dozens of different property owners doing their own thing. The area has seen growing tides of new businesses in the last decade. These have included a few ventures aimed at playful takes on traditional mixed with modern. Bao Bei, riffing on 1930s Shanghai, is one. A new venture, Sai Woo, is another. (See “Gate Crashers,” pg. 38.) But there are also coffee shops that have replaced Chinese knick-knack emporia, a longboard shop, a currywurst restaurant. More ominously, there’s been talk of a tattoo parlour and a marijuana dispensary.

Chinatown has one dilemma that International Village doesn’t. The city’s Chinatown plan, finalized four years ago, opened the door to some taller condo towers along Main and Keefer. The first three projects have generated enough concern—bad architectural fit, apparent skimpiness of community benefits—that the city has slowed a fourth project by the Beedie Group (the tallest, at 120 feet) to have a long conversation about design and contributions.

The ideal might be if someone could buy all 12 blocks and legislate the right mix of old and new, adding in International Village as well to make everything jibe. Improbable. So trying to preserve and grow China-town means integrating ever-multiplying perspectives.

Jessica Chen is a planner who worked on the future of Chinatown for more than a decade. Merchants and property owners used to represent the area at council. She tried to add voices: International Village, area residents, the benevolent association families, young Asians from UBC clubs. “With International Village, I was convinced that the relationship with Chinatown is critical,” says Chen, who’s since moved to Montreal. “It was 10 years to get people together, to broaden people’s views.”

Stakeholders came to understand the diversity of those few blocks: historic buildings needing a huge cash influx; small lots to be redeveloped with buildings enhancing the existing area; big lots, for potential major projects that need sensitive handling; International Village. “They require balance,” says Chen. The city’s new plan for Chinatown “is not a blank cheque to say everyone can go to the limit. If rezoning is the only focus, the rest of the neighbourhood will be left behind. It’s so easy and so tempting to go for the quick solutions.”

Councillor Raymond Louie is normally a numbers and policy guy. But not when his own family association had to decide whether to rent to a marijuana dispensary. (It didn’t.) Louie insists that the city’s development plan is a good one, that the mix of businesses is starting to bring people back, but he concedes that politics and city policy have limits when it comes to this bit of history-soaked Vancouver.

“We’re all trying to capture an emotion. We have a romantic notion of what Chinatown was, what it could be,” says Louie. “What we don’t have is a road map of how to get there. And it’s not just the buildings. It’s the experience. That’s what many of us are trying to re-create for the next generation. Somehow we’ve got to knit that together.”

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