Chinatown Syndrome

The neighbourhood's survival is threatened by a polarized debate between the Old Guard and the Young Turks. But a new generation seeks a middle way

January 1, 2010

By Frances Bula

Saturday morning in Chinatown. Short women carry plastic bags with the green leaves of gai lan poking out. Frail old men shuffle along in runners and golfing caps. Clusters of confused-looking tourists circle aimlessly on the plaza in front of the Chinese Cultural Centre on East Pender.

Across the street, something different is going on. One building draws a stream of stylish visitors, some peering into nearby shop windows with a curiosity and sense of discovery you might see in the bazaars of Kabul. These adventure travellers have come to Chinatown for a star-studded party thrown by Bob Rennie, the man who epitomizes the new Vancouver: condo marketer, adviser to the powerful, exuberantly non-Toronto personality. Here, amid stores selling bamboo fans, posters of Bruce Lee, jade jewellery, and dried products of all descriptions, Rennie has dropped $20 million of his personal wealth. Fixing up the oldest building in Chinatown, he’s created an elegant home for his extensive modern-art collection and real-estate offices. Since it opened in late October, Rennie’s museum has hosted a series of see-my-art-and-building parties that have drawn people down to an area they may not have visited in decades. Some wonder if Rennie’s gallery might signal the shift to a long-promised reinvention of Chinatown.

It might, if Chinatown were any other Vancouver neighbourhood. But its land market functions unlike any other in the region because so much of the property is held by 120 family and clan associations. And the level of scrutiny is unmatched: everything that happens here is heard around the city and even the world, since every piece of family property is linked to people from Marpole to Hong Kong.

This Saturday, along with the art crowd and the developers and the media, several generations of the Yip family have been invited to share caramel hot chocolate on the roof of Rennie’s building. They include 92-year-old Henry Yip, who was born, went to school, and lived in the building until he moved to 12th and Oak in the 1960s; Sylvia Lee, Hoy Yip, and Grace Yip of the next generation; and youngsters Lionel Yip, a Crown prosecutor in New Westminster, and Graham Yip, an intern architect. All now live andwork outside Chinatown, but they share an umbilical link to their building and their old neighbourhood in a way that no other ethnic group in the city does.

“We’d have family dinners here, and that was the window of the kitchen,” says Lionel, pointing to an opening now filled with concrete. “It’s an amazing transformation.” He and others of his age tried a decade ago to figure out a way to do their own salvage job. “But it was just too expensive, too difficult.” Patriarch Henry, hard of hearing but still able to get the gist, adds: “I’m glad Bob bought it.”

 

 

James Cheng, architect 

James Cheng

Architect, designer of the Chinese Cultural Centre

“Chinatown should be looking at trying to do something like Xin Tin De in Shanghai, one of the most successful redevelopment projects in the world. And they’ve got to mix residential in. Also, the Chinese Cultural Centre should be demolished. It never worked. The city could redevelop it and do affordable housing for seniors.”

 

 


That willingness to hand over heritage, or allow outsiders to help out, is not shared by other families and clans. They have struggled for decades to hold on to their buildings and have engaged in an endurance contest with city planners, bargaining with them for years for special incentives to engage in large-scale renovations. So far, they haven’t closed a deal good enough to prompt significant change. In the meantime, Chinatown declines around them, losing the lustre of its 1980s golden era as Chinese businesses expanded to follow their Chinese customers out to Richmond, Burnaby, and Coquitlam, not to mention every other neighbourhood in Vancouver.

Last year, city planners, on orders from the Non-Partisan Association council of the time, were asked to look at allowing taller buildings in Chinatown. Subsequent city documents and drawings suggested that hundred-metre towers, including one on the site of the Chinese Cultural Centre, were being considered. That planning exercise quickly polarized debate in Chinatown and turned it into a caricature of hidebound traditionalists who didn’t want a brick touched, even if it meant the neighbourhood’s eventual collapse, versus crass pro-development types with no respect for the past.

A block from Rennie’s building, the New Town Bakery and Restaurant is doing its usual booming Saturday business, to all appearances unchanged from the 1970s: booths upholstered in violent orange plastic; Formica tables, dulled from decades of use, bearing steaming plates of shrimp dumplings and won ton soup; the cash register working overtime counting cardboard boxes filled with New Town’s famous apple tarts. Does this place really exist alongside Vancouver’s glittering condo stalagmites?

Albert Fok and Peter Wong have just walked here from Rennie’s building. They admire it, they say over Chinese tea, but can’t see how it alone will be enough for Chinatown, whose future they hope to salvage. A single building, especially one renovated at a cost no one else is ever likely to pay, can’t change such a complex area. Something else has to unlock the potential of the other buildings, to open a door for local owners to do their own smaller-scale rehabilitation. Chinatown needs a common vision of how to reinvent itself. It’s important, they believe, that the new be allowed into blocks not already filled with heritage buildings.

“Chinatown can have a museum component, but Chinatown is not a museum,” says Fok, in his soft voice. Both men emanate a sense of restrained desperation about the district’s future. “We have property owners that are on the brink of exiting,” says Fok, who knows that part of the community well. Chairman of the Chinatown Merchants Association for six years, he recently became president of the Chinatown Business Improvement Association. He travels to China for his health-food business, and he knows many offshore Chinese who are interested in investing in a renewed Chinatown. Like the locals, they’re hesitant, though for different reasons. “They would like to make their mark,” adds Fok, “but they feel a little shut out.”

 

 

Carol Lee, Businesswoman

Carol Lee

Businesswoman

“Chinatown was a really big part of my childhood. When I came back down in 2003, I was sort of sad about it. But when I really got down here, I liked the edginess. Sometimes what it needs is just introducing people to the neighbourhood. So many young people have said they want to come back. But we don’t want this to be a Yaletown with no culture.”

 

 


But then, everyone feels a little shut out in these intensely interconnected but clannish few blocks. That’s part of the problem. You would think that, with their pedigrees, Wong and Fok would be able to reach everyone. Wong, a doctor, is the son of the legendary King Wong, founder of the Dollar Food Group and a respected member of the Chinese community until his death in 2000. Peter grew up in East Vancouver, but has been drawn back to Chinatown, as have many whose parents raised them in suburban Vancouver while continuing to run their businesses here. Fok, who grew up in Richmond, runs the store that his father started over 30 years ago.

 

The two have been trying to steer a middle course between the older generation, who fear that change will eradicate the neighbourhood, and those who argue that some change has to come or the area will die. Although almost everyone agrees that Chinatown needs to do something differently to survive, their attempts to find middle ground got lost in the multi­lingual, multi-clan, multigenerational fray that erupted over the proposed towers. Fok found himself blamed for the idea. Now they fear that everything will revert to paralyzed status quo or a city amendment so minor that it won’t make a difference. “If that happens,” Wong says, “Chinatown won’t survive.”

The area has been about to turn the corner for decades. Year after year, whispers start up: a new group has arrived to change things for the better. And then they disappear, defeated by tradition, inertia, or fear of change. Sixteen years ago, a fresh group tried to take over the board of the Chinese Cultural Centre. They were driven back, and the centre has continued to decline. Seven years ago, new young people, like Banana magazine publisher Mark Simon, were going to lead Chinatown to its future via hip-hop and a cool blending of old and new. Simon went on to other things; young people are still not particularly visible on Chinatown streets. Four years ago, it was Rennie buying the 1889 Wing Sang building.

“Chinatown’s at a crossroads right now. It could go downhill really fast,” says architect David Wong, who got drawn into activism because of the towers uproar. He meets informally with a group he calls the Rice Pack, second- and third-generation Chinese like himself who want to find ways to bring in new groups and new people while preserving the parts of old Chinatown that are valuable. His project at the moment is to use his connections to introduce the old generation to new ideas, like making China town an arts, culture, and new-media hub. “Convincing the older people that their authority is not being challenged” is a tricky project, he says, requiring the skills of a Ming Dynasty courtier. His plan is not so much about preserving or developing the buildings as changing the people and activities in them.
“It’s all relationships in Chinatown,” says Wong, who has designed green buildings in China and regional telecentres in Australia. “Some of us are reconnecting with them now. But it takes a bit of arm-wrestling to convince the old guard. Some people weren’t happy to see non-Asians move into this community.”

Carol Lee is also worried. The Harvard-educated daughter of another legendary businessman, Prospero Group founder Bob Lee, Lee started up a skin-care business in the family’s old building six years ago, across from New Town. She is part of a cluster of saviours who seek to create a Chinatown trust, with a high-powered board of businessmen from her dad’s generation and a $50,000 grant from Canadian National, built on the power of Canada’s Chinese immigrants. “It’s been hard to have a unified front down here. And I think that’s important. It’s important to be deliberate about what we do, to make sure the whole neighbourhood doesn’t just gentrify.”

After hosting a banquet earlier this year at Floata that brought together overlapping circles of interest in Chinatown, Lee is working on coming up with a designated goal; raising money to buy buildings is one idea circulating. The last time the Vancouver Board of Trade was organizing a lunch for its board, she invited her fellow members down to Chinatown’s Jade Dynasty. “Sometimes, it’s just about introducing people to the neighbourhood.”

Tung Chan, CEO of the Chinese social-services agency S.U.C.C.E.S.S.

Tung Chan

CEO of the Chinese social-services agency S.U.C.C.E.S.S.

“The biggest dilemma here is not so much the physical side of Chinatown but the cultural and the people side. You can throw money at the buildings, but if you look from an anthropological point of view at the clan associations here [running Chinatown] and map that against the recent immigrants, there’s no connection.”

 


In front of Rennie’s building, city councillor George Chow meets me for a walk to show me the history of dozens of the buildings on these few blocks. Here, just up the street, is the building that fellow councillor Kerry Jang’s family association owns. There, the Wong Benevolent Association building. As we pass the musty smell of herbal-medicine shops, the fish store, the barbecue duck hanging in the windows, the roll call continues: the Lee family building, the Chinese Freemasons buildings, the Mah Society building, the Chinese Benevolent Association buildings, and more.

Along the way we see signs of the changes that have crept in over the past 10 years. Furniture stores like Peking Lounge, in the Jang family building, and Bombast are looking healthy. The Sun Yat-Sen Gardens is thriving, a model, many say, for the elegant way it has made a site of traditional Chinese culture a go-to place for the city. A couple of other buildings have been lovingly restored. Financier Milton Wong has turned his father’s Modernize Tailor at Pender and Carrall, with its ghostly Pekin Chop Suey announcement painted on the side, into a near museum piece. The benevolent association building next to Foo’s Ho Ho has a beautiful new sage-green façade, thanks to the city’s program to give money for restoring Chinatown’s heritage buildings.

When we circle back to Rennie’s gallery, we find ourselves next to the chunk of land owned by Chow’s clan association. The Yue Shan building is one of the last to retain some of the hutong-like Chinatown that existed a hundred years ago. There’s an interior courtyard, laundry hangs on a line and vegetables dry on windowsills; a small passageway, historic Market Alley, connects it to the lane between Pender and Hastings. It’s buildings like this that need to find their identity in a new Chinatown.

 

A UBC architecture professor, Inge Roeker, is working with the Yue Shan elders on a project to open up the alley and courtyard. Roeker, who has worked with other groups on façade-restoration projects, is even talking about re-creating a market here, an ambitious project that will require finding a way to move along the current alley occupants, addicts looking for a quiet place to shoot up.

It’s hard not to be seduced yet again by the turning-the-corner narrative. So many people are passionately interested in this patch of ground. World-renowned architects James Cheng and Bing Thom have offered to hold an urban-design workshop to help the community come up with the kind of finely detailed plan the area needs. UBC professor Henry Yu, a specialist in Chinatowns, has his students recording oral histories of the elders. Community champion and architect Joe Wai continues to fight for and work in this neighbourhood, as he has for 50 years. Fok has been successful in bringing in yet another cluster of younger people, who organized a Chinatown Arts Festival this year that included, yes, a hip-hop contest, and playful variations on the Year of the Bull theme, with Red Bull and Lamborghini as sponsors. And Jessica Chen, a senior city planner dedicated to the area, is always looking for new people and ventures to encourage. The latest is Tannis Ling, a young woman from a mixed Taiwan-Hong Kong background who is opening a restaurant that will bring in the new Chinese flavour that everyone says Chinatown needs.

As Vancouver busily transforms itself into a bland anime city, there’s another momentum as well. It feels as though unreconstructed Chinatown is more cherished every year by people looking for a different quality of urbanism. “I arrive at work as the Chinese grocers are setting up for the day,” says Monte Paulsen, an editor at the online Tyee, which recently moved into the Golden Crown building at Main and Georgia. (That tenancy is one of the green shoots tended by David Wong, who is working with the owner of the architecturally unremarkable building to transform it into a grass-roofed, green enclave that houses a collection of media, arts, and culture types.). “It’s the most enjoyable office I’ve ever worked out of because the street experience is so good. I walk through the smells of fish and strange-smelling herbs. I listen to the call-and-response of the mostly Chinese workers unloading trucks full of vegetables. And on the sidewalks, I stroll past elderly Chinese residents, young Chinese professionals, younger hipsters, and a smattering of addicts and the mentally ill. For that 10 minutes, it feels like an actual world city, instead of some shiny ‘world-class city’ that consists of little more than Starbucks and yuppie grocery stores.”

Andy Yan, Planner 

Andy Yan

Planner working with Bing Thom Architects

“We’re facing a generational shift. All of these formerly marginalized Chinese areas are going through the struggle of modernizing. I think with the debate over towers in Chinatown, the towers are dead. But not embracing height is just as problematic.”

 

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.