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Past meets present as Chinatown is reborn

Blog by Shaun Kimmins | May 27th, 2010

The historic area is finding new life thanks to a youngergeneration moving into it, bringing creativity, money and passion


For years, Vancouver's historic Chinatown has been on the brink. On the brink of being saved, rejuvenated and revived.

For a decade, countless community leaders, volunteers, entrepreneurs and politicians have laboured to inject new life into the historic neighbourhood. Committees were formed, fundraisers held.

Yet progress seemed to be measured in inches.

The goal was clear enough: A bustling new Chinatown, its shops full and its streets alive. The route there was clear too: The district needed new economic life, and to attract it, a fresh identity that would lure a younger, more diverse clientele willing to spend money. And come back often.

In recent months, a fresh young set of entrepreneurs and residents have arrived, bringing the city's long-standing plans alive -- simply by acting rather than talking, by opening stores and cafes and having faith that if they do so, customers will come.

Could it be that finally, Chinatown has arrived?

"The short answer is yes," says Albert Fok, a neatly dressed man with strong roots in Chinatown -- and ambitious dreams for it.

For the past 12 years, Fok has devoted much of his time to trying to unlock the key to Chinatown's future.

As president of the Chinatown Business Improvement Association, he has relentlessly pushed the message that Chinatown's open for business. He dreams of seeing Vancouver's Chinatown one day rival the eclectic bustle of Granville Island, or better yet,

Shanghai's Xintiandi, an old neighbourhood of stone houses and narrow alleyways preserved as an enclave chock-a-block full of bars and boutiques.

Chinatown's not quite there yet, but for now, Fok will happily settle for the mounting evidence that change is under way.

Two weeks ago saw the opening of another new establishment: the Everything Cafe by Sean Heather, whose restaurant empire includes the Irish Heather, Salt Tasting Room and Judas Goat.

The move came hot on the heels of the opening of Blim, an arts-and-crafts resource centre that had a strong presence in Mount Pleasant until it outgrew its former location.

The two latest kids on the block join the charming Bao Bei, a Chinese brasserie, and the swish Keefer bar, both of which have been drawing crowds since they opened earlier this year.

Chinatown is now also home to Bob Rennie, the city's influential real-estate marketing whiz. Much has been made of his $10 million-plus renovation of Chinatown's oldest building, now home to his office and art gallery.

Just down the road from Rennie's new digs on East Pender is the Fortune Sound Club, which made a bold statement when it arrived last August, backed by Garret Louie and Robert Rizk, a.k.a. GMAN & Rizk, two of the most respected nightlife promoters in the city.

For restaurateur Tannis Ling, Chinatown was a natural choice when she considered the affordable rent, central location and atmospheric environment.

"It's such a beautiful neighbourhood, beautiful architecturally and not far away from downtown," says Ling, owner of Bao Bei, which means precious in Chinese.

"I can understand why people thought it was a risk to open here, but I never questioned it."

Despite dire predictions of failure from Ling's "old school" father, Bao Bei has proven to be a success -- and many now view it as the model for which old and new can blend seamlessly.

The chic yet friendly spot serves traditional Chinese fare alongside fruity cocktails (Ling is a former bartender at Chambar) and wears its optimism on its sleeve with a brightly lit neon sign hearkening to Chinatown's past -- and, hopefully, its future.

Chinatown's fortune started to decline in the 1980s and was fast-tracked when Richmond became the shopping and dining destination of choice for the wave of Hong Kong immigrants who arrived in the 1990s.

By 1999, it was clear Chinatown was at risk of dying unless it was able to attract shoppers and diners back to the district. The city targeted the neighbourhood for revitalization and the Vancouver Chinatown Revitalization Committee was officially formed in 2001. A vision for Chinatown's future was mapped and adopted by city council by 2002.

But reimagining a new life for an old business neighbourhood requires more than just a four-page list of bullet points. In fact, magic rarely happens from the words "develop comprehensive marketing strategy."

And as city hall and longtime residents toiled on the boring yet important details of safer parking and better street lighting, the city's younger set now appears ready to meet them halfway -- with creativity and money.

"This may be the result of the work we've done in past years," says Jun Ing, secretary general of the Chinese Benevolent Association and member of the Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee. "There are many organizations within Chinatown doing all that work to promote Chinatown, so I think this is just part of the result of all that."

But there are still struggles ahead.

Shirley Chan, CEO of non-profit group Building Opportunities with Business, notes that there are still many vacant storefronts.

The family societies, formed a century ago to provide housing and social support for Chinese labourers, own many of the heritage buildings in Chinatown, but struggle to generate cash from their properties. What's more, the societies are grappling with dwindling membership as younger Chinese-Canadians have little interest in joining.

Fok says he's also dealt with some dissent from longtime residents who are weary of too much change, too fast. While he has advocated for more housing density to create a sustainable community of residents shopping in Chinatown, he has been met by some resistance from others who fear high-rises replacing heritage.

Even the newcomers are acutely aware that it's the cultural backbone of Chinatown -- the sound of mah jong tiles clacking inside society buildings and Chinese barbecued meats hanging in windows -- that makes the neighbourhood unique.

"You don't want too many of me going down there not opening Chinese operations," says Heather. "I think Chinatown should always be a Chinatown. It's the second largest in North America I believe and we need to preserve that."

Yuriko Iga, director of Blim, says it was important for her to show respect for Chinatown's heritage. Blim's shop awning is emblazoned with Chinese characters, declaring the shop an arts and crafts centre, and Chinese shipping crates left behind by previous tenants have now been recycled into furniture.

"I'm hoping the older business will carry on and it won't just become run over by fancy shops and boutiques. It'd be nice if there's a mix of the old Chinatown and the new Chinatown," says Iga, who is Japanese-Canadian.

"Someone said Blim was the right kind of gentrification because it's catering to the newer, contemporary theme and it's still accessible to the older, Chinatown [community]."

Chan and Fok both appreciate the cultural sensitivity, but are also strong believers that Chinatown belongs to the city.

"I have no objections to who wants to come and do business, no matter their ethnic background," says Chan, whose current work involves supporting local business development and whose family once ran a business in Chinatown.

Fok, who's a fourth-generation Chinese-Canadian now running the family herbal shop, is all too happy to see herbalists and mixologists improbably coexisting in the same community. Though change is afoot, he believes there is still a place for traditional Chinese medicine, restaurants, meat and produce shops in Chinatown's future.

"We're strategically scaling back our advertisements in Chinese media and shifting to the mainstream," says Fok.

Rennie, arguably the biggest name to move to Chinatown, believes that "everyone was really nervous when I was coming in because I represent condominiums."

But since moving into the renovated Wing Sang building at 51 East Pender last December -- and proving his presence is as much about preservation as it is change -- Rennie says he feels he's been accepted by the community.

"What my staff are hearing from the neighbours -- we have the [art gallery] open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays -- that there's a spike in business in the neighbouring shops when we're open. And that says to me we're accomplishing what we wanted to do, and that's bring a demographic down there that wasn't normally coming down there," says Rennie.

"Chinatown's still pioneering."

Please contact Shaun directly shaun@shaunkimmins.com to discuss whether it's a good time for you to buy or sell and please feel free to comment on this or any of my other Blogs or visit me at my Century 21 In Town Realty website.