1190 Resilient Vancouver Chinatown

Chinatown Stories, Volume 3
by Brooke Xiang and Tyler Mark (editors)

Vancouver: Chinatown Today, 2020
$25.00 / 25611607 (ISSN)

Note: a digital version of this book can be seen here; hard copies may be purchased at  Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and at About Boutique

Reviewed by LiLynn Wan

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In this third volume of Chinatown Stories, the editors aim to reconceptualize resilience in the context of intense economic strain and heightened anti-Asian racism brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Historically, the resilience of early migrants and settlers who faced racism and discrimination was key to the creation and character of Vancouver’s Chinatown. This collection of interviews, poetry, photographs, and articles show the many ways resilience still characterizes present-day Chinatown. These contemporary forms of resilience simultaneously come from and are different than those of the past. Both timely and urgent, Chinatown Stories explores resilience through the words of business owners and employees, members of community organizations, artists, and residents whose work and presence comprise Vancouver’s Chinatown today.

Illustration from Chinatown Stories, Volume 1 (2017)

One striking attribute of Chinatown Stories is that it reveals to the reader the diverse demographic living and working in this particular space in the present day. In their foreword, the editors fittingly describe resilience as not only what endures and is present, but also “who and what are no longer here.” Chinatown has always been home to a diverse and constantly changing demographic. The inclusion of pan-Asian, Indigenous, and Black voices in this publication, not as side notes but because they are integrally part of the Chinatown community, speaks to that diversity. This is a welcome break from a conventional perception of Chinatown which is often constrained by a focus on its “Chinese-ness.”

To some degree, of course, the conventional approach has to do with the origins and history of Chinatown. Throughout the twentieth century, the ethnic Chinese origins of Vancouver’s Chinatown were curated and maintained as a means of survival. This was important as a way to attract tourism and customers to the area, and to preserve an ethnic Chinese cultural heritage. The corresponding body of literature which has emerged about Chinatown is dominated by this popularized cultural heritage, and influenced by ideals of late twentieth century multiculturalism, with its hyphenated identities and thirst for success stories. In reality, however, Chinatown’s origins as a refuge for marginalized workers, its history throughout the twentieth century as an affordable and culturally accessible residence for refugees and new immigrants from the Chinese global diaspora and beyond, and its proximity to Hogan’s Alley and the Downtown Eastside, has resulted in a place that has long been more diverse than its name and historiography suggests. Chinatown Stories validates and pays respect to that complex reality.

A view in Vancouver’s Chinatown, with the Chinatown Plaza in foreground and the Chinese Cultural Centre behind.
Co-editor Brooke Xiang

In recent years, writers and activists engaged in discussions of Chinatown tend to focus on its economic decline and debate its impending disappearance. Heritage, memory, and nostalgia are an important part of the discussion, and are accordingly dealt with in this collection. In their interviews with residents, artists, and restaurant and business owners who make their homes and livelihood in Vancouver’s Chinatown, the editors seek to define and explore the concept of intangible heritage. The centrepiece of this volume of Chinatown Stories is a collection of memories commemorating the closure of Goldstone Bakery and Restaurant (ca. 1986-2020), an iconic restaurant in the heart of Chinatown.

Inside the Goldstone Restaurant at 139 Keefer Street, Vancouver. Photo courtesy Hidden Gems
The Goldstone Bakery at 139 Keefer Street, Vancouver. Courtesy Hidden Gems

In their discussions about resilience, those old enough to remember nostalgically recall the vibrant and bustling streets of Chinatown in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Nonetheless, the present and future of Chinatown are at the forefront of this collection. Defining intangible heritage is essential to obtaining government protections and funding necessary for the conservation of Vancouver’s Chinatown. For the contributors and editors of this collection, resilience is central to the intangible heritage of Chinatown, as much as architecture or cultural practices. Resilience is about moving beyond the constraints of the past. This, of course, requires a strong and vibrant community, which is a driving force behind Chinatown Stories.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie at 163 Keefer Street. Photo by Eric Gould, courtesy Pinterest

Nelli Agbulos’ poem, Welcome to Chinatown, beautifully portrays Chinatown as a place which provides community and a sense of belonging for migrants from the Philippines. For Agbulos, Chinatown “has embraced strangers on different parts of their journey… (and) made me feel less alone.” The interviews with senior citizen residents Mrs. Kong and Mrs. Li Yu Rong give accounts of similar experiences of recent migration to Canada, and the ways Chinatown provided for them a sense of community and acceptance. In an interview with sous chef Alain Chow of Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie, he discusses the importance of the restaurant’s involvement with various grassroots community initiatives like Chinatown Cares and Chinatown Seniors Community Kitchen. Bao Bei is a relatively new establishment at ten years old and offers a modern and arguably gentrified take on Chinese diasporic cuisine. Gentrification is understandably a challenge to the economically marginalized residents of the area, and Chow acknowledges a rift between “incumbent versus newcomer” businesses in Chinatown. He provides a sensitive argument for the need to support senior low-income residents while at the same time breathing new life into the Chinatown business community.

William Liu at his family business, Kam Wai Dim Sum, 249 East Pender Street, Vancouver. Photo by Joshua Berson, courtesy The Tyee
Bamboo Village at 135 East Pender Street. Photo courtesy Tripadvisor

In contrast, legacy businesses like Kam Wai Dim Sum and Bamboo Village, which have been around for multiple generations and which represent the “nostalgic” Chinatown of living memory, have faced different challenges. These businesses have successfully adapted to survive ongoing gentrification and a decline in foot traffic, especially during the pandemic. In his interview, William Liu, owner of Kam Wai, describes his memories of growing up in Chinatown, and why he feels a responsibility to provide affordable meals for the community and especially for seniors during the pandemic. Similarly, Keller Ng of Bamboo Village, a plant and import shop, reflects on the many changes she has witnessed as a business owner in Chinatown over the past three decades, and the even more rapid changes brought about by the pandemic. She attributes their survival to their ability to reach a new and younger customer base. For these legacy businesses, resilience is a tricky balance of adaptation and change, while still retaining the character of Chinatown that is embedded in their memories.

Michael Tan. Photo courtesy Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia via Facebook
Pearl Low. Photo courtesy Pearl Low

This volume of Chinatown Stories also includes interviews with the operators/director of two mainstay establishments in the community — David Wong and Derick Cheng of Corning Drug, and Michael Tan of the Chau Luen Society. Corning Drug, with two locations in Chinatown, provides medical services for many of its residents, particularly the elderly. From Wong and Cheng, we have an account from front-line workers during the pandemic, and the real concerns about a struggling community and the need for a concerted effort between businesses, residents, and the government to ensure the healthy future of Chinatown. Chau Luen is a non-profit clan society which provides housing for low-income seniors, and promotes Chinese culture through athletics, dance, and events. In his interview, Tan also advocates for government intervention in the form of funding, as well as the need for the Chinese community to establish better relationships with other racialized and marginalized communities in and around Chinatown. This theme of building resilience by strengthening relationships within the community is echoed in the interviews with Emily Dundas Oke of Massy Books, Sue Pastoric of Embers Eastside work, drag performers Shay Dior and Queen Maiden China of the House of Rice, and artist Pearl Low.

Co-editor Tyler Mark

This colloquial style of Volume 3 is a bit of a departure from its precursor Chinatown Stories, Volume 2, which reads as a seamless flow of carefully constructed poetry, short stories, and visual art, offering tribute to the theme of “aunties, elders, and ancestors.” The transcribed interviews Volume 3, which form the bulk of this collection, and which ask similar questions in each interview, can be somewhat repetitive in places. However, this format effectively conveys a sense of immediacy and offers a grass roots approach which amplifies the theme of resilience. Giving a voice to those who live and work every day in Chinatown is of utmost importance at this time and to the theme of this collection. These are the voices that are most able to articulate what is needed and what is at stake when it comes to the future of Vancouver’s Chinatown. Their stories echo a unique and intangible comfort that Chinatown has provided for so many over the years, through a shared experience of food, distance, temporality, and, of course, resilience.

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LiLynn Wan in Singapore

LiLynn Wan is a full-time potter currently living in Portuguese Cove, Nova Scotia. She produces functional dinnerware, kitchenware, and tea-ware. Her work is inspired by classical Chinese, Korean, and Japanese ceramics, aesthetics, and philosophies of craft. She holds a PhD in Canadian history from Dalhousie University. Editor’s note: LiLynn Wan has also reviewed books by Jim Wong-Chu and Tina Loo for The Ormsby Review.

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