[Editor’s note: Jay Pitter travelled Canada for her forthcoming book 'Where We Live,' to be published by McClelland and Stewart, a journey among brilliant, inspiring advocates addressing the nation’s housing crisis. In a project for the Tyee funded by the Catherine Donnelly Foundation, she shares some of her conversations, including this one today.]
Canada’s Chinatowns (called Tangren Jie in Mandarin) have been home to Chinese immigrants since the mid-1800s. The first residents primarily were male labourers housed in shacks on densely populated streets socially and economically segregated from the wider city. Extreme isolation gave rise to opium dens and other social problems tied to poverty and alienation, fueling existing stereotypes.
Despite Chinatown’s stigmatized reputation, residents built businesses that expanded beyond its demarcated borders or became rooted in the neighbourhood establishing clan associations and strong social networks.
Having survived decades of exclusion and systemic slum clearance schemes, these Chinatowns have emerged as vibrant urban places, beloved for their authentic market cultures and the kind of delight urbanists associate with good urban places. They’ve become so beloved perhaps that their intangible cultural heritage — rituals and stories — have been crowded out by the wider city’s collective imaginings of these places as tourist attractions and pedestrian hubs. It’s as though most of us have forgotten that Chinese people live in Chinatowns.
This memory lapse was evident in a development proposal initially brought forward by the Vancouver-based Beedie Development Group in 2014. While the proposed nine-storey, 134-unit building at the site of a service station turned parking lot was reasonable in terms of scale and design, its developers failed to meaningfully consult with the local community and factor in needs like affordable housing and a cultural space for seniors.
The project was met with an unrelenting group of activists campaigning to safeguard the people and places that make Chinatown distinct. Those advocates managed to stop the project. Yuly Chan was one of the lead organizers of the group.
The Chinatown Action Group is no longer active but their work modelled deep resident-based mapping and better approaches for the redevelopment of Chinatowns across the country. The People’s Vision for Chinatown report outlines the findings from their important work.
When I visited Vancouver in the late summer of 2017, I had the opportunity to accompany Yuly Chan to strategy huddles with fellow organizers, a meeting with officials and to several gatherings with Chinese seniors. Our days together always bled into the early hours of the following morning and it was evident that, though Yuly had been an organizer for over a decade, the stakes were especially high with this action.
While immersed in one of our impassioned housing justice conversations, I ask Yuly about her why — the personal motivation underpinning her substantial contribution to the movement — and she retraces the indirect journey her father, Chi Nam, travelled to Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Chi Nam initially travelled from China to Venezuela, where he worked with an uncle and later started a family. As a natural community-builder, Chi Nam was granted an award for his role in strengthening Chinese-Venezuelan cultural relations. However, at the end of the 1980s his chosen home was disrupted by political unrest. Wanting social stability and a better education for his daughter, Chi Nam moved his family to Vancouver, despite the steep challenge he faced earning a living in a new country. This sacrifice is in large part why Yuly Chan chose this housing fight.
Here’s a bit of our conversation.
Jay Pitter: What prompted a group of young Asian organizers to stand alongside elders facing housing vulnerability in Chinatown?
Yuly Chan: In 2015, following the Beedie Development Group proposal, a group of Chinese elders involved in a residents’ group called the Chinatown Concern Group, led a campaign that called for a moratorium on market housing development in Chinatown. They brought their petition to city hall and demanded that Mayor Robertson hold a proper community consultation and actually listen to the needs and concerns of low-income residents. This action, along with the numerous town hall meetings, brought many Chinese youth together in support of these residents.
In the months that followed, a small group of about 12 to 15 of us and a few elders met regularly to share our connections to Chinatown and what we could do together to channel our collective sense of loss, anger and injustice around gentrification. These conversations led to the creation of the Chinatown Action Group.
Standing up to a developer and the city is a daunting undertaking. How did the group decide what actions to initiate?
We approached our strategy in a systematic way. First, with the help of a small Freedonia community grant, we conducted a community investigation that spanned two years. We began by mapping every block of Chinatown, noting the kinds of businesses, housing and people that occupied each space and types of social stratifications by class, race or gender that were present throughout the neighbourhood.
The next phase of this community investigation involved talking to residents, business owners and visitors of Chinatown. We went door knocking in different housing buildings, talked to seniors in the malls and parks and held tea times with seniors to hear their stories, issues and solutions about how to deal with the affordability crisis in the neighbourhood.
Wonderful. This is the meaningful and often overlooked engagement I practice when I’m leading placemaking projects and advocate for more broadly within urbanism overall. What kinds of stories did you hear?
Overall, a number of residents were really upset about their living conditions, high cost of rent and landlord harassment. Some of the stories were particularly heartbreaking. A resident shared that she lived in a building that was poorly managed and the caretaker was never around. One of her neighbours passed away while taking out the garbage and his body remained there for days. As you can imagine, she and her neighbours were deeply traumatized by this incident. One resident in his seventies confided that he started avoiding visiting his son and grandchildren when the rent kept going up because he was too poor to treat them to dim sum. These and other stories we heard demonstrate the indignities and systemic neglect residents living on low incomes are facing in Chinatown.
There were also good stories though — stories that showed the strength and tight networks among the elderly Chinese women. They are the glue of this community. Many of them were widowed and live alone, but they take care of each other. They always bring a friend to a meeting or an event and they usually know at least one other person or many others living in building. We realized early on that women played a key role in this neighbourhood.
I find that women often play an integral role in neighbourhoods facing housing vulnerabilities. It was such a privilege for me to meet some of the Chinese women you’re referencing — to spend time with them in the planning meeting and then to be invited into Mrs. Kwong’s home. Spending time with elder Chinese women helped me to more deeply grasp the issues your group is advocating for. It’s clear that the inter-generational nature of this work had many benefits — I’m wondering if there were any challenges?
A major challenge for us has been language barriers. As first- or second-generation Chinese youth, we were heavily assimilated into learning and speaking English and so most of had lost our mother tongues or never properly learned it in the first place. This is the reality of being an immigrant in Canada. It is multicultural so long as you speak English. Most of us have basic or limited Cantonese or Mandarin speaking and writing skills, and many elders often speak a dialect. We’ve tried to incorporate a variety of language practices into our work, such as sharing a word of the day, one-on-one practice with an assigned language mentor, conversation hangouts with seniors, as well as individual practice.
Learning to speak Chinese was not only an organizational necessity but a political strategy as well. Language learning also became a deeply personal process of reconnecting to our heritage and being able to engage more fully in the lives and activities of Chinatown; we could have more conversations with the residents, we could converse with the restaurant workers and businesses and, of course, with our own families. Learning the language also made us realize even more how much these residents were being systematically excluded from political processes because of language barriers.
Were there any disagreements arising from different generational worldviews?
Certainly, but these moments of tension were not due to the generational divides.
Tensions exist in every organization and every community, but our elders taught us by example that our differences in opinion do not have to become weaknesses in our organization. There were constant fights and disagreements among ourselves and in the community about the tactics and long-term vision for the site. Also, we didn’t think we had any chance of getting the City of Vancouver to listen to us.
Sometimes we just wanted to drop the campaign altogether because it was so intense. However, I think the elders in Chinatown Concern Group were instrumental in keeping the momentum going. Right before our last mobilization to city hall in the fall 2017, one of the elders of that group, Godfrey Tang, who passed away just a few months later, called me up and gave me a pep talk. He explained to me that, no matter what the outcome is, the most important thing is that the youth and the elders can stand together on something. He told me that our differences should never be seen as barriers for working together.
I think progressives have so much to learn from our elders about unity and struggle. Many like the idea of unity but are often unwilling to really embrace each other’s differences and cooperate.
Agreed. Activist movements like the ones you’ve been involved in and city-building — my field of work — can be very youth focused and intolerant of diverse ideas. Increasingly, I seek out elders for guidance and to offer support. It’s obvious that your elders have supported you throughout the process. What is one thing you’ve extended to them?
Jane McAlevey, an American labour organizer and scholar, says that organizing is about “raising expectations: about what people should expect from their jobs; the quality of life they should aspire to; how they ought to be treated when they are old; and what they should be able to offer their children.”
I think raising the expectations of our elders about the quality of life that they deserve is one of the most important things we’ve been able to accomplish in the short time that we’ve been together.
Now, these seniors expect to be included and heard during city processes and policies over Chinatown. The City of Vancouver has become more responsive to them by expanding their Chinatown team and doubling their efforts to consult with the community, but it’s not enough, and perhaps too late.
I’m not sure that it is ever too late. I’ll never forget sitting in your car chatting, sensing that there was something more to the long hours and strategic insights I’d personally witnessed you dedicate to this cause. And then you told me about your dad...
Yes. I have spent my entire childhood in various Chinatowns because of my dad, in Venezuela and in Vancouver. He found so much meaning and joy in his life in bringing people together. When he passed away in 2014, I found myself visiting Chinatown on my own more often and I felt so saddened about the gentrification in the neighbourhood. It felt like the same kind of loss I was feeling for my dad. So I decided to focus my activist work in Chinatown, not only because it was ultimately a struggle for social and economic justice, but also because it was a way for me to mourn my dad’s death.
I see Chinatown as a living connection to my dad. I think the fight for Chinatown has always been about the working-class residents and their right to a life free from racism, sexism and poverty and other systemic inequalities, which is a vision that I’ve always shared with my dad.
Exactly, it is never too late to honour each other, to ensure that we all have dignified and safe places to live — to ensure that urban growth supports our quality of life in cities.
Find the rest of this series, Talking Home: Voice from Canada’s Housing Justice Frontline, here.