Fighting to Hold On
Growing up in Vancouver, I’d always had a love-hate relationship with Chinatown. Coming from a third-generation Chinese-Canadian, that should speak volumes.
As a child, going to Chinatown was a mixture of awe and annoyance — awe because of the beautifully-carved dragons sitting atop lampposts, Lunar New Year parades, and tantalising food; annoyance because my parents dragged me to the umpteenth grocery store to find the best deal on a bag of oranges. Sometimes, I’d even collect my maternal grandfather from an intense game of mahjong, the click-clack of bakelite tiles amidst uproarious laughter and conversation. All in all, the good memories outweigh the bad ones.
But as with life, the only constant is change.
Change can be good if it’s meant to help the community, to uplift them in some way and enhance their lives. Unfortunately, change in Vancouver tends to focus more on the profit aspect versus the community that has resided in the neighbourhood for more than a century. And when it comes to Chinatown, it tends to be the elders and shopkeepers who are the ones left holding nothing but dust.
This isn’t to say injecting new blood into a flagging neighbourhood is bad; it’s more about including the community and shopowners in on the conversation so their needs can be heard too.
This is why Clash on Keefer, a TELUS original documentary by Chester Sit, really struck me. It’s one of my absolute favourites as it shows a community of Chinese-Canadians who want to maintain the original essence of Chinatown. The film documents the protests surrounding the rezoning of 105 Keefer Street within the heart of Chinatown, where a 12-storey condo tower would squat in place of the current parking lot.
How can the gentrification of Chinatown be good when it means erasing all the people and culture that are unique to the neighbourhood?
Erasure of Our Roots
Ever since Chinese people arrived in Canada, it has been a constant fight to remain visible. From deplorable conditions while building the railroad to forced segregation in the undesirable parts of town, they have worked hard to create a community that feels safe, a place where they can find the familiar foods from their hometown, and a welcoming neighbourhood for many second- and third-generation kids to reconnect with their roots.
Clash on Keefer is incredibly significant at this point in time, given the current climate against Asians with the onset of COVID and subsequent attacks. The film provides a lot of insight into our actual heritage, one that has been buried for over a century.
The outright racism the Chinese experienced had never been taught in school. The Chinese Immigration Act. The Anti-Asian Riot in 1907. The Electoral Franchise Act. All of these inflammatory situations were meant to diminish our role within society, to erase what we have tried to create.
And when it comes to all the gentrification in Chinatown, it may bring in more profit for the neighbourhood, but it also pushes out many of those who once called it home: its original residents. With more and more changes, it becomes that much harder for a lot of the elder Chinese and Asians to live in Chinatown.
In times of rezoning and gentrification and so-called “upgrades,” all I can ask is: where do we belong, then? Where can the history of Chinese-Canadians exist without being bulldozed over and having a generic 12-storey building put up in its place? If these types of proposals for empty or abandoned lots continue, little by little every part of the Chinese community will be wiped from their historical roots. But thankfully, there are people out there who do care what happens to the community and the neighbourhood.
And Clash on Keefer is a reminder of the passionate community behind the elders, who are willing to continue fighting so our history isn’t erased.
Watch Clash on Keefer on TELUS Optik TV Channel 8 and on the TELUS originals YouTube channel.
About Ev Wong
Born and raised in Vancouver, B.C., Ev has frequented Chinatown ever since she was a young child. She has watched as towers were constructed, casting shadows over the antique Chinese buildings, built from the time they arrived in Canada. Today, she is a fiction writer, editor, sits on the TELUS Community Advisory Board, and is keen to speak up on how to bring together in harmony two clashing cultures (East and West) within many second- and third-generation Chinese-Canadians.