February 18, 2015

Lunar New Year is upon us again. And, as such, the city will once again be filled with red banners, lion dances, parades and massive crowds at community enclaves like Chinatown and Richmond.

That much is to be expected; it happens every year. It is the time of year when mainstream dignitaries will appear at their fair share of community gatherings, festivals and ceremonies.

Likewise, mainstream attention will be swung to the Chinese community. Restaurants will overfill. Asian-themed malls and shopping centres will welcome people of all ages and ethnicities. Many will try their best to pronounce “Gung Hay Fat Choy” — the ubiquitous Cantonese greeting — with mixed levels of success.

There is no doubt that the city’s boom in Chinese-Canadian population over the last two-and-a-half decades contributed mightily to this attention. Chinese culture — once seemed so distant and exotic — is now almost unavoidable in everyday life. Many new condominium buildings no longer include any “4”s on its floor plans (the number is unlucky in Chinese). Bank ATMs now prominently feature English, French and Chinese options. There are many subtle ways that Vancouver has taken on part of this culture and made it its own.

But while the local Chinese community grows, it is also evolving. And nowhere is this clearer than the focal geographical neighbourhood where local Chinese-Canadians congregate: Chinatown. It has been the historical heart and soul of Vancouver’s Chinese community for a century, and it is undergoing a massive overhaul in light of recent growths and challenges.

It is also an excellent example of the complexity of this community — which, while undoubtedly having its impact on the Metro Vancouver landscape, is so difficult to accurately define.


Vancouver Chinatown BIA vice-president Jordan Eng was only 16 when he participated in the Chinatown parade in 1980. To him, the neighbourhood was a very different place — almost like another world.

“Back then, Chinatown was strongly influenced by the various family clan groups,” Eng recalled. “I was just watching 1980s’ Hong Kong kung-fu movies the other day, and Chinatown was very much like that back then. Many community leaders didn’t speak English. If you had one Caucasian guy speaking Chinese, it was a big novelty.”

Then the 1990s immigration wave from Hong Kong and Taiwan happened. That decade, Eng said, coincided with Chinatown sliding down the economic scale as new migrants — wealthier and more attracted to contemporary infrastructure — shifted their place of business to the then-newly developing Richmond. Meanwhile, the working-class family businesses of Chinatown suffered a generational gap; as older shopkeepers moved into retirement, their children blended more into the mainstream, leaving a vacuum in the neighbourhood that helped push it into disrepair.

“Today, the Chinese crowd is less likely to come to Chinatown and more likely to go to places like Richmond and Oakridge because they (newer immigrants) don’t have nostalgia for the old neighbourhood,” Eng said. “… In the late 1980s, we had all the major banks here. If you wanted to find a Chinese-speaking lawyer, doctor or accountant, it was here. It was central to the Chinese-Canadian lifestyle. The newer generation has no such attachment.”

But Eng, who came on board with the business-improvement group four years ago, said Chinatown has found a second wind in recent years. The BIA was incorporated in 2000, and its mandate was to bring business — and vibrancy — back to the community.



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