Last night was night two of Baconfest, a four part month-long festival dedicated to Ed Bacon father of Kevin and planner from Philadelphia. We watched a movie about Vancouver’s Chinatown that was beautifully shot and a great way of documenting a shifting place. The movie was only an hour and it could only say so much so I wanted to add some reflections based on my own knowledge of Vancouver’s Chinatown — I did a historic society walking tour of the area while I Vancouver and have a fantastic memory for things said on walking tours — and things I think could have been included in a discussion afterwards.
The film covers Vancouver’s Chinatown as it struggles with gentrification and the closure of traditional businesses. Gentrification is a huge pressure on the area. It’s right near the Skytrain and downtown, and is one of those spaces where there are some towers so there’s pressure for more. One answer to this would be to change zoning to make it easier to build middle housing throughout Vancouver so pressure is taken off specific areas.
There’s also the tragedy of losing historic architecture. One of the reasons that people are so upset about Chinatown’s decline is because the long narrow shops created a vibrant and active street life. The area was flexible and adaptable. A part of my soul cries every time a beautiful old brick building gets torn down. We are destroying our built heritage and wasting it. Canadians could learn a lot from the Scottish listed building and conservation area system. Scots get that built heritage matters and they keep their buildings intact. At the very least some facadism and rules about maintaining the long narrow storefronts would help keep the character.
There was also a mention about the dragons facing the wrong way. On the tour the dragons were a very unpopular addition to the area. They were not done in a culturally sensitive manner and did not reflect the identity of the community. Most people would gladly see them go. Some felt it was tokenistic and overdoing it. Others wondered why the city was so unable to do basic research on which was the dragons should face. There is also a park that was redesigned in the area in a way that was failed to consider context, history or the needs of the community that you see briefly in the film.
While it is sad to see businesses close and areas dying out it is important not to romanticize the history of Chinatown in Vancouver. It is not a warm fuzzy one. Instead it one of darkness and discrimination. This is mentioned briefly in the movie but should be noted in any discussion of the area. Chinatown was effectively a ghetto for a long time. Chinese immigrants were treated very badly and at one point in time were banned all together. During my tour the guide said that for a while Chinatown was filled with sad men who never got to bring their wives over/send for a woman to marry. Chinese people lived there in part because of community ties but also because they had trouble finding jobs and housing elsewhere. Not too far from Chinatown is the old Japanese area that ceased to be Japanese when its residents were interned during the war. A few buildings linger but the community never returned. We forget how badly we treated Asian immigrants in the not so distant past.
Chinatown is dying in part because the younger generation have options and are no longer facing rampant discrimination. Some of the change is the area is actually a really positive thing.
The film elegantly captures change and the last days of an era. As we think about what comes next we should preserve the best parts of the old, especially the built form, while remembering the not so nice parts. I like the idea of the museum that the eccentric developer/not developer had. I like his desire to keep what was there as much as possible. You can’t keep the old shop keepers but you can keep their buildings and what made the community vibrant in the past.