Course:GEOG350/2011ST1/Group 6 Chinatown

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Since the turn of the century Chinatown has been the centre for many revitalization proposals and projects, many of which would change the look and feel of the neighbourhood. During the past 100 years, a few community groups have put in their best efforts to prevent some of these projects from being approved or built, as they would like to preserve Chinatown as it once was.

Today, there is a heated debate in Vancouver’s Chinatown between people who would like to see the area gentrified with results that would make sweeping changes structurally and possibly alter the community dynamic, posed against groups who either want to minimize negative impacts on the current residents, or preserve the heritage of the area.

If revitalization plans are carried out in accordance with the legacy of the neighbourhood, a balance could be achieved, providing benefits for both sides.


Boundaries and Physical Image

Central Chinatown runs along East Pender and Keefer Street, beginning around Main Street, and extending west towards Abbot Street, which is considered the central heritage area. This by no means encapsulates the entirety of Chinatown, much less the Chinese community in the Lower Mainland. The entire neighborhood contains 11-blocks, which makes it the second largest Chinatown in North America (Anderson, 1987).

The entrance into Chinatown is marked by the “Millennium Gate”, which was inaugurated for the new Millennium on Pender Street and Taylor Street. It is a symbolic structure that represents both past and future, specifically chosen to strengthen Chinatown’s image and build ownership of the neighbourhood to increase community involvement. The Chinese symbols on the gate reads “ Qian Xi Men” meaning the doors to a thousand blessings, symbolizing that Vancouver’s Chinatown is of many fortunes and those who choose to walk inside the gates will be bestowed with the worth of a thousand blessings. This symbol incorporates both eastern and western symbols with traditional and modern Chinese style.

History of Chinatown

Undated postcard showing Carrall Street looking south from Pender c.1906

Chinatowns were created during a time of extreme racism and discrimination. Neighborhoods as such were constructed in order to be physically apart from the rest of the mainstream society in the 1880’s and grew to be a Mecca for Chinese immigrants and Asian goods and services (Wong 2011). From the 1880s to the 1920s in British settler society, the development of Chinatowns and the Chinese community dynamics were greatly influenced by western assumptions of traditionalism and modernity (Anderson, 1987). Forced to function within its own boundaries, Chinatowns focused on internal organizations and developed a spectrum of social institutions which resulted in a community of 250,000 that became self sustainable. It was a refuge for the early Chinese immigrants from the racial hostility and prejudice they faced within the larger Vancouver community ; Chinese people were not given employment outside of Chinatown(Wong 2000). In a way, it could be argued that these neighbourhoods offered a degree of protection, as well as opportunities for Chinese immigrants. Historically, Vancouver’s Chinatown was seen as unsanitary and morally corrupt, it was also seen as a place where one could find a congregation of Chinese shops and businesses (Li and Li 2011). This image gradually began to change in the 1930’s, when Chinatown opened its doors to the Canadian people by advertising it as a neighborhood that was able to offer exotic oriental cuisines and festivities (Li and Li 2011, Wong 2011). In the 1950’s, the contention between the two races started changing and Chinatown began to expand. In the late 1960’s, Chinatown was gaining its popularity and had many supporters that enjoyed and appreciated the oriental culture-filled neighbourhood, and were willing to defend their heritage town. They were eventually able to unite and effectively convinced the government to not build a third crossing freeway through the heart of Chinatown, since they did not like the idea of a new freeway crossing through ‘their’ historical town. The freeway construction as well as the urban renewal projects were posing a threat to the heritage town. Consequently, Chinatown was officially declared as a historical area by 1971 in order to protect the historical town from revitalization and gentrification, and has ever since been protected and preserved by the city (Wong 2011).


Population change from 1991- 2001

1991 - 715

1996 – 785

2001 – 860

% change from 1991-2001 = 16.9%

Chinatown gender distribution - 66% Male, 44% Female

Household structure - 60% Non – Families, 38% Families

Average household Size - 1.6 in Chinatown, 2.2 in Vancouver, 2.6 in Metro Van

Immigration Population- Non-immigrants (Canadian Born) – 39%, Immigrants – 56%, Others (Visas, Refugees) – 5%

Home Language - English – 41%, Chinese – 38%, Others – 21%

Labour force - 57% employment rate is lower than elsewhere (53%) vs 62% in Vancouver, 63 in metro Vancouver

Current Changes

Revitalization plan

Chinatown Historical district
Qianxi men

The Downtown East Side Revitalization Project is targeting Chinatown (and four other neighbourhoods in the downtown core) to help eradicate the negative stigmas surrounding them over the past decade.

Goals that would affect Chinatown include:

-Chinatown Millennium Gate- a project aimed at beautification of the walkway and entrance leading to Chinatown.

-Improvement of the Chinatown Memorial Square – which is the southwest entrance to Chinatown, located at the corner of Keefer and Columbia Streets. Public events such as the Chinatown festival have been held in this corner. (

-Improvement of Dr. Sun Yat Sen Memorial Garden - which is an authentic representation of an age-old garden tradition that reached its peak in the Ming Dynasty. It is a popular tourist attraction and holds frequent educational events. (

-Plans to garner support for and from local businesses to re-stimulate economic activity

Possible effects


Residents and businesses....those who call Chinatown home would enjoy the new look and beautified areas. The “cleaned-up” image would be visually appealing and allow one to feel a sense of pride in their neighbourhood. It also holds the potential to bring about an influx in tourist activity and revenue, possibly rescuing some of the struggling businesses. For the city....the for mentioned tourism revenue would be highly beneficial for the city of Vancouver as a restored and cleaner Chinatown would be a highly marketable asset. When one calls Vancouver multi-cultural, having an ethnic enclave helps support this claim. Chinese descendants....those who have descended from early Chinese settlers, and may not necessarily still live in the neighbourhood, will have a reason to return and educate themselves on their ancestors struggles. As well they would feel renewed pride of their ancestors accomplishments and legacy.

Side effects

Residents and businesses....people who do not live in Chinatown could see the same beauty as current residents once revitalization is complete and migrate there. This could translate to a population increase and new buildings, which in turn could “price out” current residents. (see "New developments") For the city....the thought of being forced out of ones neighbourhood for financial reasons doesn’t sit well with most individuals and the city could face heated backlash for allowing new builds. (see "New developments")

New Developments

On April 19th, 2011, a long awaited decision was made regarding building heights in Chinatown. The city of Vancouver passed the motion to relax building height restrictions even though it was a very controversial decision with many current Chinatown residents speaking against it. The current residents have the fear of not being able to afford their rents anymore and feel that if the city approves new buildings, then the city is neglecting the current residents.

The possibility of high rise modern condominiums will be a sharp contrast to the low rise, dated structures currently in place. Developers have had their eye on this area for quite some time and were only waiting for approval to go ahead with their proposed buildings., Housing with optimal proximity to the downtown core, in a recently beautified area, will theoretically increase the land value, Ch.13-The Economics of Urban Land-in Canadian Cities in Transition, states that the “intensity with which vacant land inside a growing city can be developed increases over time when zoning permits; and this intensity, in turn, increases the residual value of the land. It can, therefore, benefit an owner to hold the land vacant for an extended period of time before converting it to a more intense use.” Although the land in Chinatown hasn’t been held vacant, it has had a less intense use than what developers are visualizing for the future.

Typically new buildings, especially those in pre-construction phases, are targeted towards young families or single, working individuals with an income that would allow them to buy. In an area close to the downtown core, the short commute to work and the idea of “living and playing” downtown would be marketed. Since currently the area is primarily low-income families and the elderly, the inflow of new, diverse residents to fill these buildings will change the “sense of place” as place is a multivariate characterization that ultimately expresses the relationships and behaviours of residents ( Billig,117-130 ). If the condominiums do go up and are filled, Chinatown will have a new bustling atmosphere. Another effect of new buildings is the management of population growth. Toronto faced a similar condo boom and this form of intensifying urban fabric by redirecting growth to already built-up areas and transforming inner city brown field sites was regarded as a healthy and sustainable way of dealing with population growth(Lehrer and Wieditz, 140).

Possible effects


For developers and the city....this move could mean large financial gains. If units are sold the developers stand to make a fortune. With just a basic knowledge of real estate, one can see that a large influx of intensely built new units, which sell for prices higher than current Chinatown values, would increase property tax values, so increased tax revenue for the City of Vancouver. For residents....there would be the feeling of happiness associated with home ownership in a new, up and coming area, with proximity to Vancouver’s downtown. Cultural and entertainment services would be nearby and overall quality of life could increase.


For current residents and businesses.... the rise in assessed property value could be disastrous. The end result could be moving away from the neighbourhood in search of more affordable dwellings. When the assessed value of a property increases, the annual tax associated with said property will also increase proportionately. Landlords will have to make up for this increase by charging higher rents and lease rates. For struggling businesses and families this increase will be too large of a financial burden to bare. Also, even for those who are property owners, if the monthly rental rate increases on an older, less desirable building, it could be hard to find tenants and keep up with mortgage payments forcing a sale. For the city- many residents are protesting these new building permits because of the above mentioned effects an being priced-out. The city could become the mediator between developers who can not resist the financial gain due to the current state of Vancouver’s real estate market and community groups fighting to stay put in their neighbourhood.

Population Outflow to Suburban Areas

Links between the downtown peninsula and suburban lands have been improved due to investments in better infrastructure. An individual can move away from the core of the city, into a quieter, less populated suburban area and still have a short, easy commute to the downtown core. Transit expansion has also helped ease this commute.

-Richmond has emerged as a popular city for people coming from China to live in. According to 2006 Census data, Chinese living in the Chinatown area only make up 1.2 percent of the Chinese population in Greater Vancouver. However, 20 percent of Vancouver’s Chinese population is in Richmond(Li and Li, 18).

This isn’t a new trend though, as the chart below highlights the growth of Chinese homeowners in Richmond over the past few decades

-The Canada Line, which runs the length of Richmond, opened in summer 2009 and would have had to biggest impact on population. At the time “Richmond expect[ed] 80,000 people to move along the Canada Line.” The most recent census will provide updated results on whether there was a mass jump in population.

-New Chinese immigrants, who in the past would have settled in or near Chinatown for support, do not need to feel that this is their only option. There are a plethora of community and new comer support centers, available to immigrants from any country, all over the metro Vancouver region. The Chinese who need assistance with their move can go anywhere-not just Richmond. These centers provide many services including translation and help with job searches.

This is one of example of why the need for a culture based community, in terms of support services, is on the decline in Vancouver. The metro region is very multicultural and ethnically accommodating, allowing for the population to spread out. Homeowner1.JPG

Counterviews to Development Goals

While change is necessary for cities to grow and thrive, many resist it, choosing to preserve the past instead of looking to the future. Development in Chinatown has been a contentious issue since the area became desirable to developers. Today, new condo buildings and other developments, now approved by the city, are seen as the solution to many of Chinatown’s problems – socioeconomic despair, vagrants, and other issues characteristic of the Downtown Eastside (Chan and Pao). Opposition to this solution sees development as a hasty fix that is “disrespectful and dishonest” ( There are over 40 organizations and businesses from Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside in agreement that condo development in Chinatown displaces low-income residents and erodes the sense of community felt there ("DTES Community Resolution: Save Chinatown!"). Some of the most prominent names in this list are the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council, the Indigenous Action Movement, Van Act! and many more. Most groups are not concerned with the loss of heritage, or the preservation of heritage proposed by the city, but with the changing community and what it means for its current residents.

Outlook to the Future

Chinatown Millennium Gate

With the practice of “new urbanism,” particularly the increasing development of Vancouver’s suburbs, Chinatown is at the risk of loosing some of it cultural heritage due to the decrease of population and business. The ongoing revitalization of Chinatown will bring sustainable and healthy social and economic lifestyles to the area. Through the government support to the existing business organizations, Chinatown can promote local businesses and strengthen its marketing identity. Also, the area’s economic revitalization helps to attract more local, regional and international visitors (Chinatown Revitalization Program, 2011). The historical roots of Chinatown will be protected through the Heritage Conservation Program Information (Heritage Conservation Program Information, 2006),

  • Although Chinatown faces the problems of decreasing residents and businesses, it will probably remain as a tourist attraction in the future. Both local businesses and city officials are willing to promote Chinatown and its surrounding area in such way.
  • For the future, businesses who can afford a move may still have hope. With the emergence of a chinese population in Richmond, setting up shop in the "Golden Village" or Aberdeen Mall area of Richmond could be a successful business plan. The families in these areas who are looking for authentic Chinese goods and food products will enjoy the proximity to new stores with a variety of products.
  • A coalition between Chinese legacy supporting groups, local low-income resident groups and City planners could be a big step in ending the current feuds. It would bring everyones values and goals to the table to plan for the future of Chinatown, so there will not be feelings of neglect.


Anderson, Kay. “The Idea of Chinatown: The Power of Place and Institutional Practice in the Making of a Racial Category.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 77.4 (1987): 580-598. Web. 22 June 2011.

Bunting, T., Filion, P., Walker, R. "Canadian Cities in Transition: New Directions in the 21st Century." Oxford University Press, Toronto, 2010.

Billig, M. (2005). Sense of place in the neighbourhood, in locations of urban revitalization. GeoJournal, 64, 117-130.

Chan, Eric and Pao, Ming. “Tall buildings finally allowed in Chinatown after 10 years of controversies.” Accessed August. 4, 2011

Chinatown Revitalization Program. 2011. Web.June 22.2011.

“DTES Community Resolution: Save Chinatown!” Accessed August. 4, 2011

History of Chinatown. 2011. Accessed June 22.2011.

Heritage Conservation Program Information. City of Vancouver. 2006. Accessed June. 22. 2011.

Li, Peter and Li, Eva Xiaoling. “Vancouver Chinatown in Transition” Journal of Chinese Overseas 7 (2011):7-23.Web.June 22.2011. Lehrer, U. & Wieditz, T. (2009). Condominium development and gentrification: The relationship between policies, building activities and socio-economic development in Toronto. Canadian Journal of Urban Research, 18, 140.

MacKenzie, Ken. “Freeway Planning and Protests in Vancouver 1954-1972” Simon Fraser University, June 1984. Web. 22 June 2011. Vancouver, “ China Historic District - The Vibrant Centre of an Evolving and Enduring Culture”. February 2009, Bernard P. "Chinatowns: Persistence and Change." Journal of Chinese Overseas 7.1 (2011): 1-5.Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 24 May 2011. Wong, Milton. "Growing up in Vancouver's 1940s Chinatown." Maclean's 112.52 (2000): 180. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 25 July 2011. Accessed August 4, 2011 Accessed August 4, 2011

Yiu, Gabriel.Relaxing Chinatown Building Height Restrictions Could Have Negative Consequences. Accessed June 22.2011.