A significant event in Chinatown’s history is happening on June 8th 2022.
From the City of Vancouver’s Cultural Services newsletter :
The City of Vancouver’s Chinatown Transformation Team will be presenting the Cultural Heritage Assets Management Plan (CHAMP) Strategic Framework to Vancouver City Council on June 8th at 9:30am at Vancouver City Hall. At this meeting, Council will deliberate on adopting CHAMP Strategic Framework and actions related to the next phase of Chinatown work.
The Chinatown Transformation Team, the Council-appointed Legacy Stewardship Group and its six working groups, and many community members, have been working together over the past 3 years to identify a vision and priorities for Chinatown. This report is the first plan of this kind done for Vancouver’s Chinatown, by focusing on and centering cultural heritage. CHAMP honours the local and the neighbouring areas’ shared history and experiences of resilience by strengthening and sustaining cultural heritage assets for future generations.
The following is a selection of letters from some of our community members.
From: Thierry Gudel
I am Thierry A. Gudel, former Realtor with Macdonald Realty Ltd.
I have lived, worked and owned property in Gastown for several years. As the former President of the Board of the Queer Arts Festival (QAF) in Vancouver, together with SD Holman, Paul Wong and a wonderful team of people I have been involved in the creation of SUM gallery in Chinatown. Over the last 26 years of living in Vancouver, I have witnessed the loss of history, charm and personality in many parts of Vancouver with great concern and sadness. Before moving to Vancouver I have lived in several great cities in Europe, most notably in the city of Berne, Switzerland, an entire city full of life, commerce and people, designated a UNESCO World heritage site.
I have witnessed the lack of support for policies and the implementations of such to protect the history and uniqueness of Vancouver for a few decades. I can only describe the loss of many historic buildings and neighbourhoods as the manifestation of a city with a severe lack of self respect. I am urging the honorable Mayor of the City of Vancouver and the Council to support the Cultural Heritage Assets Management Plan ( “Champ”) not only to protect a unique and historically important part of the city, but also to put Vancouver on the map for reasons other than rampant drug problems, lack of housing and corporate interests. I believe that the people that have been entrusted with the stewardship of the City of Vancouver will have the confidence to shape the future of Vancouver and protect its people, history and identity and will therefore work towards protecting one of the most unique historic neighbourhoods, not only in the city of Vancouver, but also in all of North America. Protecting this particular neighbourhood, its buildings and history is in the interest of many future generations to come.
With much respect and gratitude, I trust that the Mayor and Council will support all efforts to save Vancouver’s Chinatown.
From: Louis Lapprend
My name is Louis Lapprend. I lived and worked in Strathcona and Chinatown from 2012 to 2021. I founded the publication Chinatown Today in 2015 and co-organized Chinatown Movie Night in 2018. I was a member of the Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group (LSG) in 2020, and unsuccessfully competed in the 2021 Ox-picious Lunar New Year dumpling eating contest.
I wholeheartedly support the Chinatown Cultural Heritage Assets Management Plan. Please allow me to explain why.
Back in 2015, as massive new condo towers were replacing entire blocks of our Chinatown, the community was helpless and disorganized. Multiple groups, with diverse interests, were competing for media attention, hoping to get the City to help stop the neighbourhood’s erasure. Alas, the City’s hands were tied: real-estate development in Vancouver is a free market, and other than a couple architectural guidelines, there was nothing to stem the tide of redevelopments. As long as they paint their building red or gold, add a couple of lanterns and dragons on the balconies, developers can get away with anything in Chinatown.
Faced with an existential threat, and invigorated by the involvement of a younger generation sharing stories on social media, the community came together to oppose the development at 105 Keefer Street. It was such an unprecedented turnout, that your predecessors agreed something had to be done for Chinatown. In some neighbourhoods, carrying on business as usual can have disastrous effects on our intangible heritage, the very soul of our city. A couple of years later, the creation of the Chinatown Transformation Team and Legacy Stewardship Group were a direct result of this.
The Chinatown Transformation Team is a way for the City to be directly involved in the community. Prior to its creation, as far as I can tell, everything had to be done through backroom deals with Councillors; an option only available to the rich and powerful. I, for one, find this new system more healthy and transparent, and a lot less vulnerable to corruption.
The Legacy Stewardship Group is a representative body, where all Chinatown community members are invited to the table, to share their concerns with the neighbourhood. Prior to this, there was no channel to collectively report concerns. The system was not broken, no, there was no system at all. As a result, it took significant chunks of the neighbourhood being sold to the highest bidder, followed by historical mobilization, for the City to notice something was wrong. With the Legacy Stewardship Group, the community can be more proactive and more inclusive.
Working hand in hand, the Chinatown Transformation Team and the Legacy Stewardship Group have devised the Chinatown Cultural Heritage Assets Management Plan. For the first time in our City’s history, there is a comprehensive plan to manage an important community, in a more transparent and inclusive manner. I urge you to adopt this plan, which will carry on long after the end of your mandates. I am hoping similar plans and community engagement can be deployed for more of the neighbourhoods which make Vancouver unique.
From: Christina Lee
I would like to begin by acknowledging the unceded, occupied and ancestral territories of the three title-holding nations: the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh. As settlers on these lands, it’s critical for us —in particular when discussing planning, conservation, and place— to recognize the role that colonialism has played in our ability to be in these spaces, and to build back reciprocity and collective stewardship with Indigenous communities who have cared for these lands since time immemorial.
My name is Christina Lee and I have been involved in the Chinatown community for quite a few years now, having sat on or adjacent to advisories and working groups, and have worked and volunteered for various organizations over the years.
Most notably, I am currently the Manager of Operations and Special Projects at hua foundation, and through my four years with the organization, I have developed and nurtured a deep love and affection for this neighbourhood. I have coordinated summer pop-ups, supported and led community arts projects, authored the 2018 Vancouver Chinatown Social Cohesion Report, and led the buildout of the Chinatown Cares Grocery Delivery Program during the earliest days of COVID-19.
I speak before you today in multiple capacities: as a community researcher, policy analyst, systems builder, geographer, and as my whole self.
I am a 2.5 generation Cantonese settler born, raised, and currently calling in from the lands now known as The Big Bend, in South Burnaby, which has been stewarded for generations by local nations including the Qayqayt, Kwikwetlem, and Kwantlen peoples. This is relevant because one of the special things about Chinatown is that you don’t have to have had a long relationship with the neighbourhood to feel held, nurtured, and protected by the weight of its history.
You have likely heard from other speakers about their long ancestral connections to Chinatown, of four, five or maybe even six generations of community leadership running through their veins, of weekly trips to buy groceries and have dim sum in the neighbourhood, or long road trips from outside of the region every month to stock up on cultural foods and goods. These stories are all part of the legacy of Chinatown, but they are not mine.
I was born and raised into a time where Crystal Mall, Victoria Drive, and Richmond had already become thriving cultural centres for my community, much closer to reach than Chinatown. These were the centres of my childhood, where I made the earliest connections to my culture.
However, it wasn’t until university when I began to develop and nurture this connection to Chinatown which —and this is not an exaggeration— has completely changed my life.
You have already read about the long histories of activism and resilience in Chinatown — from the freeway fights from the 50s to 70s, to the many other real, functional, and vital roles that this neighbourhood plays for so many people even now.
I am not here today to retell that history. I’m here to ask a couple of questions for you to reflect upon the importance of a plan like this: Why is it, beyond an international designation, that the history (and specifically living history) of a place is important? What does it mean for individuals to feel reflected in the histories of the landscapes that they situate themselves in?
For me, as a person whose familial lineage holds many parallels to the histories of Chinatown, it has been an indescribable feeling to see myself reflected in the faces of others in my community, to normalize the disparate pieces of my identity that I had battled with throughout much of my young adulthood, to bring me closer to my own elders by bridging a language divide that felt as far across as the Pacific Ocean. This is the Vancouver that I know, and my family and I are here because of Chinatown.
But the thing is, Chinatown is not only an important player in my own personal history, or even just those of Cantonese heritage. Its presence and its histories are key to the growth of the Asian diaspora on these lands, the region, and arguably the entire continent. Ask any historian and they will trace for you the lineage and interconnections between Toronto, San Francisco, and so many more big cities connected by these roots.
I don’t think that any of the folks who are in attendance today would argue that, however. The question, rather, is how do we help others who may not already see the value of Chinatown to understand the relevance this one neighbourhood has and the contributions that it has made to our city at large?
Beyond history books, physical manifestations of history give us opportunities to bump up against and learn to ask more questions about the way these spaces came to be. We do not learn about the history of this region by walking into Whole Foods to pick up Impossible Burgers. But I see it and hear it every day in Chinatown, as I walk into San Lee Enterprises, where the shopkeeper is speaking to her husband in Vietnamese, and then switches to Cantonese to greet me. These spontaneous moments provide touch points to engage with worlds that we would not expect to and do not seek out with intention.
This neighbourhood has been a microcosm for the city at large, the ripple effects of unaffordability and decreasing food security that we had seen in the early years in Chinatown have started to become more visible across other neighbourhoods as well: Joyce-Collingwood, Punjabi Market to name only a couple. I could name all of the various related policies, plans and strategies throughout the City of Vancouver compendium, but as I am running out of time I will say this: I am excited to see for once that a holistic approach has been taken with this plan, because I —along side so many others— am tired of seeing real policy action disintegrate in our hands due to the silos of the city bureaucratic structure.
For this, I’d like to acknowledge the Chinatown Transformation Team and staff from other departments for putting together this plan. Regardless of which side that anyone falls, we have to recognize the monumental amount of labour that has gone into this, and the unprecedented level of community engagement that has been undertaken throughout this process. This is no small feat, and alone it sets a standard for how planning can be achieved WITH communities, rather than FOR or AROUND them. This should serve as a lesson and stepping stone for better engagement on public processes.
I support the Chinatown Cultural Heritage Assets Management Plan, and look forward to a future where we may all safely gather again, in a thriving and lively neighbourhood that pays true homage to its legacies of resilience, solidarity, and a willingness to imagine worlds beyond what we currently see.
From: Quyen Ly
Our family of 10 immigrated from Vietnam to Vancouver in the summer of 1985. As a Chinese-born-in-Vietnam family, my father and mother with the help of the Chinese Benevolent Society located in the heart of Chinatown, and still in existence today, without knowing a word of English, were able to raise 8 children in a new country where 6 of us graduated university in BC.
Today, as the youngest of the 8, I am 43 years old, an independent financial advisor and recently new father. I look back at how we were able to come to a country with no money nor know the language, and yet I am proud to say that we have integrated really well into the community and are all contributing members to society in our own right. A lot of things had to go our way to have this story to be successful. I am adamant that the Chinatown community and the Chinese Benevolent Society played vital roles in helping our family since day one.
Ours is just one of thousands of examples of how the Chinatown community has helped with its many resources along side local businesses. Today, these resources and the valuable real estate that they reside on are at risk of gentrification amongst other things. The Chinese Cultural Heritage Assets Management Plan (CHAMP) is a step towards protecting the Chinatown that helped our family.
To date, my parents who are 89 and 86 still enjoy strolling through Chinatown and greeting store owners and restauranteurs who they’ve befriended from the past 35+ years. Sadly, many of which are no longer around. I recall back in 2017 I asked my mom why she doesn’t just go to the local TNT for all of her groceries, she asked me to accompany her and on a trip one Saturday afternoon and I quickly understood why – that she chooses to support the people she has built a relationship with over convenience.
I applaud the people who have come forth to take charge in this initiative. We have something very unique and precious. CHAMP is a huge step towards preserving the cultural assets that our family owe a lot to.
From: Kimberley Wong
The work that happens around space, culture, and history in the neighborhood my ancestors first settled in five generations ago—Chinatown—occurs on the lands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil–Waututh nations, all of whom have vital ties to the unceded land that Chinatown’s first settlers were placed on. The Cultural Heritage Assets Management Plan (CHAMP) and UNESCO process, especially in its next implementation phase, must acknowledge, rely on, and wholly embrace actions that support redress, decolonization, and renewed relations with these host nations.
My name is Kimberley Wong 黄壯慈, and I am the Race and Equity Program Manager at hua foundation, a past founding board member of Chinatown Today, and also a community organizer in Chinatown and queer arts spaces. My ancestors come from Hoisan 臺山County in Southern China—some of them came as indentured labourers, and all were subject to the Chinese Head Tax upon entering Canada. I preface this knowledge because this shapes the way that I walk through neighbourhoods, exist in spaces of power, navigate community relationships, and more. Embarking on a journey of learning about my homelands has led me to many places, but most notably, has allowed me to facilitate workshops and discussion groups in Chinatown for other diasporic Asian youth to collectively explore topics of cultural reclamation, belonging, and racialized trauma. In addition to knowing where my ancestors come from, I also have the privilege of access to archival information alluding to ancestors who were integral in the formation of Cantonese Opera in Vancouver—an affirmative form of art that, in many ways, merges tradition with gender queerness. Knowing that I am not alone in my family as a queer Cantonese person means the world to me. Access to this knowledge has transformed the ways in which I embrace my identity, guided my willingness to participate in community engagement processes, and empowered me to step into leadership roles as a young woman.
This is why I write this letter to you in support of the CHAMP Strategic Framework and UNESCO World Heritage Site Process. The plan recognizes key aspects of culture and space that were previously not recognized, and more importantly, it sets up a framework for how community members, governments, and other stakeholders can work collaboratively towards conserving and growing access to these cultural practices, knowledge, sites, and assets that have provided me and others with so much.
From January 2019 until December 2021, I served as the Co–Chair of the City of Vancouver’s Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group (LSG). In this role, I witnessed the importance of having a space to engage on issues together as a complex and non–monolithic community. I often worked with community members who had fundamentally and diametrically opposed opinions from myself, but as a part of the democratic process—which I deeply believe in—I advocated for their time and ability to bring agenda items for members of the LSG to debate and discuss. An integral part of this arrangement restricts one person from wielding ultimate power over decisions for the community, because accountability is held by elected members.
I believe that a key aspect of the LSG’s success and strength lies in its democratic process, diverse membership, and ability for non–members to still participate in the process. Non–members often face barriers to participation in Chinatown based on social structures like class, patriarchy, social capital, language, and sexuality, but the democratic application process, collaborative decision making, and flexible engagement structure of the LSG allows those who face barriers to participation to reduce those barriers.
I believe that the CHAMP Strategic Framework and UNESCO World Heritage Site Process is an essential step towards creating the frameworks to better support a living community, where culture is the centre of our neighbourhood, where decision making power is distributed equitably, where actions are community–led and collaborative, and where future generations have access to place–based learning, historical sites, and intangible heritage for decades to come.
I hope that the proposed plan receives your support—it will acknowledge the countless hours that community members participating in this process have given, with hopes of continuing our work for the conservation of this historic living neighbourhood.