Vancouver's Chinatown was set up in the late 1880s as a ghetto for Chinese immigrants, brought to work on the railroads and mining industry. It has undergone a recent resurgence as a home for fashionable bars, restaurants and quirky shops.
Vancouver – Been There

A slice of China in The Americas

Photo by Ton Koene

Vancouver – Been There A slice of China in The Americas

A massive one-third of Vancouver’s population is Chinese. Talking to Vancouverites, I look into the history behind that figure.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

“Just like many other big cities on the American West Coast, most of the early wave of Chinese immigrants were from Quangdong, many working on the railroads,” says Daniel Lui, who owns a teashop in Vancouver's Chinatown district.

“They spoke their own dialect and, even though I speak Cantonese, I cannot understand it", he says. Then it was people from Hong Kong, in the 1960s and 1970s, with a large number coming around the time of Hong Kong’s independence from Britain in 1999. They speak Cantonese. Now it is Mandarin Chinese-speakers from Mainland China, since the 1980s when the country started to open up. They have worked hard, saved money and are looking for a better life.”

Much of the influx of wealthy Mainland Chinese was the result of an immigration policy targeted at rich foreign investors. They could apply for permanent residency in Canada if they had a net worth of at least US$1.5 million and invested half of that with the government in an interest-free loan.

The scheme was dominated by Chinese but was cancelled in early 2014 due to concerns about the lack of contribution such immigrants were making to the economy, and the number who could not speak English. But the money they brought – and many continue to bring - will influence the city for years to come.

The change in the Chinese population can be seen most starkly in Chinatown, which covers a few blocks near to the harbor. Abandoned by the wealthier recent arrivals in favor of the swanky city of Richmond in the west, the district’s older Chinese shops are shutting. Daniel’s teashop is one of the few to survive.

The empty spaces are being filled by a new mix of trendy and artistic shops, driven into what had become a run-down area by high rents elsewhere.

The Standard bicycle shop is one such, and another appealing to the same young customer profile is Flatspots Longboards. As the name says, the shop specializes in longboards and takes its name from the wear on one part of a wheel when doing slides. Besides racks of boards and accessories, the shop sports its own skate bowl inside where you can try out the goods before purchase.

“If you look around the historic buildings of Chinatown, you will see most carry the name of a benevolent society somewhere,” says Jackson Hilts, the manager. “When the railroads were being built, the societies looked after people who fell on hard times.”

In recent years, as most of the Asian people, or at least their children, have moved out to Richmond – the modern Chinatown if you will – the benevolent societies have been looking out for businesses to come in and support the community.

They prefer not to sell out to corporate interests, who mostly want to build upmarket housing developments that will bring in a completely different demographic. It's an interesting place, this little Chinatown by the Pacific Ocean.

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Rising property prices elsewhere have led to a boom in Chinatown with quirky shops such as Space Lab, which combines antiques and a barber shop. The Vancouver area has doubled in population in just 30 years but more than 30 per cent of immigrants do not speak English. Photo by Ton Koene

Ton Koene

Ton Koene

Canon EOS 5D-III

Aperture
ƒ/1.4
Exposure
1/80
ISO
500
Focal
24 mm

Rising property prices elsewhere have led to a boom in Chinatown with quirky shops such as Space Lab, which combines antiques and a barber shop. The Vancouver area has doubled in population in just 30 years but more than 30 per cent of immigrants do not speak English.

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