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What is the future of Chinatown?

June 9, 2022

By Vancouver Sun

“Chinatown is dying.”

I hear this phrase often in my advocacy work. Interestingly, it is a common refrain in every major city across North America. Whether you walk the streets of San Francisco, Toronto, New York, Boston, or Edmonton, not only is this heard often, but in each of these cities, there has been a concerted effort from the respective communities to “Save Chinatown.” No matter where they are located, Chinatowns face common challenges, including gentrification and property development pressures, demographic change of the area’s historic residents, and the erosion of the neighbourhood’s cultural heritage.

But what is it about Chinatowns across North America that elicits such strong emotional reactions?

The answer lies in the common origin of Chinatowns, that these communities were born out of necessity. During the earliest days of most North American cities, due to racism and exclusion, Chinese people were not welcome and not allowed to settle where the white, Anglo-Saxon folks were. The early Chinese settlers, migrant workers, and indentured labourers who worked on the railroads could only settle on the outskirts of town, usually immediately adjacent to skid row. Chinatowns became a place of refuge for not only Chinese but for those of Black, Indigenous, Italian, Hispanic, Jewish, Vietnamese, and South Asian backgrounds, to name a few. This powerful, shared legacy of resilience continues to endure and is the reason many people — no matter their race, background, or class — have such a strong emotional connection to Chinatown.

It is on this foundational heritage of resilience that Vancouver’s Chinatown will submit its application to become the first Chinatown in the world to obtain a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation — a legacy of inclusivity and welcoming that we can all learn from, in times of (what seems like) constant conflict and tension.

This journey began officially in 2018 when the City of Vancouver delivered a formal apology for historical discrimination against people of Chinese descent and adopted several actions as a step toward redress, including the forming a community-led advisory group to work together with city staff toward a potential UNESCO application. This advisory group became known as the Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group.

This group includes 32 members representing a wide range of Chinatown community stakeholders, including business owners, property owners, artists, Chinese clan associations, youth, seniors, and housing advocates, who hold a diverse range of views and perspectives on the future of Chinatown. It is this diversity that has given the stewardship group its strength through collaboration, and in addition to guiding city staff’s work toward a UNESCO bid, have piloted community projects with the aim of addressing Chinatown’s priority needs.

These four years of work have now culminated in the Cultural Heritage Assets Management Plan (CHAMP), essentially a framework that highlights the “what” in Chinatown that needs to be protected and conserved for future generations, things like language schools, Chinese dance, calligraphy, lion dance, kung fu, dim sum, and fresh grocers. CHAMP also highlights the strategies — the “how” — to ensure that this shared, living, cultural heritage can be passed down sustainably — for example, pilot project funding, cultural business incentives, and investments in cultural institutions.

This plan is a collective representation of those who live and work in Chinatown and those who care about its cultural heritage. We are the ones imagining a new future for Chinatown.

CHAMP is slated to go to Vancouver council for approval on June 8, and if passed, will be a significant milestone on the path toward a UNESCO application.

As long as there have been Chinatowns, there have been people who care about them. Chinatowns are not dying — in fact, as we lean into the uncertainty of our futures, it will be more important than ever to look back at these histories of shared resilience. The Chinatown Cultural Heritage Assets Management Plan shows us that “heritage” is not only a piece of the past, but a lineage to our present, and our guiding light into the future.

Michael Tan is the co-chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group, a Vancouver council-appointed group guiding community actions regarding Chinatown revitalization while en route to a possible UNESCO world heritage site application. He is also a senior finance executive in the Vancouver tech industry.