Past Event

Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan and Revitalization Strategy

Statement of Support to Vancouver City Council

July 25, 2012
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A speech by:

Dr. Paul Crowe
Associate Professor
Department of Humanities and Asia-Canada Program
Director, David Lam Centre
Simon Fraser University
Vice President, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

On January 22, 1911 my wife’s great great grandfather, Leong Ying Chu, paid his $500 Head Tax after landing in Victoria and briefly took up residence in Vancouver where Chinatown would have offered him a sanctuary amid socially hostile circumstances. Over the next two generations Chinatown continued to play a vital role in providing social support to newcomers from the same region of the Pearl River delta who frequently were not welcomed in Canada. The forces that made Chinatown a necessity then are now gone and family associations in Chinatowns face the challenge of continuity when the younger generations no longer feel an urgent need to maintain these associations and societies. If Chinatown has outlived its early historic function how do we maintain it and ensure it adapts to new demands?

The Revitalization Strategy provides compelling answers to these questions and a strong set of recommendations and plans:

Firstly: Chinatown, through its very buildings with their unique architectural features are a physical record of an important chapter in Canadian history. The scale of the buildings and the traditions they embody make Chinatown a unique part of Vancouver. The unique historic street-scape is a powerful asset to be harnessed in regenerating a thriving centre of retail business. There are many Chinese malls on the lower mainland but there is only one Chinatown. For the longer term it is an economically prudent strategy to invest in what could be a busy retail and cultural centre and part of our proud civic identity and our city’s international profile.

Secondly: Chinatown is an embodiment of cultural diversity and this Revitalization Strategy looks to this reality as another source of renewal and community building. The Dr. Sun Yat Sen Garden where I serve as a trustee, has been a participant in this process from the beginning; so much more than a beautiful garden oasis it has enjoyed remarkable success as a centre of arts, cultural and educational activity, and rich volunteer opportunities for young people, all of which the Revitalization Strategy sees as vital to community building. Vancouver is fortunate to be home to people with many cultural, linguistic and geographic origins. Community is nurtured when people bring their varying experiences together and share in a common cause and in common values.

Thirdly: This plan acknowledges that Chinatown of the past has much to teach us today.  In its heyday Chinatown was indeed a thriving mixed use, high density urban centre.  Such spaces help ameliorate our over-dependence on the grossly inefficient and ecologically damaging private automobile. Compact pedestrian friendly spaces can foster living on a human scale where people can shop, do business, relax, and meet neighbourhood friends while having easy access to public transit. Chinatown once was and can again be just such a space.

Fourthly: This plan represents a tremendous amount of work in bringing diverse voices together to deal with challenges as we move forward together. The plan to engage academic and cultural institutions is full of potential. Presently, I work at SFU Harbour Centre directing the David Lam Centre and enjoy cycling along the Carrall Street Greenway every day on my way to work. When I start new undergraduate classes in Asia-Canada studies or Chinese religion and history I bring my students to Chinatown to get to know each other over dim sum. I bring students to visit Chinatown’s Daoist and Buddhist temples and encourage field work projects in those same institutions.

In 2009 the David Lam Centre hosted the Chinatown and Beyond conference which drew international interest and tremendous local participation from academics, community leaders and the City’s Downtown Eastside Planning team. The David Lam Centre is currently engaged in the publication of the Canada Chinatown Series which is providing brief, accessible and reliable historical overviews of Chinatowns in Canada. We have presented these publications in Victoria, Toronto, Ottawa and most recently Vancouver and in each case the interest in and enthusiasm for Chinatowns is remarkable and diverse.

The strategy of bringing together a wide range of expertise and perspectives in looking at Chinatown revitalization through business opportunities, careful compassionate development, and cultural and social engagement all guided by principles of sustainability is one that gives cause to be hopeful.