Gabriel Yiu: A solution for development in Chinatown

The fundamental problem and a solution for revitalizing Vancouver’s Chinatown

By Gabriel Yiu, March 15, 2011

Originally published in the Georgia Straight

My last commentary on the proposed relaxation of Chinatown’s building heights has brought me some feedback. Prof. C.Y. Lai provided information on the preservation of Victoria’s Chinatown as well as the replacement of Calgary’s “old” Chinatown by modern buildings. Barry Morley, president of the Community Business and Professional Association, shared with me his view on the dilemma of the development and preservation of the Amazon forest. His view is that preserving the forest is in the long-term interest of the local and world communities. I also received encouraging responses from an MP and a city planner.

Of course, I’ve also heard some contrary opinions. Some people thought that I was opposing change and some said I had not provided any solutions to the problem of revitalizing Chinatown.

I do not oppose change and development. My concern is how Chinatown changes.

My three major concerns are:

1. Would Vancouver Chinatown’s traditional landscape be preserved?

2. Would the height relaxation really help revitalize Chinatown?

3. A property tax hike for merchants and community associations.

Whether they’re Shanghai’s Nanjing Road, Guangzhou’s Xiajiu Road, or numerous places in Europe, the world’s most successful business areas are located in culturally preserved and protected districts.

Preserving the traditional landscape makes for strength, not weakness.

The fundamental problem of Chinatown revitalization is this: why do so few people shop in Chinatown? Safety might be a concern but it’s not the prime reason. Way back when Chinatown was thriving in the ’80s and early ’90s, the same concern was present.

The problem of Chinatown, as I see it, is this: its goods and services are also widely available in other places. Are we going to resolve this problem by building some residential towers there?

The International Village has tall towers filled with residents, but it has not increased the walking traffic of Chinatown.

If the key is about attractiveness, what can Chinatown do?

The success of London’s Covent Garden or the local Granville Island is due to government intervention and planning. Granville Island’s industrial setup, the restriction on site development and merchant categories are the formula for success for B.C.’s prime attraction.

Think about this. In the past decades we saw a huge inflow of immigrants from China. These are immigrants not only from the south, but from various parts of China. They brought with them their rich cultures, experiences, and creativity. These are valuable assets and resources of the Chinese community and the Vancouver society at large, but they have not yet been fully exploited.

If Vancouver’s Chinatown can be a converging point for these cultures and experiences and creativity, I’m sure it would become the best Chinatown in North America.

Vancouver’s Chinese food has been praised as being the best in the world. Think about this possibility: we could turn part of Chinatown into a street of fine Chinese cuisine. In order to get and encourage the right people and business into the area, the government could provide incentive assistance which could take the form of renovation assistance, a property tax subsidy for a period, promotional assistance, et cetera. The goal is to bring in a cornucopia of food culture from various parts of China.

A street of fine Chinese cuisine would be attractive to Chinese and non-Chinese alike. In addition, restaurants that serve such food would attract their native patrons.

This is a way of exploiting Chinese culture to promote Chinatown. It is better than using other methods that might dilute the character of Chinatown.

This is only one of the methods using cultural heritage to enhance business opportunities, but the questions that remain are: do we still need to discuss the question and do we still have the time?

There used to be four major Chinatowns in B.C. The New Westminster and Nanaimo Chinatowns were totally destroyed by fire in the last century. Subject to strict controls on building height, colour schemes, building exterior facades, and decorations, Victoria Chinatown and its neighborhood downtown area are recognized by the city and nationally as a historical and heritage site. The traditional exterior of the Chinatown there is being well preserved. As for our Vancouver Chinatown, time will tell what it will become.

Gabriel Yiu is a small businessperson and was the B.C. NDP candidate in Vancouver-Fraserview in the 2009 election.