Vancouver’s Chinatown: heritage site, urban village or tourist zone?

Gore Street at Keefer in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

Vancouver City Council voted in November 2017 to seek World Heritage Site status for the Chinatown district. This founding neighbourhood began as a segregated zone for Chinese-speaking labourers and merchants outside the railway and lumber camp that covered today’s Waterfront and Gastown areas.  It functioned for many decades as a commercial and cultural hub for Chinese-speaking immigrants, and takes a prominent place in the modern English-language literature of  the Chinese-Canadian community. The retail hub, it should be said, has been supported by apartment housing, Chinese seniors’ housing and small-lot detached housing, either in the core or in the old Strathcona neighbourhood to the east.

The erosion of traditional Chinatown and the response from local government raise questions about the long-term livability of Vancouver as a whole. When real estate values have gone beyond what wage earners can afford, and rents are headed in the same direction, what can anyone do to keep Vancouver real? Will people continue to raise children in Vancouver, and age in place, or will it become a barracks for the affluent end of the global workforce?

In major cities around the world, rooted communities are giving way to the transient and the precarious. Perhaps the worst example is Paris, where the tide of tourists, foreign students and transient tech workers are turning the city into a Disneyfied parody of itself. The architecture and monuments survive, but the family-run service businesses are dying. As I was preparing this post, Canada’s national housing agency reported that the number of non-permanent residents in Canada doubled from 2003 to 2015, with a heavy focus on Toronto and Vancouver. Non-permanent residents accounted for an estimated 20 per cent of Vancouver’s population growth during this period.

For Vancouver’s Chinatown, recognition from UNESCO would represent a symbolic declaration of the area’s historic significance, but it could take up to 10 years to take effect. By that time, the traditional character of this urban village may have faded altogether.

Our friend Lawrence Wang grew up in the Metro Vancouver suburb of Port Moody. His immigrant parents brought him to Chinatown on Saturdays during the 1980s to visit the shops and social centres. By his estimate, half the Chinese storefronts have disappeared since he was a child — bakeries, meat and poultry outlets, herbalists and Chinese cafes.

Lawrence was my tour guide on a recent walk through Chinatown and Strathcona. To my eye, there are more exotic food stalls here than anywhere else in Canada, but Lawrence says the market for traditional wares is dying away. The 2016 census shows 385,000 people speaking Chinese languages in Greater Vancouver, or 15 per cent of the population; recent immigrants shop at Asian supermarkets such as T&T, and at Asian malls in Richmond and Burnaby, and so do the sons and daughters of the people who used to make the trek into Chinatown. Lawrence and I saw a few Asian families, young moms and dads with kids in strollers; he said he was surprised to see even this remnant of interest.

Local merchants and the City have tracked this decline for a decade or more. The City’s 2012 Chinatown revitalization strategy talks about commercial tenant recruitment and retention. Local government has taken steps to preserve the scattered quality structures in the area and restrict redevelopment in the Chinatown core to a small scale.

At the western perimeter: the high-rise “International Village,” showing an Asian supermarket.

The more typical strategy for saving shopfront small business is to create high-density housing around the perimeter. This is happening, and more is contemplated in the City’s Downtown Eastside Plan, including a generous share of subsidized housing. But most newcomers to the DTE are seeking affordable housing close to transit and work, rather than exotic foods and herbs. The retail trend is to a hipsterish mix of coffee shops, travel agents and snowboard vendors. Lawrence and I had our lunch at the Ramen Butcher, a fashionable Japanese cafe, for lack of a Chinese option.

On February 13, 2018, Vancouver City Council adopted a final version of the Northeast False Creek Plan, with provision for thousands of new housing units. This is the wasteland bordering Chinatown on the south. It is the site of Vancouver’s midget freeway that I reported on in 2017. Chinatown spokesperson Henry Yu, one of the activists behind the UNESCO concept, complained that Council had ignored Chinatown’s interest in its planning, and that the new development will do nothing to support the survival of Chinatown.

At this point, with some regret, I have to question the benefit of the UNESCO designation idea. One of the main anticipated effects would be to bring more  tourists to Chinatown. Is this wise? Once again: mass tourism is a voracious beast that eats what it loves. The once-charming Latin Quarter in Paris no longer exists; the oldest quarter of Amsterdam has likewise become a hodge-podge of burger joints, Irish pubs and sushi.

Here’s a prediction, or a hunch, coming from a non-resident with no Asian background. First, we will see a continued dwindling away of the family-run Chinese businesses in Chinatown. Second, if things go well, we will see the evolution of a high-density urban village where residents can walk to most retail and professional services, and where enough people establish long-term residency that there is some sense of community. It will be not much different from nearby Yaletown or Coal Harbour, except that some of the lettering on the banks will be Chinese. The Chinatown core — three blocks of Pender and Keefer, one block of Georgia — will be a medium density zone mixing high-end professional services and boutique retail, or alternatively a zone of tourist bars and cafes.

Mr. Wang and the Hakka Association

Our walk into the Strathcona residential neighbourhood, with its mix of Chinese, Indigenous and boho European residents, took us past the headquarters of the Hakka Association. Lawrence said, “The Hakka are my clan,” but it’s more complicated than that. He later provided a video link for background. He doesn’t go to the Association building any more, but he has a big Hakka family scattered around the world — for example his Hakka in-laws in Hyderabad, India.

Lawrence and his wife live in Coquitlam, and we took the Skytrain together for our Saturday trip into the city. He told me about his work as an English-language consultant for an Indian film company — probably something to do with his uncle’s Chinese restaurant business, also in India, but I didn’t ask. The Hakka people, according to the video, are adaptable and practical.

[This is post #38 in our Urban Villages series.]

The Fan Tower at Gore and Keefer, where Lawrence’s aunt lived in the 1970s.

A small temple, genre unknown (to us), on Keefer Street at the transition from Chinatown to Strathcona

Detached homes in Strathcona, probably 1890s

New development at the southern edge of Chinatown: Main Street at Georgia, dressed like upscale West Broadway





Surrey Central — Retrofitting or replacement?

Rendering from the 2017 Surrey City Centre Plan, a fantasy perspective showing library (middle background), SkyTrain line, future light rail line and new towers

About 10 years ago, the term “Retrofitting Suburbia” came to describe the art or science of converting automobile-dependent sprawl into liveable urban landscape.

Coincidentally or not, it’s about 10 years since then-Mayor Dianne Watts announced her vision of a City of Surrey downtown, a focus for Surrey’s hodge-podge of malls and paved-over farmland. Simon Fraser University and the Fraser Health Authority had just moved to a new Surrey Central tower close to rapid transit; the City has since add a civic plaza with a City Hall. Residential and business towers are springing up close by.

Blogger Stephen Hallingham’s Urban Surrey site recently provided an optimistic forecast for Central Surrey development.  “In fact, 2018 could prove to be another record year for construction starts and rising property values, with up to 10 new towers starting, in addition to a number of 5-6 storey projects, new parks, roads, and the Surrey Central Skytrain expansion.”

A recent photo of the civic plaza area with City Hall at the centre, from the Urban Surrey blog site. The tower on the right includes a hotel and a campus of Kwantlen Polytechnical University.

Surrey’s 2017 City Centre plan contemplates a downtown that is “interesting, unique and memorable.” Apartment units here cost less than in Vancouver, and they’re attracting working people aged 20-35. But looking at Surrey as a whole, with its mushrooming population of 525,000, it seems the Centre is growing more slowly than expected. Globe and Mail reporter Frances Bula recently updated an overview piece on Surrey Central. Her quote from Paul Hillsdon, a Surrey Central resident and blogger, indicates that this collection of structures is not yet a cool place to live.

“It’s very different than an actual urban setting,” says Mr. Hillsdon, now living in one of the four Concord towers near the King George SkyTrain station, the second cluster of downtown-like density that has emerged in the last five years. “One of the biggest pieces that’s missing is just things to do, places to go.” There is the Central City Brewpub in the Simon Fraser tower in one direction, a Browns Social House in another, but it’s a long hike down a busy street and many parking lots to get to either.

2017 photo data on the Round-Up Cafe from Google Maps

As Bula’s article notes, the Surrey Central core is tightly defined, with deteriorating vintage properties crowding in at the edges on the north and northeast. This jumped out at me during a walk with co-tourist David Plug, after a breakfast at the Round-Up Cafe, a block or two from City Hall on King George Boulevard.

We walked through the civic plaza, past the tower projects on University, alongside a modest 1970s-era mall, and across King George to vast parking lots and big box stores on Whalley Boulevard — put together, an automobile-ridden aesthetic jumble. Before 2010, development here was willy-nilly; with the new area plan, construction will conform to a pattern,  linked to the evolution of a wider Surrey Centre zone made up of six mixed-use districts and five residential districts.

It’s nice that Surrey Council and planners are thinking for the long term. However, the City Centre concept is so vast, and so radical in terms of tearing out existing uses, that it may grind along for 30 years as a raw, noisy work in progress. I have trouble defining this as “retrofitting”, something that always imagined would be done for the benefit of the resident population. In this case, the resident population is being replaced in favour of a hypothetical incoming market.

The foreseeable effects on Surrey in the short term go like this. First, the independent businesses currently clustered along King George Boulevard will be largely swept away. The Round-Up cafe dates from perhaps the 1920s; David Plug, a volunteer on the City’s heritage committee, says the Round-Up has been selected as a heritage site, so the sloping floors and the smell of coffee and sausages may be with us for a while. Other operations, fulfilling a wide range of local needs, do not enjoy such status.

Second, low-income people who have owned or rented that houses and apartments around the Surrey Central core will be expropriated or evicted. Some are addicts or bad characters, no doubt, in a neighbourhood with a reputation as a crime-ridden slum. Most of them, of course, are just folks. Judging from Burnaby’s Metrotown example, the clearance of older properties will create hardship for long-term residents. They will be forced to seek accommodation somewhere else in an increasingly unaffordable region. As I write this, a UK consultancy called Demographia has released a report listing Vancouver as the third most unaffordable housing market in the world.

Detached home off University

A ’50s-era home in the shadow of tower development on University Drive

SFU detail

Detail from the facade of the Simon Fraser University Environmental Engineering building, under construction

Abandoned retail

Abdandoned retail space across the street from Surrey City Hall

Surrey Central towers from 2017 plan

A rendering of the future Surrey Central core from the 2017 plan, with towers distributed along King George from 96 Avenue, lower right, to 108 Avenue.




Governments gamble on a minimum wage hike

On January 1, Ontario raised the  general minimum wage in its jurisdiction to from $11.60 per hour to $14.00. British Columbians are promised a similar jump in the near future, though the timing is subject to the work of a government-appointed commission.

Members of the Tim Hortons restaurants’ founding family reacted to the Ontario increase by taking petty revenge on their own workers, stripping them of non-wage benefits at the locations they still own directly. This triggered a brawl within the Tim Hortons organization, with the corporate head office urging franchise owners to handle the issue more discreetly. Continue reading

Yaletown encore

We last visited Vancouver’s Yaletown district almost five years ago, in early 2013. We noted that the Yaletown brand was so hyper-trendy that developers were making use of it across a wide swath of what used to be called the South Downtown.

With its towers, cafes and rapid transit, Yaletown is now the prototype for much recent or proposed pop-up development in Vancouver’s suburbs, for example in Coquitlam Central, the still-pending Coquitlam waterfront project, and the rumoured Metrotown 2.0. Continue reading

Sapperton in bits

Columbia Street, showing the Sapperton area’s “Brewery District,” a nearly-complete development built on the site of a vanished industrial brewery. The head office of the regional transportation authority (TransLink) sits in the foreground. A new residential tower peeks out from behind.

An abandoned house, pre-1900, across looking across Columbia Street to the new Brewery District offices

Sapperton, as defined in the City of New Westminster maps, is a long rectangle with no adjacent residential neighbourhoods to the east or north. With recent development, Sapperton has become more self-contained and livable; proposed further development would add thousands more residents at the eastern edge, with unforeseeable results.  

As I drove to meet co-tourist Bob Smarz for a walk through Sapperton, an item on the radio reminded me that this is, in one sense, the birthplace of British Columbia. The Fraser Cemetery on the hill is the oldest in the Lower Mainland region: its dead include veterans of the American Civil War who moved to Canada, and presumably some Sappers, or British Royal Engineers, who landed on the Fraser River shore around 1860 to build B.C.’s first administrative capital. Continue reading

Building a local economy on automotive repair

Crystal Glass and Boyd Auto Body, two blocks east of Maple Ridge City Hall

In most parts of Metro Vancouver, more than half the working population commutes to workplaces outside their home town — this is according to a Vancouver Sun analysis from 2014, which echoed findings from the previous decade.

A typical central area viewscape, with nature in the distance. T&T Auto Parts is on the left in this photo, Accent Glass & Locksmith (not visible) is in the strip on the right.

In my suburb of Maple Ridge, many people drive every day to the Tri-Cities (20-40 minutes one way), Burnaby (35-50 minutes one way) or even further. Not surprisingly, we have a big automotive sector. Auto dealerships are among the biggest employers, and they dominate the highway that connects Maple Ridge to the inner suburbs. Probably our most prominent head office belongs to Lordco Auto Parts, a chain with more than 120 retail locations around British Columbia. Continue reading

A democracy of beer

Brewing tanks at the Ridge Brewing Co. tasting room, Maple Ridge

Kory Tiemstra behind the bar at the Silver Valley Brewing Co. in Maple Ridge doesn’t usually advertise commercial enterprises, but we want to note the launch of The Growler, a print publication devoted entirely to a single burning question: where can I find fresh craft beer near my house?

The Growler illustrates a point that we often underline here: there is life in British Columbia beyond downtown Vancouver. The latest issue reports that there were four craft beer tasting rooms in Port Moody at the time of printing, four in Surrey or White Rock, and many more in the Fraseropolis region and in towns and cities around the province, with a full-page listing of venues that are “coming soon.” Each location offers a chance to sample what’s for sale, fill up a jar to take home, and talk philosophically about beer with the folks people behind the counter and whoever happens to be perched nearby. Continue reading