Michelle Gomez writes for CBC News profiling the return of Yarrow Intergenerational Society’s tai chi programming to the city-owned Chinatown Plaza Mall, half a year after staff called the police on the exercising seniors. The article includes comments from Sean Cao, Chinese Seniors Hub Coordinator for Yarrow Intergenerational Society, who spoke about the lack of truly public spaces available in Chinatown. Chinatown Plaza is the only publicly owned and available indoor space in Chinatown, while the limited open spaces such as the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Park and the Chinatown Memorial Square have been plagued by issues of accessibility and gentrification.
On Monday and Friday mornings, Vancouver’s Chinatown Plaza Mall buzzes with the sound of peaceful music and dozens of smiling seniors gathered in a circle in the centre, stretching and moving their bodies.
The group of about 50 low-income seniors from Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside meet bi-weekly for a tai chi morning exercise session, organized by the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice.
Six months ago, the group was kicked out of the mall — owned by the City of Vancouver and managed by EasyPark — during one of their sessions, for using the space without permission.
Organizers told CBC at the time that mall staff made culturally insensitive comments, attempted to physically stop the seniors’ movements, and flagged a police officer over.
Since then, the group has been working with the city and obtained permission to use the space, says Sean Cao from the Yarrow Society.
“Restoring this trust takes time and effort,” said Cao, adding that many of the seniors felt “despised” when they were kicked out of the mall.
“The seniors are slowly starting to feel empowered to revisit the space.”
The Yarrow Society resumed the tai chi sessions at Chinatown Plaza Mall on Nov. 3.
They can use the space for their meetups until March, at which time the city will assess if they may continue.
Cao said the city and EasyPark have made a commitment to support the seniors during their morning exercise and rectify any issues they may experience while using the space.
He says many seniors are happy to have the space back, and that the sessions not only provide benefits to physical health, but also mental health, giving seniors the chance to get out and socialize.
“A lot of seniors are isolated seniors, living by themselves,” he said.
On the lack of truly public space in Chinatown:
Cao said the Chinatown community is facing a lack of community spaces to gather, and it has been challenging to find a suitable indoor space for tai chi.
Previously, the seniors used the Sun Wah Centre for the tai chi sessions, a space Cao said is too small, does not have washrooms, and lacks air conditioners during the summer.
He said the group brings vibrancy to the main level of the mall, which has many vacant storefronts.
“This city-owned shopping mall has a lot of potential. I hope that our exercise group is just the beginning of utilizing the space,” he said.