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Chinatown in Transition

The city of Vancouver is constantly changing and expanding both structurally and demographically. With the largest population growth projected to come from immigrants by 2030 [1]., ethnic neighbourhoods within the city are feeling the pressure to maintain a balance between modernity and traidtional lifestyles. Chinatown in Vancouver is an example of an ethnic community struggling to stay culturally relevant and economically successful admist the rapidly developing city, Neo-Liberal governance and the risk of gentrification. This wikipedia article will focus on the recent revitalization efforts within Chinatown and the greater Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, it's proximity to other neighbourhoods in Vancouver and finalize with concluding remarks about the future of Chinatown.

Chinatown Vancouver


Vancouver’s Chinatown is the second largest chinatown in North America. It is considered as “one of North America's cleanest modern day Chinatowns” and is one of Vancouver’s most iconic districts. Pender, Main, and Keefer street dictate the approximate borders of Chinatown, which is situated South East of Vancouver’s central Downtown core and the Eastside. By the prominent ethnic Chinese population in Vancouver, Chinatown is perhaps Vancouver’s most densely cultured area. Notable landmarks include the China Gate donated to Vancouver during Expo 1986 by the People’s Republic of China, and the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden; also built for the Expo. The area is host to numerous restaurants , oriental bakeries, tea shops, and a plethora of other small and big familiar asian shops, and activities such as Tai Chi group-practice sessions, a semi-annual night market, and yearly festivals. The area boasts ethnically inspired heritage architecture, dating back to 1889, a large movie theatre, and what (was) Canada’s largest restaurant up till a few years ago. The history of China Town begins with the recruitment of chinese labour by John A. Macdonald for the completion of the Trans Canada Railroad [2]. By, 1860 there were approximately 7,000 chinese workers in B.C. and by 1881 this number increased to 15,000. Chinese workers faced perilous conditions making up the majority of the railway working population, and were a key component in the completion of the railways final western leg. In 1885, the CPR was completed and the Chinese working population was “let go” to survive on their own, few were able to pay for their return trip to china. Facing racial discrimination and prejudice by the white community[3] over time the chinese grouped to together to develop their own communities. It is said that, having been familiar with road building and railway construction it is no surprise that the first Chinese neighborhood was situated by Vancouver’s central Railway stations and bustling downtown. In 1889, construction began on the Wing Sang Building, one of the first prominent Chinese structures built in Vancouver. Shortly after that, nearly twenty other buildings were constructed in China town up to 1925. Chinese immigrants formed many influential economic and cultural relationships with the city of Vancouver which are still deeply relevant today. In later years, Vancouver’s Chinatown experienced yet another small boom during Expo 86, and what can be considered to be relative decline in socioeconomic productivity through the later 90’s; as Richmond gained the most favor for new Chinese immigrant business and settling immigrants.[4]

WingSangBuilding.jpg Wing Sang Building [1]


Chinatown’s demography consists of a strong immigrant population, approximately 43%, as stated by the city of vancouver in 2001[5]. Characterizing the Demography of China town is a difficult task. Being one of the several neighborhoods considered to be part of the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown shares much of the same demography as its larger constituent, except with a larger Asian population. Drug use and HIV infection are seen more often in Chinatown than in other westward parts of Downtown Vancouver because of its close proximity to the Eastside. Approximately 25% of the Vancouver’s Eastside population, partly made up by Chinatown, is Chinese. Approximately 10% of the Eastside population consists of status first nations and approximately another 15% are of aboriginal decent[6]. The Downtown Eastside is known in particular for a high incidence of drug use, especially around the area of Hastings street. Drug users and homeless peoples are seen in high frequency as you move north through China town, approaching Hastings street. Chinatown is not commonly believed to be part of the Downtown Eastside according to most Vancouverites but it does lie within its borders according to the city of Vancouver. Chinatown, has relatively cheap rental housing, comparatively speaking, and houses many service personnel that live in the area. Gentrification, occurring across Gastown and up Mainstreet, is predicted to encircle Chinatown in the future, bringing with it more promising opportunities for developers, Chinatowns revitalization, and a population belonging to a high socioeconomic status.


The major transportation options of Chinatown are either to drive or use public transit (bus or skytrain). Chinatown is very accessible by car, although parking street-side can be an issue. Private Companies have opted to alleviate some of this issue by developing several parking stall buildings. Future transportation infrastructure improvements approved by the City of Vancouver include the Carrall Street Greenway Project[7]. which is part of the planned revitalization of the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown[8]. The Greenway project will connect Gastown, the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown. Chinatown will be connected to the Greenway Project via the following stops: Millennium Gate, Chinese Cultural Centre and the Old China Gate, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Courtyard, Alley behind CBA Building, Memorial Square, Shanghai Alley and Suzhou Alley. The Greenway[9]will be a two lane, two way street with parking on either side. There will also be a cycling lane and sidewalk, designed to encourage people to drive less.

The Downtown ‘Historic’ Greenway[10]project is also under development; it is a network of three walking routes that connect the historic areas, Gastown, Yaletown and Chinatown[11]. In 2001 the Silk Road Walking Route was launched which connects Chinatown and Downtown. The starting point of the Silk Road Walking Route begins at Library Square and ends at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Chinatown. The route is 3 km long from Library Square, around Chinatown and back to Library Square. Along this route, pedestrians can observe the surroundings of Chinatown, stopping to shop or eat, stimulating locate business.

Public map.jpg [2]

Chinatown vancouver web.jpg [3]

Current Urban Issues


The Downtown Eastside is famous (at least in Canada) for having a high concentration of drug users, sex trade workers, addicts, homeless people and HIV positive residents[4]. It is also home to Insite[12] the first safe injection site in North America. Although early results appear to indicate that Insite is a success in creating a safe, controlled environment for drug users, it continues to be a very controversial subject of debate, with its detractors claiming that it only perpetuates the problem of drug addiction in the Downtown Eastside. Some also argue that the existence of Insite in the Downtown Eastside also attracts more drug dealers and addicts to the area, further enlarging the problem of drug use.

Chinatown is geographically part of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. It’s proximity to high concentration areas of homeless people, prostitutes, drug users and dealers, for example Main street, has unfortunately contributed to the neighbourhood’s reputation as being unsafe, unclean and wholly undesirable. This reputation is a detriment to Chinatown’s prosperity because it acts as a socio-economic barrier which prevents businesses from attracting clientele and deters people from the middle and upper classes from perceiving Chinatown as a desirable location to live. Furthermore, if Chinatown remains a community of low-income residents, the economy will continue to be weak since there is not enough money earned by it’s locals to support the businesses; “higher poverty neighbourhoods cannot support so many retail establishments” [13].

A more in depth analysis of the factors contributing to Chinatown's issues requires examining the roots of the problems in the Downtown Eastside itself. Unless the problems of crime, drug use, and homelessness in the Downtown Eastside are mitigated, they will continue to filter through to the streets of Chinatown, and greatly hinder the progress of its revitalization.



Grounded in the broader context of the Canadian entrenchment in Neo-Liberal politics and policy, Chinatown has experienced increasing polarization from other Historical neighbourhoods in Vancouver such as Yaletown and False Creek.; “An important factor explaining increasing social inequality in Canadian cities involves the restructuring of the welfare state and the embracing of Neo-liberal policies” [14]. The tangible effects of Neo-Liberalism are most obvious in neighbourhoods, and vastly effect low-economic areas such as Chinatown [15]. This is because the restructuring of the welfare state allows the top 20% of income earners in Canada to grow their net worth, while the remaining 80% either remain stagnant or decline [16]., thus intensifying polarization which manifests itself in the stark contrasts between the rich and poor neighbourhoods of major cities such as Vancouver. The restructuring of the welfare state has no-doubt directly effected many of the residents living in Chinatown, most likely in the form of cut backs to social subsidies. On a political level, Neo-Liberalism is controlled mainly through the federal and provincial governments, the higher levels, than the municipal governments. Unfortunately for residents of Chinatown, this means that their wants and needs are not incorporated into policy making since that is the role of the municipal government which is more or less powerless in a Neo-Liberal state [17].

Revitalization of Chinatown as a part of the Downtown Eastside Revitalization Project

The Downtown Eastside Revitalization Project is comprised of multiple partnerships and initiatives that share the common goal of bringing sustainable and healthy social and economic lifestyles to the area. There is an understanding that the problems faced by residents and business owners in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver are unique and require an in-depth revitalization as opposed to any quick fix. Ongoing efforts include new housing plans and renovation of heritage buildings for the use of shops as well as street beautification [18].

Relevance of Issue

Vancouver’s Chinatown is a significant historical establishment that has represented the Chinese Immigrant population for decades. Throughout history it has endeared locals, immigrants and tourists to Vancouver. Unfortunately, in the present a high number of crimes including drug use and dealings, theft and other socio-economic issues such as unemployment have taken away from the character of Chinatown. Thus the reason a resolution of how to restore the area, such as the Revitalization of the Downtown Eastside, needed to be created.

In order to successfully restore this neighborhood to a healthy place to live, certain aspects of Chinatown need to be analyzed. For example, how will the proximity of other Downtown Eastside neighborhoods impact the revitalization efforts in Chinatown? Will an influx of new housing and re-designed buildings led to gentrification and furthermore the displacement of its current residents? If investment is put into the businesses is there enough of a market to economically sustain Chinatown? Therefore, the revitalization of Chinatown is an issue that needs to be analyzed to ensure it is accomplishing its own goals of making a positive impact on the people who live there as well as the local business owners.

Historically, Chinatown has been a ‘Traditional Immigrant Enclave‘, meaning it was “seen as a temporary neighbourhood of convenience until immigrants have attained the social contacts and resources necessary to assimilate and move out” [19]. This is especially true for the men who founded Chinatown by coming to Vancouver on contracts with the railroad companies. Unfortunately for Chinatown, this means that a constant stream of low-income residents [20]. have lived and continue to live there until they can afford to move elsewhere. This issues intensified when the city of Richmond gained popularity among the Asian immigrant cultures, able to uphold a standard of living that made it desirable, and catered to the middle and upper classes of an Asian demographic. In order to shift this transitionary nature of Chinatown, revitalization through investment is required. It will help transform Chinatown from a ‘Traditional Immigrant Enclave’ into an ‘Ethnic Community’ meaning Chinatown would become a “desired and chosen residential destination of prosperous immigrants and cultural minorities who wish to live among other forms from the same group” [21]. It would therefore alleviate itself of the socio-economic stigma associated with other areas of the Downtown Eastside and polarization from neighbourhoods such as Yaletown. However, although the revitalization of Chinatown will raise the standard of living for it’s residents through new investments in infrastructure while simultaneously attracting tourism and higher social class residents, therefore stimulating the local economy, there is a risk that gentrification will take over and Chinatown’s current residents will be displaced. Unfortunately for the current residents of Chinatown, the entrepreneurs themselves have proven to have more sway in retail establishments than the local governments; research on ethnic retail has shown that municipal government has been the least involved compared to ethnic entrepreneurs, developers, agencies and advocates [22]. Therefore, the future of Chinatown could realistically be dictated by non-government bodies that will make decisions to maximize profits with less concern about sustainability. It would be unfortunate for the same displacement that occurred among lower income residents of False Creek to happen again in Chinatown.

Downtown Eastside Van.gif

Case Study: Chinatown New York/ China Town Vancouver

Regardless of their geographical separation, New York and Vancouver’s Chinatown’s share much in common. The Chinatowns were both built and popularized by an influx of Asian immigrants who were swept into the cheap labour market and resided in the low-income housing of the area . Common characteristics of working conditions in both Chinatowns have been “poor health & safety conditions, low wages and evasion of government tax” [23]. the same can also be said for housing. Although the majority of these immigrants can be referred to as proletariat, there were also petty bourgeoisie among them [24]. These petty bourgeoisie opened up businesses that catered to the Asian population, therefore creating an all encompassing community that the Asian immigrants would not have to venture out of to find necessities. This has created a lack of integration into the greater communities of both Vancouver and New York.

The historical roots of both Chinatowns led to their segregation from the greater community of New York and Vancouver as well as their enclave status. However, New York’s Chinatown became extremely polarized as a result of International Investment; a pattern that is very likely to repeat itself in Vancouver. As New York’s status as a ‘worldcity’ grew, so did the demand for modernity and up-scale establishments [25].. Manhattan evolved into an area of great wealth and Chinatown being the largest ethnic enclave in all of New York, located in Manhattan, began feeling the pressure of spatial use conflict. International capital manifested itself as the re-development and gentrification pressure of an affluent population that was seeking to expand their upscale establishments. As space within the city became limited, the spatial management of the city became a conflict between preservation and re-development [26]. In this time, Chinatown became a stark contrast to its surrounding neighborhoods with polarization being felt between every aspect of Chinatown and the greater metropolitan areas of New York. Many residents of Chinatown in Manhattan were displaced into other low-income areas of the city because their rent control was voided once new condos replaced the older housing units [27].

The effects of new condominiums in Chinatown New York have been an increase in cost of living, a process of gentrification that displaces the residents who depended on low cost housing. For many of the old residents, they have been forced to find other affordable housing which they acquire “generally through city foreclosed properties and renovations of old buildings with funding from public and charitable sources” [28]. The petty bourgeoisie also depended on low commercial rent in order to maintain their business profits, however, many of them have had no choice but to find other areas of the city to open up shop[29]


From the example of New York’s Chinatown, it is clear to see that “high rents and [new developments] have displaced some residents and businesses” [30].

Vancouver is no stranger to gentrification, or international investment. Therefore, it is no surprise that many parts of the city have been subject to displacement of lower income residents. For example, the development of False Creek has led to an oasis in the city for upper class residents and visitors of Vancouver [31]. However, False Creek has not always been this way. A key point here is that because of the financial and business-development success of False Creek’s development, “the unjust impacts of gentrification are less visible, less discussed and less resisted than they once were” [32]. As Canada moves farther into a neo-liberal country, we are sure to see the effects of gentrification being discussed less and less by politicians. It will also become less common for the government to intervene in favor of subsidized housing, leaving policy advocates in an important role of resistance to displacement of the working class poor neighborhoods. In places like the Downtown Eastside, this has worked so far.

With the most historical buildings and best locations in Vancouver, one would think that Chinatown would be a prime target for re-development. However, a number of factors play into the resistance of gentrification in the Downtown Eastside. Among the most obvious, extreme poverty and street crime, with violent crimes occurring at a rate 20 times higher than other areas [33] have deterred most middle to upper class people from moving into the neighborhood. Another factor is the vivid street protests against gentrification from groups like the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA). They have pushed city policies towards the “removal of land from the private market & into social housing” [34] DERA has also opted for social housing units that are very bland in appearance as they fear new, aesthetically pleasing units may attract private re-investment in the area.

The time period in which DERA was most effective was the 1990s. Twenty years later, the Downtown Eastside is faced with revitalization efforts. What will this mean for the future of Chinatown? Right now it creates the threat of gentrification as a result of new developments and therefore displacement of impoverished residents. Therefore, community advocates must work hard to ensure that public policy surrounding the revitalization efforts balances preservation of unique places such as Chinatown with positive, re-development of the area. Due to many similarities between New York's Chinatown and Vancouver's Chinatown and the greater metropolitan areas they are apart of, I think it is important for the city of Vancouver to learn from the mistake in re-development of Chinatown in New York to avoid displacement of Vancouver's Chinatown residents.

Closing Remarks

Commercial powers have had an ever increasing role in the way that city planning is practiced. In the revitalization of Chinatown city planners should be wary of gentrification. Chinatown is at risk of being redeveloped into new condo towers because of Vancouver’s high demand for condos. The Neoliberal side of the argument to developing the area into condo towers is that by catering to the existing market demand, and building profitable condo towers that new developments will help to enhance the image of Vancouver. With new developments, come new residents, and new money to be circulated around the city; which will displace some of the current population of the Chinatown. Community groups and social agencies have formed over the history of Chinatown to support and protect the local community from a plethora of problems including drug abuse, and gentrification. These groups protect the interests of community residents as well as provide what can be described as the social infrastructure such as low income/social housing, safe injection sites, and comparatively cheap rental costs[35]. Protecting the ‘image’ of Vancouver’s Chinatown should be a high priority in Chinatown’s revitalization. The potential effects that exist in the revitalization and possible gentrification of Vancouver's Chinatown are of a significant concern as the area is home to a particularly susceptible population. Vancouver B.C. is no stranger to Gentrification. In recent years, most noticeably since Expo 86, Vancouver has been experiencing a boom in real estate development and urban densification with little evidence of crashing, even through the 2009 recession. With the practice of ‘new urbanism’, particularly the densification in city centers, Chinatown is at risk of loosing some of its cultural heritage. The revitalization of Chinatown should include bringing sustainable and healthy social and economic lifestyles to the area. The historical roots of Chinatown should be protected and celebrated in the design of new developments.

In order to prevent gentrification while ensuring sustainable development, it would be useful for the city of Vancouver to implicate a policy that binds new developments to dedicating a certain percentage of apartment buildings to low-income families, much like the Olympic athletes village. Although agencies like DERA strive to keep social housing units modest looking in order to prevent gentrification, this may not be the best practice for Chinatown; buildings should reflect and celebrate the rich Chinese culture. If policies that protect current rental values and provide affordable housing in future developments, gentrification should not be an issue. Another policy option for new businesses and development projects that would benefit the economy of Chinatown would be to put back a small percentage, even a fraction of profit, into the Chinatown community. In order to make this appealing to business owners, the money given back should be designated as charity and therefore provide the business with a tax write-off. It could also be matched by the provincial government so that funding comes from both the public and private domain, ensuring the money is not used to benefit the agenda of particular agencies more so than others [36].


  1. . Tindal & Tindal 2009
  2. Vancouver Asian Heritage Society, 2008
  3. ExplorAsian, 2010
  4. Peter, 1993
  6. City of Vancouver, 2008
  7. City of Vancouver, 2007
  8. City of Vancouver, 2007
  9. City of Vancouver, 2005
  10. City of Vancouver, 2010
  11. City of Vancouver, 2010
  12. Insite, 2007
  13. Bunting, Trudi, Filion, Pierre, Walker, Ryan. Canadian Cities in Transition: New Directions in the Twenty First Century. 4th ed. Oxford 2010.
  14. Bunting et al 2010: 174
  15. Bunting et al 2010
  16. Bunting et al 2010
  17. Tindal & Tindal 2009
  19. . Bunting et al 2010: 182
  20. . In 1980, recent-immigrant men who had some employment income earned 85 cents for each dollar received by Canadian-born men. By 2005, the ratio had dropped to 63 cents. The corresponding numbers for recent-immigrant women were 85 cents and 56 cents, respectively (
  21. . Bunting et al 2010: 182
  22. . Bunting et al 2010: 159
  23. New York’s Chinatown has “historically been a reception area for new immigrants...enclave of small-business proprietors & labour” (Lin 1995: 4)
  24. New York’s Chinatown has “historically been a reception area for new immigrants...enclave of small-business proprietors & labour” (Lin 1995: 4)
  25. . Lin 1995
  26. . Lin 1995
  27. . Lin 1995
  28. “polarization in housing markets, race & ethnic relations, political coalitions & the spatial configuration” (Lin 1995: 3)
  29. Lin, Jan 'Polarized Development & Urban Change in New York's CHinatown' Urban Affairs Review, 1995 issue 30 Vol 3 References:
  30. “polarization in housing markets, race & ethnic relations, political coalitions & the spatial configuration” (Lin 1995: 3)
  31. ey, David, Dobson 2008
  32. ey, David, Dobson, Cory 'Are There Limits to Gentrification? The Contexts of Impeded Gentrification in Vancouver' Urban Studies, issue 45, Vol 12, Nov 2008 pg 2471-2498
  33. ey, David, Dobson, Cory 'Are There Limits to Gentrification? The Contexts of Impeded Gentrification in Vancouver' Urban Studies, issue 45, Vol 12, Nov 2008 pg 2471-2498
  34. ey, David, Dobson, Cory 'Are There Limits to Gentrification? The Contexts of Impeded Gentrification in Vancouver' Urban Studies, issue 45, Vol 12, Nov 2008 pg 2471-2498
  35. Heather A.Smith,"Planning policy and polarization in Vancouvers DTES,2002
  36. ey, Tindal, Richard, Tindal, Susan. Local Government in Canada. 7th ed. Ontario 2009.