Racial Erasure in Vancouver’s Chinatown: A Case of Urban Renewal

Urban renewal has unavoidably stark relations to racial removal in many parts of the world, including in our country and in our city, past and present. In Vancouver’s Chinatown and in the Downtown Eastside, urban renewal can be seen in nuanced and obvious ways alike. From the poorly maintained, stained, and charmingly mossy rooftops of Little Tokyo’s Lion Hotel and adjoining buildings, the garbage dispersed on the baseball field of Oppenheimer Park, and the smell of urine and cigarette smoke emerging with fish markets wafting their air vents towards the traffic on the street, to the calm and eclectic aesthetic of heritage homes on Princess and Keefer Street, urban renewal and gentrification have shown their faces.

In 1875, Chinese immigrants, almost exclusively men from Guangdong Province, immigrated to Vancouver to help construct the Canadian Pacific Railway, fulfilling positions that white men deemed as too dangerous to perform. These Chinese men lit the fires to sticks of dynamite, often risking their lives, in order to keep their agonisingly low waged jobs. This might have been a surprise to the Chinese because in the 1860s, “few whites perceived the Chinese as a direct threat to their well-being; some regarded them as “useful” or “valuable” members of the communities, especially since whites and Chinese shared the goal of making as much money as they could” (Gyory, 1998, p. 8), but this serves as a stark contrast to how Chinese men were seen by whites merely 15 years after they settled nearby in Victoria to take advantage of the gold rush. In addition to making Chinese men, Black men, and First Nations men perform menial tasks, they were disallowed from living in the same quarters as white men. This racial segregation of particularly Chinese and Black communities, layered on top of the absence of acknowledgement of complete and utter cultural suppression of First Nations peoples on their unceded land, has set the stage for our current conundrum of issues that plagues Vancouver’s Chinatown and Downtown Eastside.

In Vancouver about 20 years after the first mass immigration of Chinese people to Canada, predominantly Black newcomers (but also Italian and some Chinese) were segregated to an area near Chinatown, called Hogan’s Alley. Black people moved from Oklahoma and California to escape racism that they experienced in the United States, but unsurprisingly, experienced different, sometimes more systemic, hidden, and less blatant forms of racism in Canada. In the United States, “urban renewal” was known as “negro removal”, for example. This community of people were in close proximity to employment in Hogan’s Alley, but were also situated in this area because they were not welcome in other parts of the city (Compton, 2005, p. 109). A couple of decades after the settlement of Hogan’s Alley, the city introduced the National Housing Act, which was brought forward by many interest groups, with an adjoining theme of “urban renewal”, this time, wearing the mask of white middle class women’s blight for the lack of affordable housing in Vancouver, as “the women’s social concern group used the assize jury’s findings to make their point about the need for low-rental housing” (Wade, 1991, p. 90), not to exclude other interest groups that were contributing to this urban renewal process as well. Solidarity between racial enclaves was shared, but the freeway expansion that would affect Chinatown’s cultural preservation affected Hogan’s Alley’s much more—so much more that the freeway demolished and decimated the heart of Hogan’s Alley altogether, because as much as Chinatown activists of the Strathcona Residents Association stopped the freeway from coming through Chinatown’s centre, it was not in time to stop the destroying of Hogan’s Alley.

“White flight” comes into play in this history of Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside because of the neighbourhood’s incredibly racialized demographic representation and reality, and because of its typical historical effect of the devaluing of properties in racialized neighbourhoods (Rosenman, 2017), not to mention the gendered effects of having already-undervalued housework responsibilities disproportionately fall on young racialized women’s shoulders. This white flight is ironic coming to suit in recent years with the moving in of majority white middle class people, characterized by their walking around with yoga bags, car share services, and perfectly imperfect tortoise-shell glasses and Australian leather boots, but no more surprising given past stories of white flight and inherent white ownership as a result of the settler colonial system in Canada. For example, the famous Guinness Book of World Records lists the Jack Chow building on the corner of Carrall and Pender Streets as the holder of the World’s Narrowest Commercial Building, but neglects to tell the racist story behind its rather unusual shape. This building is as such because when the city came to straighten roads in Chinatown to make way for easier transit paths for the growing car culture in Vancouver, they had to go through quite a few Chinese-owned buildings. In order to demolish these buildings, the city was required to pay the building owners a price to reimburse them for their troubles, but because the city was not in favour of paying off a Chinese person for their land, they only cut through most of the buildings, leaving slivers of the properties left, so as to make their way around the requirement because they had not taken the entire building down. This example classically shows the disregard that the City of Vancouver government has had for Chinese and racialized people, specifically of lower socio-economic backgrounds. Another example of this “white flight” or inherent and assumed ownership and blasé attitude hails to Produce Row, a district that is still in operation in the city, that provides a large percentage of produce to the lower mainland, that also employs largely Chinese Strathcona residents, and that acts as a community hub and as work for these seniors. This area is under question as a path to re-route the Georgia viaducts through the city, ironically the same freeway and viaduct project that historically destroyed Hogan’s Alley and parts of Chinatown.

The Canadian Pacific Railway is seen as an integral part of Canadian history, especially with regards to scholars that mention and do work surrounding the Laurentian thesis, the core-periphery or heartland-hinterland structure, and even in recent city infrastructure projects like the Arbutus Corridor to connect transit lines for a “greener city”. The Chinese diaspora in Vancouver has played an instrumental role in this construction, and yet, are seen as perpetual newcomers on this land. The formation of Chinese-Canadian identities is embedded within delegitimizing their Canadianness, seeing them as foreigners, as a homogenous group that is now simultaneously working to push housing prices up by bringing in large sums of foreign money while also taking up space that could otherwise be used to move the City of Vancouver in the direction of becoming more sustainable, more liveable, and ironically, more inclusive. Because this community identity is constantly being questioned, and because they are still seen as foreigners who do not belong in Canada, Chinatown as a poor and closed community is being planned out of existence to make way for vegan cafes, environmental organization co-working space, and alike entities.

Perhaps the City of Vancouver, the province of British Columbia, or Canada view the Chinatowns of the West as conglomerations of Asian architecture more than they see the culture of the living and breathing individuals that reside in Chinatown, eating, playing, learning, yelling, and cackling that have existed there and only there as a result of government sanctioned racial segregation. Maybe it is because still, regardless of “the occupational achievements and financial security of many Chinese-Canadians today, they are periodically singled out as causing racial tension and social stress in urban centres” (Roy, 2007, p. 4).

Chinese spaces like Chinatown and Black spaces like Hogan’s Alley are as such because they have been enacted and enforced by white settler colonial structures and people, and the act of taking them away is a classist, racist act of racial removal, sometimes encouraged under the sly name of urban renewal, sustainability, or progress. True sustainability is embedded within Indigenous sovereignty and reconciliation, and as ‘immigrant settlers’, or people of colour settlers on unceded First Nations land, there is a moral obligation to be able to be allies with these communities that have suffered much longer. Chinese work has contributed to what was and is still seen as a pillar of what constructs the Canadian identity, and the communities of people that have resisted urban renewal still reside in the neighbourhood of Strathcona. In order to “save Chinatown” and the culture that lives there, empathy to help and advocate for the stopping of cultural erasure on all fronts, hailing back to times like the proposed freeway construction that brought the community together for a people-powered resistance against big money and urban renewal, must take hold again.

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References

Compton, W. (2010). After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 25-225.

Compton, W. (2005). Hogan’s alley and retro-speculative verse. West Coast Line, 109-115, 284.

Gyory, A. (1998). Closing the Gate : Race, Politics and the Chinese Exclusion Act. University of North Carolina Press.

Rosenman, E. (2017). Lecture March 1, 2017. University of British Columbia.

Roy, P. (2007). The Triumph of Citizenship: The Japanese and Chinese in Canada, 1941-67. University of British Columbia Press.

Wade, J. (1994). Houses for All : The Struggle for Social Housing in Vancouver, 1919-50. UBC Press.

 

 

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