Investigation: Is Vancouver’s Chinatown dying?

Pandemic-triggered increases in store closures, street disorder and anti-Asian racism have slammed the historic community, with a contrasting mix of unease and optimism among those who remain and those who left

A man walks by a heavily graffitied business on Keefer Street in Chinatown, which had a commercial vacancy rate of more than 23% in 2020. Some community leaders suggest the rate is even higher this year | Photo: Mike Howell

For more than a year now, Helen Chu has stood behind the counter of her flower shop in the Chinatown Plaza and hoped for something that rarely ooccurs these days: a visit from a buying customer.

On a recent Monday morning, over the space of three hours, Chu received four online orders for small flower arrangements, but no walk-in customers.

“Not too many people come into this mall,” said Chu, whose City Garden Florist is among the few that remain open in the plaza on Keefer Street.

The barber shop and shoe repair to her left and right are closed. Two fast-food outlets, a tool shop, a beauty salon and at least three travel agencies also shut down in the past year.

The iconic Floata restaurant on the third floor is still open, but business is down more than 50% since last spring, according to the manager.

Chu looked up at a clock on the wall to point out it was lunchtime.

The food court seats were empty.

“There’s not too much to look at in here,” she said. “Look for yourself, it’s looking dead.”

Her shop has been in the plaza since 1995. She remembers the pre-pandemic days when the ice rink-sized space was busy with customers, some of whom might stop in for lunch and then pick up flowers on the way out.

Chu is not sure how much longer she will stay open, noting she’s near retirement age. She doesn’t want to look for another location, where the rent would likely be higher than the $1,800 a month she now pays.

The worry in her voice is palpable.

While a direct link to her shop’s instability can be made to the pandemic’s crushing blow on businesses across the city and tourism in general, it is the increase in drug-fueled street disorder and a disturbing rise in anti-Asian racism that is also at play in Chinatown.

Graffiti, too, seems to be everywhere.

Such a combination of pressures on the community is why Chu strongly believes many customers have avoided Chinatown, particularly seniors.

“It is getting worse and worse, and not many people want to come down because they are afraid,” she said, noting she feels more vulnerable as businesses close in the plaza and fewer shopkeepers are there to look out for each other.

Helen Chu

Helen Chu of City Garden Florist in the Chinatown Plaza. Photo: Mike Howell

Similar uneasiness was shared by other owners and leaders in the community who spoke to Glacier Media over the past two weeks, with optimism for Chinatown’s future difficult to find.

At the same time, some with both long and recent ties to Chinatown were more hopeful, pointing to a turnaround coming as the pandemic subsides and plans for revitalization accelerate.

Is Chinatown really dying? Is it under siege?

What’s clear is Chinatown has been tested all through its history, whether from government-legislated racism, land expropriation for viaduct construction or, more recently, because of large customer-attracting Asian centres built in Richmond and Burnaby.

Such perseverance and historic significance is why city hall is pushing a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designation for Chinatown. It does so while simultaneously continuing to roll out what has been a slow-moving, decades-long revitalization campaign.

But how a city-altering pandemic coupled with an increase in street disorder and a dramatic rise in anti-Asian hate crimes — up 717% in 2020 — affects any progress going forward is still an open question.

The urgency to do something now, however, couldn’t be stronger.

Fred Kwok

Fred Kwok, chairperson of the Chinese Cultural Centre, during a walk on Columbia Street. Photo: Mike Howell

'Modern day racism'

That message was made clear by Fred Kwok as he circled the block that includes the Chinese Cultural Centre and Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden, located a short walk from the Chinatown Plaza.

Kwok is the chairperson of the cultural centre and president of the Chinese Benevolent Association, where he has lobbied politicians and police for years to make Chinatown a safer, cleaner and more welcoming place for visitors and business owners.

What he saw as he approached the east wing of the cultural centre on Columbia Street provided evidence for his concern: a grouping of tents and tarps outside the centre, a collection of bicycles and visible drug use among those present on the sidewalk.

“This is what I’m talking about,” he said.

To the right of the small encampment, two of the centre’s large doors were  covered in plywood after the glass was smashed out. The doors serve as the entrance to the office of a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor.

On the Carrall Street side of the centre, a man holding a syringe had made a makeshift shelter out of a shopping cart at an entrance to the garden, preventing an artist from entering the grounds to set up an exhibit.

At the front of the centre on East Pender Street, where two large windows featuring photographs of Chinese pioneers remain cracked and defaced from earlier vandalism, four men and a woman had gathered on the sidewalk to inject drugs — all of this happening on a sunny Monday afternoon in June.

Kwok pulled out his phone to show photographs he’d taken of graffiti, more broken windows, garbage and a man defecating in an alley; Kwok said the man had just had sex on a grassy boulevard on Columbia Street, across from the centre.

Police and the BC Coroners Service also confirmed the body of a 28-year-old man was found in January in one of the garden’s ponds. Police said the man’s death was not suspicious. The Coroners Service continues to investigate.

“It’s so bad in all of Chinatown that everyone is afraid to come down here, and it’s not right that people have to live in fear,” said Kwok, who recently posted a video on YouTube where he expressed in Cantonese his outrage at the noticeable increase in graffiti and street disorder in Chinatown; the video had more than 100,000 views as of Wednesday.

Kwok’s frustration with the state of the streets around the centre and the wider Chinatown area led him to speak out at a recent online forum on anti-Asian hate crimes hosted by the Vancouver Police Board.

“Feces, urine, graffiti, theft and break-ins is the modern day racism against the Chinese community,” he said at the May 13 forum. “How else can you explain 26 broken windows at the cultural centre in one year, along with other damages and a number of intentional fires that were captured on our security cameras?”

Fred Kwok

Fred Kwok outside the office of a Traditional Chinese Medicine Doctor on Columbia Street. Photo: Mike Howell

He suggested the reported hate crimes over the past year only account for one-third of all cases, saying “I know many friends of mine who never reported the incidents.”

Kwok went on to talk about needles being wedged into some of the centre’s doors, long pieces of glass jammed into the entranceway’s stone lion monuments and staff and visitors being greeted with profanity and threats.

“Most parents of our Chinese school and other cultural programs have cited safety concerns as the reason for withdrawing from our programs,” he said, noting enrolment over the past five years dropped 45%.

Numerous calls to the city’s 311 service, police and elected officials have largely been unproductive or unresponsive, he said, noting he and other leaders met with Mayor Kennedy Stewart in 2019 to request more action in Chinatown.

A request for a public washroom outside the centre was denied by the city’s engineering department, he said, leaving centre staff to dispose of feces and regularly power wash the area.

The messages of hate scrawled across several window panes at the centre in April 2020 advocated for the shooting, killing and genocide of Chinese people. Kwok recognized the mayor and other politicians for condemning the crime, but said none reached out to the cultural centre.

“The Chinese population is not asking for special consideration or treatment,” Kwok said. “All we want is to be treated fairly and equally. How many times must I endure the hateful slur thrown at my face as I walk through the streets that I consider my home for 40 years?”

Fred Kwok

Fred Kwok stands in front of a photograph of Chinese pioneers vandalized at the Chinese Cultural Centre on East Pender Street. Photo: Mike Howell

Kwok said apologies from governments for the historical discrimination waged and perpetuated against Chinese people — including the previous city council’s apology in 2018 at the cultural centre — ring hollow when no meaningful action occurs.

The mayor’s response: “Thank you Mr. Kwok for your brave words, for always sticking up for your community and for speaking truth to power. That’s the only way that we make progress — is to speak out when we’re not pleased with what’s happening. And I agree that apologies are only a small first step. Resources have to be committed.”

Added Stewart: “I acknowledge your frustration and will commit to you to do more to help you and your community.”

Chinatown Gates

The entrance to Chinatown on East Pender Street. Photo: Mike Howell

'A big shock to Chinatown'

Cici Yim won’t be in Chinatown to see what that commitment looks like.

For 28 years, her family-run Ultimate 24K Gold Company Ltd. operated in Chinatown, primarily on Main Street but also on Pender Street.

The family moved the business in July 2020 to Parker Place Mall in Richmond.

Why did they move?

“Why? Because we had three break-ins during COVID,” said Yim of the space in the 500-block Main Street that cost $3,200 per month to rent. “I said to my mother after that, ‘Maybe we should move into a shopping mall.’”

The family lost some of its merchandise in the break-ins, which caused irreparable damage to the store’s metal gate. A hole was cut through the door in one burglary, and an internal gate was also damaged.

Yim said it took a month to get a new main gate ordered, delivered and installed. Their insurance company paid security guards to watch the store for a month to prevent further thefts.

Owning a jewelry store, she acknowledged, can be a dangerous venture, particularly in an area prone to drug-fueled crime. Their store in Chinatown operated with a buzzer, but sometimes the wrong person would get buzzed in.

She described an incident several years ago where she let in a young man, who was quickly followed by two men carrying toolboxes. They pepper-sprayed Yim as she reached to press an emergency police button.

“I felt like I was blinded, I didn’t know what it was, it was very scary,” she said, noting the three men fled the store after she alerted police.

At one time, the family operated two stores in Chinatown. During a move to downsize to one store, someone broke in overnight and stole all the watches.

Asked whether she missed Chinatown, Yim said the move hasn’t sunk in yet, describing it as a weird dream. But she is worried other longtime businesses might also leave.

“We’re a very traditional business, and if we have to leave, that’s a big shock to Chinatown because we’d been there for so long,” she said, noting her mother first started the store in 1992 in a small space inside a post office on Main Street.

JIN

Jin Li operated Chinese Art Crafts for 15 years at this location until closing in December 2020. Photo: Mike Howell

'No life there now'

Jin Li also left Chinatown last year.

After 15 years on East Pender Street, Li closed her Chinese Art Crafts store adjacent to the cultural centre in December 2020.

A combination of a drop in business related to customer-reducing public health orders and a landlord requesting a 20% increase in her lease forced her to shutter the 2,000 sq. foot store.

“They didn’t even apply for a government subsidy for me,” said Li, noting she still had to pay $12,000 in rent for the three months she was closed during the start of the pandemic.

Her financial situation forced her to take out a $40,000 government loan to keep the store open as long as she could.

Originally from Shanghai, Li settled in Chinatown because her English was poor at the time and she wanted to add to the culture established in the neighbourhood more than a century ago by Chinese pioneers.

“I had lots of loyal customers — they loved my store,” she said, noting film industry people bought items for productions. “Every year, I ordered new stuff that people like, so it made my store more and more interesting for the customer.”

One day last year, she said, police visited the store and told her she shouldn’t be working alone, that the area wasn’t safe. She told them she understood but needed the income.

In her time on East Pender Street, Li said thieves targeted her store many times and ran off with various items, with her boyfriend giving chase on a few occasions. Two years ago, Li was knocked to the ground after a man tried to steal a ninja sword.

Ironically, a community policing station is now open only a few doors west of where Li’s store was located at 72 East Pender St.

The storefront is adjacent to the cultural centre, which recently installed large red gates at what used to be an open public entrance to a courtyard and the garden.

Li doesn’t like what has happened to Chinatown, particularly the East Pender strip, which has long been the heart of the community and was recognized by the federal government in 2010 as a national historic site.

She still finds it difficult to talk about shutting down her business.

“When I saw my store empty, I was very sad,” she said, noting what was left of her merchandise was put in storage. “It’s just a bad situation over there. There is no life there now.”

Chinatown empty

Closed shops and empty storefronts are commonplace in Chinatown. Photo: Mike Howell

On a recent weekday afternoon, Glacier Media counted 27 storefronts along Pender, between Columbia and Main streets, that were either behind locked metal gates, vacant or with “for lease” signs on them.

Between Jan. 1, 2016, and June 15, 2021, Vancouver police statistics for the area bounded by Gore Street, Union Street, Pender Street and Taylor Street show there were 883 cases of reported mischief, which includes graffiti, breaking windows and damaging or defacing property.

Of those cases, 199 occurred last year — the most for the five-and-a half year period of statistics. So far this year, mischief cases have totalled 84.

Other crimes recorded between Jan. 1, 2016, and June 15, 2021, in Chinatown include 578 cases of car break-ins, 360 assaults and 239 burglaries to businesses. Reported hate crimes in the area totalled 27 since the beginning of last year.

From January to May of this year, paramedics responded to 73 overdose calls within the same boundaries, with the majority of calls (45) in the Main Street corridor, according to statistics from BC Emergency Health Services.

Sgt. Steve Addison, a Vancouver police media liaison officer, said the concerns of merchants and leaders cannot be understated and that police empathize with the community.

The proximity to the Hastings Street strip, where open drug use and street disorder is commonplace, continues to present a challenge for Chinatown, he said, noting the spillover effect it has had in the historic neighbourhood

Police, he said, have reached out to business owners and other groups in Chinatown in an effort to address the racism, crime and fear that many people have in the area.

Police have arrested individuals connected to hate crimes and assaults on Asian people in Chinatown and in other parts of the city. Officers continue to patrol the streets and a police trailer equipped with cameras was also parked in Chinatown to deter crime.

Recently, the VPD added forms to its website in traditional and simplified Chinese for victims of hate, prejudice or bias to fill out. Forms are also available in Japanese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean and Punjabi.

Addison urged victims of crime, or those who witnessed a crime or saw something suspicious to call police. That also goes for people who can’t resolve a situation by themselves and don’t feel safe.

“We have a lot of officers who work in that neighbourhood, and their job is to be visible and to be present,” he said.

“While they primarily focus along Hastings Street, they're a block or two away from Pender, from Keefer, from Union. It’s literally seconds, sometimes minutes away from being able to get there.”

At the same time, Addison said, homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness – which are connected to street disorder — are issues that require a national response and go beyond the scope of the police department.

“I often say we need to stay in our lane, and our lane is law enforcement and public safety,” he said.

“But we recognize that drug addiction is not a crime, homelessness is not crime and likewise with mental illness. We don’t have all the answers, we can’t solve everything, but we do work with other levels of government to try and address those issues.”

Chinatown graffiti

Graffiti sprayed on storefronts has increased in Chinatown, according to merchants and business leaders. Photo: Mike Howell

6,000 needles

The concerns raised by Chu, Kwok, Yim and Li are familiar to Helen Ma, a senior city planner and co-lead of what is called the Chinatown team.

Ma is involved in preparing the city’s application for a UNESCO designation, which would be a big deal for Chinatown, if granted.

But, as she explained, it could take another six years to finalize a bid.

Why so long?

“It’s quite a monumental undertaking,” said Ma, noting the research involves capturing the “intangible heritage” of Chinatown, including languages and dialects, traditions, rituals, family societies, culinary history and an inventory of buildings.

The more pressing need right now, she said, are the challenges in Chinatown, acknowledging that a UNESCO designation wouldn’t solve the social and health issues in the community.

“I actually think it needs to be the other way around — that these crises on the ground need to be addressed for us to feel we are confident and ready to submit an application,” Ma said.

She echoed the police department’s position on drug use, homelessness and mental illness, saying they are issues that cannot be solely taken on by the city —a common view put forward over the years by city staff and civic politicians.

Provincial and federal governments have to be on board with funding and policy to assist, she said, recognizing the city’s social problems have persisted for years but have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Rhonda Smith

Rhonda Smith of United We Can's cleanup crew working along Keefer Street last week. Photo: Mike Howell

As work continues to address the crises, the city has stepped up its efforts to clean up Chinatown with enhanced flushing and sweeping of streets, according to an email from the city’s communications staff.

Other measures include an increase in the collection of garbage, adding “higher-capacity garbage cart enclosures” and rolling out a grant program to increase the number of “micro-cleaning” shifts per week.

“So far this year, the grant program has provided over 2,300 person hours of micro-cleaning in Chinatown and resulted in the collection of 1,350 bags of garbage and over 6,000 needles from Chinatown streets, sidewalks and laneways,” the email said.

The city’s long-standing graffiti management program is still operating, with racist graffiti removed from public property within 24 hours of it being reported.

The city’s contractor, Goodbye Graffiti, also provides free removal service of racist graffiti on private property, but charges for all types of other spray-painted vandalism.

“There is a huge amount of graffiti that has emerged in a short period of time in Chinatown, and we have heard that’s an urgent issue,” Ma said. “It really impacts the area.”

In March, the city launched a new program where a team from Mission Possible collects feces from sidewalks and alleys in Chinatown and other areas of the Downtown Eastside, operating weekdays from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.

Glacier Media also observed a crew from United We Can picking up garbage along Keefer Street on the same day as City of Vancouver workers cleaned and swept a corner at Carrall and East Pender streets.

“The city recognizes there is a lot of work still to be done, but based on our monitoring we believe these additional service efforts are starting to make a positive impact on cleanliness levels in Chinatown,” the city said in the email.

Jordan Eng

Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown BIA Society, on a walk along East Pender Street. Photo: Mike Howell

'Hard to recover'

Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown BIA Society, is not surprised that merchants and others are going public about concerns related to street disorder, crime and graffiti.

“The community has reached that tipping point, they’re speaking out and a lot of it has fallen on the back of the BIA because we’re the ones responsible for security, graffiti, cleanup, garbage in the lane, that sort of stuff,” he said from behind a desk at Success Realty and Insurance Ltd. on Keefer Street, where he is vice-president of the 60-year-old business.

“But it really has to go back to government to make sure that this community survives.”

The BIA spends about $250,000 a year on security and another $40,000 on graffiti removal, said Eng, noting the Chinatown Plaza and financial institutions pay for their own security. Other BIAs in the city don’t spend that percentage of their budgets to prevent or combat crime, he said.

“Their board members are not talking about security, they’re talking about what colour the banners are going to be on their streets,” he said.

“When you talk to the police or city staff, they say Chinatown doesn’t show up as having a problem. Well, of course we don’t show up because the first interaction is with our security, so they have to handle it.”

During Fred Kwok’s address to the police board in May, he argued that Chinatown businesses were not getting value for the taxes they pay. Eng said the owner of a standard 25-foot one-level property in Chinatown paid roughly $22,700 in property taxes in 2020.

This year, it’s $27,800.

Chinatown storage

Some storefront spaces in Chinatown have turned into storage spaces. Photo: Mike Howell

In October 2020, city staff determined vacancy rates in Chinatown increased 23.7% since the pandemic, which Eng believes is higher than any business district in the city.

Many storefronts, he said, have simply turned into storage spaces.

“What happens is you get to a point where the storage space and the vacant stores overshadow the active storefronts of retail,” he said.

“And then you get into a position where it’s hard to recover back into a lively street front, and bring people into Chinatown, bring the seniors back into Chinatown.”

Michael Tan

Michael Tan, co-chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group, at Chinatown Memorial Square. Photo: Mike Howell

'Historical inequity'

Michael Tan, co-chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group, pointed to the vacancy rates in a letter that he and co-chair Kimberley Wong wrote to the mayor and council in October 2020.

The pandemic hit Chinatown merchants hard because the majority was not able to access federal funding assistance programs for rent and wages, they said.

Reasons included “mom-and-pop shops” being staffed only by themselves, landlords not unilaterally applying for rental subsidies and either the landlord or tenant didn’t qualify for a rental subsidy.

Tan now thinks vacancy rates are higher in Chinatown.

“It’s even worse now because those [vacancy] numbers were from back in October,” he said earlier this month, while sitting on the steps of the monument at Chinatown Memorial Square, which honours Chinese railway workers and veterans.

He is still bothered by an inequity that he has been vocal about for months, noting Granville Island received $22 million in emergency COVID funding in April and another $17 million in July 2020.

Chinatown got shut out, he said.

He pointed out Granville Island was a creation of all three levels of government coming together in the 1970s — the same era that land was being expropriated at the south end of Chinatown to build viaducts.

“That’s a historical inequity that goes back 50 years, and we continue to face that here in Chinatown,” said Tan, noting a federal government order to ban barbecue meats in Chinatown also occurred in the 1970s.

Like others, he acknowledged business in Chinatown was stagnant before the pandemic but is worried the shops with long histories in the neighbourhood won’t be able to recover this year, or in the years to come.

That’s where governments have to step in, he said, with revitalization plans that individualize a merchant’s business state — whether it be renovations to a building, providing tax breaks or devising strategies around marketing and technology that bring the mom-and-pop shops into the 21st century.

Community and advocacy also has a role to play, he said.

“If we all care about these cultural businesses and their legacies going forward, how do we support that transition?”

William Liu

William Liu, 32, outside Kam Wai Dim Sum on East Pender Street. Photo: Mike Howell

'Can't do it alone'

To that question, the city’s Helen Ma highlighted the story of Kam Wai Dim Sum in the 200-block East Pender Street, describing what happened with the family-run business as a “successful and inspirational” city-led pilot project.

Back in 2017, the family’s father was on kidney dialysis and had an opportunity for a kidney transplant. He announced that he wanted to sell the business because he anticipated his recovery would be long.

His son, William Liu, was pursuing a master’s degree in opera and auditioning in New York, but was worried the 30-year-old business would come to an end.

“I told my dad, ‘Don’t do that, it’s your everything,’” he said, standing outside the store on a recent afternoon. “So I decided to come back and take over the business.”

Recently, the 32-year-old was approached by June Chow of the Youth Collaborative for Chinatown, who he credits for connecting him with the city and Strathcona Business Improvement Association to participate in the pilot project.

Consultants were hired, a business plan was put in place and Kam Wai Dim Sum was given a $100,000 city grant via the Strathcona BIA to assist with renovations of the store, which began in November 2020.

It reopened in February.

“It’s been amazing,” he said, noting the store became eligible for the $100,000 because the building is owned by a Chinese family society, Kong Chow Benevolent.

“I think we just really had the luck of the draw in — A, getting the grant and B, just having the support of the community to be here for 30 years.”

Sales were down “quite a bit” last year, he said, noting the pandemic really took its toll on the wholesale side of the business, which includes providing dim sum to hotels, casinos and restaurants.

Since reopening, the store’s retail sales are up at least 60%.

William Liu

William Liu of Kam Wai Dim Sum has taken over the longtime family-run business. Photo: Mike Howell

Liu said the store, which employs 16 people, is known for its low prices and serves Chinese seniors on pensions and others on low incomes in the neighbourhood, including those living in poverty along the Hastings Street corridor.

“We get a lot of customers that want to spend the money — they want to show you that they have money to spend,” he said.

“And it’s just that bit of humanity that I’ve always really admired. I really think that’s the heart and soul of the business. To me, that’s why we wanted to stay in Chinatown — to really support the people around here.”

As for the issues in Chinatown related to drug use, homelessness and people living with a mental illness, Liu said those are not new but more widespread and for government to address.

He remains optimistic about the future of Chinatown.

“People are coming in who haven’t been to Chinatown for years and years and say it’s really good to see young blood in Chinatown and invested in Chinatown. It’s really good to hear those encouraging words. I really take those words to heart.”

Added Liu: “We have a proof of concept here with our business. I think we can prove that successful businesses can stay in Chinatown.”

With some help?

“Yes, exactly. From community, from government — whatever it may be, because we can’t do it alone.”

Carol Lee

Carol Lee outside Chinatown BBQ, which she opened on East Pender Street in 2017. Photo: Mike Howell

'Journey and sacrifice'

Down the block from Kam Wai Dim Sum, Carol Lee is seated in a booth inside the Chinatown BBQ restaurant that she opened in the fall of 2017.

She is explaining how the popular eatery came to be.

The story dates back to 2015 when the Daisy Garden restaurant, only a few doors down on East Pender, was destroyed in a fire.

“It was one of the pillars of the community, and had been around for 30 to 35 years,” Lee said.

Four years previous, she and business partner Henry Fung founded the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation with the mission of revitalizing the neighbourhood while retaining its cultural heritage.

Having a thriving food scene was key to any success; the Hua Foundation released a report in 2017 showing 50% of Chinatown's fresh food stores — green grocers, fishmongers, barbecue meat shops and butchers — were lost between 2009 and 2016.

Thirty-two per cent of Chinese dry goods stores, as well as 56% of food service retailers that were in operation in 2009 also went out of business, the report said.

The loss of the Daisy Garden got Lee and Fung thinking about how such an institution could be replaced. But having the foundation get involved in the restaurant business didn’t seem right.

So Lee, whose late father Robert Lee was a real estate magnet and philanthropist who provided significant funding to help start the foundation, went out on her own to open the Chinatown BBQ.

“We had a model from the beginning that whatever we did, we wanted to make sure that the people whose neighbourhood it was, still felt it was their neighbourhood,” she said, noting all the staff speaks Cantonese.

Now Lee has her sights set on reopening the iconic Foo’s Ho Ho restaurant on the same strip. She’s hired the same team that created Chinatown BBQ to get the Ho Ho open by November.

The foundation, meanwhile, is working to get the 4,000 sq. foot Chinatown Storytelling Centre opened this fall on East Pender, having recently received a $1 million grant from BMO.

The foundation also manages the May Wah single-room-occupancy hotel, which is home to many Chinese seniors, who benefited from a meal program created during the pandemic that simultaneously supported restaurants.

“A lot of what we did in the last year was around economic recovery,” said Lee, noting the foundation also helped merchants navigate what COVID-19 emergency relief might be available to them.

Outside of Chinatown, almost $30 million raised by the foundation will contribute to a $110-million social housing project and 50,000 sq. foot health centre to begin construction this summer at 58 West Hastings St.

That project, she hopes, will go a long way to address social issues in the Downtown Eastside and provide the health care and treatment needed by so many people suffering on the streets.

As for Chinatown, Lee’s focus is on retaining what the pioneers built.

“When I think about the journey and the sacrifice, this community is the physical legacy of all that contribution, hardship and sacrifice,” she said. “To have it disappear would be heartbreaking.”

Albert Fok

Albert Fok of Kiu Shun Trading Co. Ltd. on Keefer Street, a family-run business since 1977. Photo: Mike Howell

'What's gone is gone'

During the research for this story, a common question was contemplated in the many conversations had in the community: When does Chinatown stop being Chinatown?

In other words, should gentrification be allowed?

Some believe it has already occurred, with condos built at Keefer and Main streets and many non-traditional businesses moving into the neighbourhood, including trendy cafes, pizza joints and an Irish pub.

Albert Fok of the Kiu Shun Trading Co. Ltd. on Keefer Street considered the state of present day Chinatown as he stood outside his shop to watch the progress of an eight-storey condominium building going up on the same block.

Fok didn’t look at the project in disgust, but with hope.

“The thing that we’ve always advocated — that Chinatown needs — is a sustainable residential population,” said Fok, who once led the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association.

“The heritage preservation part is great and I respect that, and I want to be part of it. But we need a good balance of market housing and social housing. People worry about gentrification, but it should not be ghettoization, too.”

He favours a mix of traditional and non-traditional businesses in Chinatown, noting “the world does not stop evolving” and “what’s gone is gone.” A diverse mix of businesses and housing brings more foot traffic, more people to the neighbourhood, he said.

Fok’s family-run herbal medicine shop has operated in Chinatown since 1977. He’s seen the high and lows of prosperity, noting the pandemic has brought another challenge, with business down about 15%.

Street disorder, drug use and people in a mental health crisis are not new to the neighbourhood, but agreed such social issues have become more noticeable during the pandemic.

The widespread graffiti is new.

“We need to address the optics of Chinatown, if not the Downtown Eastside as a whole,” he said. “Rather than just having a cat-and-mouse game with graffiti, do some proper policing, do some property security to discourage graffiti people.”

Like the owner of Kam Wai Dim Sum, Fok is optimistic about Chinatown’s future, pointing out the addition of the new St. Paul’s Hospital on the False Creek Flats should be good for business.

Such optimism is shared by the BIA’s Eng, a long-time friend of Fok’s, who joined him on the street during a tour of the neighbourhood.

“We hit roadblocks, we hit dips and trenches,” Eng said. “But as business people, we always have to find what’s going to be next, what’s going to make it happen."

And that, they both agreed, includes “new blood” in Chinatown.

“Chinatown has been evolving over the last 100 years, and I think if you don’t bring in new blood, that’s when the community decays,” Eng said. “My theory has always been that if the business environment is good, the Chinese business people will come back.”

Ryan Diaz

Ryan Diaz is the owner of DCS gym on East Pender Street in Chinatown. Photo: Mike Howell

'Local boy'

Around the corner from Fok’s business is the DCS gym, which opened in 2015 on Gore Street before moving in October 2020 to its new, bigger location on East Pender Street.

Owner Ryan Diaz was seated on the street patio of the gym and recalled the days when he and his family used to go for dim sum every Sunday at the New Town Bakery.

He was six years old at the time.

“I’ve been going there since I was a kid,” said Diaz, now 42.

Setting up his gym in Chinatown seemed like a natural fit. He noted iconic martial artist and actor, Bruce Lee, started his gym in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Lee’s photograph is prominent inside the gym, whose acronym is short for Diaz Combat Sports.

So are Chinese characters on the side of the building that say, kung fu school.

“It’s a bit of a homage to him,” said Diaz, a former professional mixed martial arts fighter who won two world titles. “We’re part of the Asian culture. We do martial arts, which is a huge part of the culture.”

His gym offers training for kickboxing, jiujistu, mixed martial arts, boxing and conditioning. Adults and kids come from all over the Lower Mainland to train at the facility, which is spread over three floors.

He and his business partners also recently acquired another building across the street, with plans to expand the gym. He’s optimistic that his investment will pay off, and that more people will return to fitness once the pandemic subsides.

“I’m a local boy and I support local, and people need to understand that I don’t do this for the money,” he said. “I want to build a community, I want to help people.”

As for the public disorder outside his doors, he doesn’t like to see people under the influence of drugs sharing the same sidewalk as some of his young students.

While he was talking, he pointed out a man in an orange shirt who had been aggressively hassling his members and others in the street for money. At the gym’s former location on Gore Street, the windows were smashed out eight times.

“It’s not cool, it’s not fair,” he said.

So how’s business?

“We’ve found ways to survive,” he said. “I always try to relate everything to a fight. We’re in the fourth or fifth round, and all of sudden we got hit hard [by the pandemic]. All that matters is we’ve got to survive the round, take a break and then come out stronger for the next round, and we will.”

Irish Heather Shebeen 

The Irish Heather Shebeen relocated from Gastown and opened in Chinatown last week. Photo: Mike Howell

'Game changer'

A few blocks south on East Georgia Street, the staff at the Irish Heather Shebeen was preparing to open for the second day since relocating from Gastown after a 24-year run.

The name is still the same, but the façade of the red brick pub now includes Chinese characters and Chinese red lanterns — spray-painted with an Irish harp — collected in a space over the entrance.

Why move to Chinatown?

Owner Sean Heather said he previously bought the building with plans to lease it to tenants. That fell through during the pandemic and he decided to move his pub to the space.

He also plans to move his Salt wine tasting room from Gastown into another building on East Georgia Street, with an opening scheduled for September. The move of both businesses makes economic sense.

“Between Salt and the Irish Heather, moving into Chinatown saves me $22,000 a month in rent,” Heather said.

“And that’s a game changer for us. It allows us to know that if things didn’t go off quickly here, that we’ve definitely got a cushion. At the rates we were paying in Gastown, there was no cushion.”

Heather was fully aware of what Chinatown heritage advocates might think of a white Irishman moving into Chinatown. That is one of the reasons he didn’t consider Pender Street, the heart of Chinatown.

“I don’t believe I would have been comfortable doing that,” he said, noting he’s received bouquets of flowers from neighbours welcoming him to East Georgia Street.

“Because we’re on the fringes of Chinatown, because we’re close to Strathcona, it made sense for us to buy this building.”

The building was previously owned by a white farmer who at one time operated a produce business that connected Surrey farms to restaurants. His neighbours are China Housewares Discount Centre Ltd. and the Phnom Penh restaurant.

Matchstick coffee and the Ramen Butcher are on the other side of the street, and an Italian restaurant will open soon at the end of the block, which also includes the Indigenous-owned-and-operated, Massy Books.

“There’s room for a lot of cultures here, and there’s room for community here that’s diverse,” he said, noting the area’s rich history with the Black and Italian communities.

“It’s up to each individual operator, but I feel that we will do what we need to do in order to blend in and get along with people.”

Helen Chu

Florist Helen Chu sits in the empty food court outside her shop in the Chinatown Plaza. Photo: Mike Howell

'I wanted to cry'

Back at the Chinatown Plaza, it’s getting closer to 3:30 p.m. and Helen Chu is considering closing her flower shop early.

She has passed the time by watching Chinese movies on her computer.

Business hasn’t gotten any better since noon, with her selling a pot of flowers for $7.99 to a walk-in customer.

Despite the horrible year B.C. and the rest of the world has endured with so many COVID-19 and overdose deaths, sales of flowers to mourners are also down, she said, noting people have simply postponed funerals or gone ahead with small ceremonies.

Her landlord is the City of Vancouver, which has not reduced or waived the rent, but given her a break to repay some of what she owes at a later date.

It’s not ideal, but Chu is in a better situation than her friend, Glynnis Chan, who closed her Happy Times Travel shop near the entrance to the plaza in May 2020.

Chan tried to negotiate an agreement with the city to pay reduced rent, but said she was told it wasn’t possible — that the rent had to be paid in full, whether deferred or not.

“I didn’t want to close my office because I love Chinatown,” she said, noting her business had operated in various locations in the community since 1984, the last four at the plaza. “Unfortunately, I had no choice. I wanted to cry when I made the announcement to leave.”

Video: Bailey Yang via YouTube

mhowell@glaciermedia.ca

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