It's lunchtime at the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre (DEWC). Women of all ages move quickly through a short line near the kitchen, filling plates with salad, thick open-faced sandwiches, and a mug of soup. There are about 75 people seated in the dining area, eating lunch and socializing. There are no snaking lineups out the door and around the block here, unlike other agencies that serve free meals to low-income people. And though the place is busy there's room around the centre's many circular tables for anyone who wants to sit down. A group of Chinese senior women share one table with younger, English-speaking DEWC members; the two groups communicate by sharing food, gestures, and jokes.
Sadly, however, this scene of cheerful harmony between Chinese and English speakers is an exception in the Downtown Eastside. When the 15 Chinese seniors gather in a basement common room to chat with me after lunch, they tell me, unanimously, that discrimination is the biggest issue they face.
"Other people are giving out food to any other race, but when they look at you, they say, 'Oh, you're Chinese. You're from China. Go back to China,'" says 82-year-old Jay Gnun Foon. "They will deny a piece of bread that everybody else is getting. That makes me feel the worst."
But Foon and her 14 friends are strapped for cash after paying for housing, just like others in the area who stand in food lineups. They tell me that that while they don't always feel welcome in the Downtown Eastside, they deserve to be there as much as anybody else.
Foon has lived in Canada for about 20 years. Her daughter asked her to come to help take care of her children, while she and her husband worked for minimum wage. Now Foon lives alone in old Chinatown, paying $400 a month in rent. She regularly comes to the DEWC to enjoy the company of friends.
Foon and the 14 other women I meet today speak a country dialect of Cantonese that 25-year-old Deanna Wong, the DEWC's one bilingual Chinese seniors outreach coordinator, translates for me. Wong tells me that most of the women here are from Guangdong Province in China, once farmland but now an industrial region.
"A lot of them come from rural China, and they've been farming their entire lives," she says. When they were coming of age back in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, China, as Wong describes it, was "a culture that didn't support women. Women were treated like objects in Asia, like furniture. Your ownership [went] from your father to your husband." Many continued to work as farm labourers after coming to the Lower Mainland.
Their health, Wong says, is generally better than that of the roughly 200 other Chinese senior women she works with in the Downtown Eastside. Instead, their most troubling issues are poverty, racism and age discrimination that sometimes find expression in verbal and physical abuse, financial mistreatment, and conflicts and miscommunication arising from language barriers.
Wong tells me about Chinese seniors who arrive at the women's centre with black eyes hidden under sunglasses. Yet few complain, or approach her for help. "They'll force a smile to cover the pain, and overcompensate for it, to reassure me that things are fine when I know they're not," Wong says. "They have my contact information but a lot of times they won't want to trouble me for it. They'll try to get it done themselves."
Wong also makes regular visits to three Downtown Eastside SROs and social housing facilities, where Chinese seniors live among a predominantly English-speaking population. She finds isolation and depression widespread among her contacts.
Her mandate is to connect Chinese seniors with each other and with community supports. Part of her job is to arrange outings for the seniors, designed both for entertainment and the less obvious goal of providing informal opportunities for the women to speak candidly, amongst themselves and with her. She has seen, firsthand, the difference such connections can make in the life of an isolated senior.
"The ones that are healthiest come in the biggest groups," she says, describing the seniors who regularly show up at the DEWC with their friends. "They don't have any education. They can't read. They can't write. But the way they're happy, the way they survive, and part of why they're healthy, is because they have each other."
Life is much harder for people who have lost touch with their friends.
"The ones most isolated are actually the ones who are educated and who are very independent and live alone," Wong says. "They see all their friends pass away. They become more and more isolated, and they have fewer and fewer activities."
'We get sworn at for no reason at all'
The close bonds among today's group of 15 are evident in the way the women laugh together, leaning in to each other's shoulders. When I first arrive, they are gracious and polite, but reserved. As the afternoon wears on they relax into a fun-loving rapport. By the end of my visit, So Gee Quan, one of the youngest of the group at 65, has the others in stitches, swearing like a sailor to imitate the people who yell at her as she walks the streets of the Downtown Eastside.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck!" she yells. "We get sworn at for no reason at all. Fuck, fuck, fuck!" Painful as it is, her friends nod their heads and laugh. This is something they've experienced, too.
Quan has lived in Canada for 11 years. She worked on a farm in Surrey until the last year, when she could not work anymore. She rents her home in Vancouver's Hastings Sunrise neighbourhood, paying $700 a month that she splits with her daughter.
"They make it so that it's not welcoming." Quan says, with understatement. "It's very frustrating. They're bigger than you. Verbal is fine, but sometimes it's physical. And they can get really aggressive. So you can't do anything back to them. The only thing you can do is yell back, but that's about it.
"My family paid head taxes and we worked until there were holes in our shoes," she adds. "And we kept working. A lot of my family has been here for generations. And they're Canadian. And they still face so much discrimination. It's not fair."
Quan's experience validates the findings of a 2007 report to the City of Vancouver by the UBC School of Social Work, that found discrimination and racism, alongside language barriers, were the top concerns among Chinese seniors and service providers in the inner city.
The tension is felt most acutely among the Chinese seniors who must line up with English speakers, similarly struggling to make ends meet, for food and services.
'You're set up to hate them'
Jason Nepinak has lived in the Downtown Eastside since 1994, homeless for the last 15 of those years. He's a familiar face at the PHS Drug Users Resource Centre -- better known as the Lifeskills Centre -- across the street from Oppenheimer Park, where he has volunteered since the centre opened in 2002.
On this rainy morning in February, he's working the front desk, welcoming people coming in to do laundry, take a shower, get toothbrushes, and eat a meal. According to the tally sheets he and other workers maintain, approximately 130 people show up for breakfast here every day. For lunch, it's closer to 150. The Drug Users Resource Centre is just one of many sources for meals in the neighbourhood. Outside its front doors in Oppenheimer Park, unaffiliated volunteers are off-loading boxes of sandwiches from an unmarked sports utility vehicle. There is already a long line that winds along Powell Street and around the corner to Dunlevy. Most in the line are Chinese seniors.
"You know, it's a horrible thing to say, but everybody treats 'em terrible, just terrible," Nepinak says of elderly Chinese waiting in line. "They say bad things to them. They mock their accents. And it's just horrible. I hear it a lot, the racial slurs. "
Nepinak, a First Nations Man, says he tries to put a stop to any racist activity he sees. "Everybody in the centre knows me," he says. "They know I don't put up with violence or racial threats, slurs or anything."
Some of the hostility, he says, is motivated by faulty assumptions -- chiefly that the Chinese seniors are wealthy, and don't need the food or services as badly as others. But Nepinak's of a mind that they should be welcome: "Everybody downtown has hard times," he says.
Coco Culbertson is director of programs with the PHS Community Services Society that runs the Resources Centre. She has lived in Strathcona for 17 years and was the Centre's first director. She's seen the number of Chinese seniors who frequent the centre grow in the last 11 years. Now, 15 to 20 Chinese seniors walk through the doors every day. They're not part of the drug-using population the centre was built to serve. But with few other places to turn, they need the free food and toothbrushes it gives away.
"The programming is targeted to engage active drug users and illicit alcohol drinkers," Culbertson says. "It is funded to provide resources to those suffering with homelessness, drug addiction and alcohol misuse. We have on occasion had Cantonese-speaking volunteers there, but the language barrier, compounded with the population we serve, makes it difficult for us to fully support the seniors coming in."
Despite their years in the community, neither Culbertson nor Nepinak could think of resources more suited for Chinese seniors that they could refer people to. Culbertson suggested the Carnegie Community Centre, "but I'm not familiar with what they offer," she said.
Neither could Gail Harmer, a former social worker, longtime seniors advocate and board member of the 411 Seniors Centre who facilitates seniors wellness workshops with the Council of Senior Citizens' Organizations of B.C. (COSCO). She could only name the DEWC as the one place where culturally specific programming is available to Chinese seniors.
The Women's Centre is only a few blocks away from the Drug Users Resource Centre. As is often the case in this neighbourhood, it serves two distinct populations: Chinese-speaking seniors and English-speaking Downtown Eastsiders. Generally both are experiencing poverty, and both are competing for the same limited services.
"When you see those lineups, there's a limited amount of food," the DEWC's Deanna Wong says. "And then when you see a whole group of seniors lined up in the front, you're set up to hate them because now it's like they're taking your food away; this is your means of survival."
Culbertson agrees. "Everyone feels pressured. And living day-to-day, not knowing if you'll have food and shelter, doesn't generally bring out patience for those who are different. The tension is down to poverty."
What might be accomplished when people are no longer forced to compete against each other is visible every Thursday morning at the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House community kitchen.
Taking inspiration from the right to food, the Neighbourhood House designs its activities intentionally to eliminate the stigma and indignities of lining up for a charity meal. It prides itself on offering fresh, culturally diverse food choices and welcomes people to join in the preparation in its open kitchen. The Thursday morning community kitchen, designed specifically for Chinese elders, has the effect of breaking down barriers between different language speakers.
"One of the things that we try to do here at the Neighbourhood House is have a range of food so that people from different communities and different cultural groups will see themselves reflected in our menu," says executive director Irene Jaakson. "That's one of the ways we've been able to chip away at some of those barriers. I don't know that we've been 100 per cent successful. But I can tell you that we serve more members of the Chinese community than is typical."
The DEWC's Wong shares the view that food brings people together. She has been observing more connection between English- and Chinese-speakers during mealtimes at the Women's Centre lately.
"I've noticed at lunchtime, now, the Chinese women will pile together all the bread and salad and leave a [loaded] plate on the centre of the table. They'll actively seek out other non-Chinese women to take the food," she says. "I've noticed there are a couple of [non-Chinese] women deliberately sitting at those tables, actively trying to get to know them. And it's really great to see things like that. But that's only when you can give people food. When you have all those basic needs met."
It's a different story when people's needs are not met. "When you take those away, and people compete for those basic needs, it's no wonder discrimination happens," Wong says. "When they look different, you can't understand them, you can't talk to them, and you can't see that you come from so many similar struggles."
She would like to see more recognition that the two populations in the Downtown Eastside are alike in their vulnerability and their poverty. "Housing is something I see that both populations are in dire, dire need of," she says. However, she also thinks separate, linguistically appropriate services would particularly benefit Chinese seniors.
In the DEWC basement, the Chinese seniors are packing up to leave, to pick up grandchildren from school or prepare an evening meal for their families. They don't speak English, but they understand the assumptions some English speakers make about them.
"When people look at us, they think that we look healthy or that we're well-kept and that we're not deserving," says So Gee Quan.
Only in one of Canada's poorest urban neighbourhoods could an absence of obvious signs of poverty be mistaken for an absence of need—rather than a rare, if fragile, sign of dignity and hope preserved.
Next in this series: A look at how well support programs are serving Chinese seniors in Chinatown.