Youth for Chinese Seniors is made up of volunteers dedicated to providing meaningful support and outreach to seniors living in Chinatown.
The organization was created under the DTES SRO (Downtown Eastside Single-Resident-Occupancy)
Collaborative, and is currently led by Volunteer Coordinator Yulanda Lui.
Youth for Chinese Seniors is currently raising funds in order to open a seniors drop-in centre in Chinatown.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Katrina: How did your organization begin?
Yulanda: It was Chanel who started the organization about two years ago. I wasn’t there, but what Chanel has told me is that it started under the SRO collaborative, the downtown SRO collaborative, which was under Atira Development Society. And Youth for Chinese Seniors [Y4CS] started off as a project of the SRO collaborative, and the original intention was to focus on housing and housing issues for Chinese seniors, and Chanel was in charge of that. Through her work, and through working with seniors, over time she realized that housing is not the main issue that Chinese seniors in Chinatown are facing, but also other factors, a large range of issues that Chinese seniors are facing. Because of that, the project became less housing-focused. From there, Chanel started her own organization, still under Atira Housing Society but just separate from the DTES SRO collaborative. But we work closely together.
Katrina: If you could describe your organization in one sentence, what would it be?
Yulanda: We’re a group that works with low-income Chinese seniors in the DTES and Chinatown to tackle issues of housing, gentrification, racism, safety, and isolation through creating intergenerational community and organizing.
Katrina: So are you at the helm now?
Yulanda: Yes, I am leading the organization now. I started in this role at the beginning of May, so not too long ago, and I started volunteering with the organization mid-October, I think.
Katrina: Why did you decide to volunteer in Chinatown last October?
Yulanda: It was a bit of a long process. Over two years ago I used to always come to Chinatown, since I moved to Vancouver. I was learning more about it, more about the issues like gentrification here, and what the community here is like, and two years ago Carven introduced me to Mrs. Kwong, who I think most people know. This was two years ago. Chinatown was different. I started visiting Mrs. Kwong, becoming a part of that community, a part of the youth that came and were a part of her life. And through that, I started getting connected to people who were doing other things in Chinatown, I started to learn more about the other Chinatown groups.
I think, for me, being in Chinatown and connecting to seniors here is a big part of myself, learning more about my cultural identity and also thinking about belonging and heritage, and also responsibility, as a Chinese young
person who speaks English here. And I think, through that, I started becoming more and more interested in the issues going on here. I really wanted to be a part of the community that was working directly with Chinese seniors, really building that intergenerational community that we are starting to see here. I knew Chanel through some other community organizing we did together, and just started talking with her.
Katrina: Where did you move from four years ago?
Yulanda: I moved from Toronto four years ago. I originally came here for school.
Katrina: What is your relationship like with your grandparents?
Yulanda: On my dad’s side, my grandmother is in Toronto and my grandfather, my yeye, passed away when I was really young, so I didn’t really know him. And my grandparents on my mom’s side are in Hong Kong. So growing up, I spent some time with my mahmah, my dad’s mom, but it was a pretty classic story of just not really connecting super well, and although I speak Cantonese, there is still a language barrier. So growing up, it wasn’t a beautiful grandmother-grandchild story. But we spent some time together, and I think coming to here and being away from my family, coming on my own without much community and building my own community… I’m starting to think more about my relationship with my grandparents.
Katrina: What is your organization’s vision for Chinatown?
Yulanda: I think for me—I don’t want to speak for all the volunteers and staff in the organization—for me, what I really envision is a space where there is intergenerational community and there is that grassroots support for one another [to] buil[d] relationships that nurture one another. I can see that happening on an individual level, and I really want to see this happening on a large community level. People talk about young people coming to Chinatown as revitalizing Chinatown and I think, for me, “Sure, but not in a way that is part of gentrification.” What I really want Chinatown to be like is a place for the low-income community.
Katrina: Why do you think it is important to have this intergenerational aspect in
Yulanda: I think sometimes because we live in a Western society and because we live under certain systems of power that hurt us, it separates us from one another and we can see this through generations. I see a lot of Chinese youth who are my peers really separated from the generations before us. It’s a really complicated issue and I don’t want to generalize, but for me, building relationships with Chinese seniors, who many are new immigrants or don’t speak English, and many of them have not been brought up in a Western society. And I on the other hand have the privilege of being able to speak English, and I am able, to a certain degree, [to] access and understand the services that government has and the resources around me. So it’s a responsibility to be working. What we’re doing right now is filling in a lot of gaps that other organizations or the government should be providing. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to do that.
Katrina: If you could implement a single change to Chinatown what would it be? One dream world change and one real world change.
Yulanda: In a dream world, I really want to see the low-income community here being prioritized. Maybe that doesn’t count as one thing, because it’d take more than one change to make that happen. I want to see more social housing being built here.
“I think sometimes because we live in a Western society and because we live under certain systems of power that hurt us, it separates us from one another, and we can see this through generations. I see a lot of Chinese youth who are my peers really separated from the generations before us.”
Katrina: Where has your organization found success?
Yulanda: In the past two years, we’ve been really able to connect a lot of people who are from outside of Chinatown, who are interested in Chinatown in some way, and give them an avenue to volunteer and work with us.
We have a number of different things that we do. So we have more of an outreach side, and then we have more of an event planning side, and then we have more of a background administration. It lets us do work in the community and to meet a number of different needs, and gives us a chance to bring together people with different interests but [who] all care about Chinatown and Chinese seniors in some way.
And I’ve seen people who used to work or volunteer for Youth for Chinese Seniors eventually move on and do their own really great things in the community. It’s really important for us to have a space where people can build up and develop skills they want to develop so that they can do the work that they want to do.
Katrina: What is your personal connection to Chinatown?
Junie: And your relationship with Chinatown in Toronto—did it lead you to be more active in the Chinatown here?
Yulanda: I wasn’t super involved in the Chinatown in Toronto. Also, when I lived in Toronto, I didn’t live in Toronto proper. I lived in Scarborough, which is a region outside of downtown. One of the driving forces that led me to come to Chinatown was because in Scarborough, I had a really strong community of other youth of colour, the neighbourhood I grew up in was a really immigrant of colour community, and that was my experience growing up, and that’s what kind of shaped me. So when I moved here, coming to Chinatown was a part of me finding my own community, finding a place that was familiar, and that was also different, and finding a sense of belonging here that I think is sometimes harder to find in the mainstream world.
Katrina: What does community mean to you?
Yulanda: It means so many different things. But when I think of community I really [en]vision a place, a system, [that] really supports one another. When I feel community, is when I’m walking down the street and a senior says hi to me, and we stop and talk for a little bit. And I think in many ways, community is when other people who are doing work in Chinatown are texting me to check up on me, you know? I think community is built on one-on-one relationships, forming a big web and being connected to one another. And I can really see that in Chinatown.
Katrina: How does food contribute to community?
Yulanda: Well I think food just—this is really cliché, but food brings people together. For me, when I first moved out on my own, I started to miss Chinese food and the food my mom would cook, so I started cooking Chinese food and I started sharing that with my roommates. Food has memory and food has stories and it brings people together. Like when I started visiting Mrs. Kwong, every time I am there she cooks for me, and that means something. It is how sometimes people show, or sometimes how I perceive, love.
Katrina: How do youth groups contribute to a sense of intergenerational and intercultural understanding?
Yulanda: I feel like youth groups are really important because there is a lot of power in youth. I’ve seen a lot of youth groups do a lot of cool things. They’re innovative. And I think, especially in Chinatown… there is this perception that young people don’t go here or that the only young people here are the yuppies that are gentrifying the place. So I think it’s really important for youth groups to be here and have a presence, and to show that this, Chinatown, is really an intergenerational community, and people who are in Chinatown are of different ages and have a multitude of experiences.
“When I think of community I really [en]vision a place, a system, [that] really supports one another.[…] I think community is built on one-on-one relationships, forming a big web and being connected to one another.”
Katrina: What do you want to see at the 105 Keefer site?
Yulanda: I want to see social housing, and I really believe it’s possible, because so many people were fighting for it. And when council rejected the development, people talked about wanting to see all levels of government work together to build social housing. I think what else other groups have been fighting for is
having a community space, a space for Chinese seniors, and that’s something I want as well. Having a place for Chinese seniors to gather and have a space for people in the community to have a space and be less isolated.
Katrina: Can you talk about your experience organizing against 105 Keefer?
Yulanda: We didn’t specifically do a lot of work on 105 Keefer, because we knew a lot of other groups were already doing a lot of work against 105 for a while. I think for us, I really felt like what was important for me was speaking at the council and also having the perspective of someone who does work directly with seniors on a very regular basis. I think, also, for me, bringing in volunteers to help out and speak at the event. So I feel what Y4CS was really able to do was to continue that work that we always do, which is directly supporting seniors. So we brought water, brought snacks, and kept seniors company, helped translate at times about what was going on.
“I want to see social housing, and I really believe it’s possible, because so many people were fighting for it.”
Katrina: What was your favourite moment at the public hearing?
Yulanda: One of my favourite moments was definitely when King-mong spoke in Cantonese, and deputy mayor was like, “Get him a translator,” and King-mong said in perfect English, “I don’t need a translator, thank you,” and continued on in Cantonese, and then translated his own speech in English.
Another awesome moment was watching some of the seniors speak, and watching them have this platform. A lot of time, the seniors that I talk to feel very disillusioned by the government, and by things that are supposed to be supporting them and resources that are supposed to be available to them. I feel like a lot of seniors I work with don’t have faith in the government, or in change, and I totally understand that. And it was really awesome to see seniors speak out to the government, asking for this change.