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A new wave into Chinatown: longboard stores, motorcycle gear, vegan restaurants, indie clothes shops, and more that is changing the mix

January 14th, 2013 · 21 Comments

Every couple of years, it seems there’s a new high tide of businesses that flow into Chinatown from elsewhere or nowhere.

The Fortune Sound Club, Blim. Bombast and Peking Lounge. Bob Rennie’s real estate business and art gallery. Bao Bei and the Keefer.

This time, it’s been clusters of small businesses run by 20-something entrepreneurs, as I document in my Globe story from the weekend.

As always, these changes get a mixed review. Although my story doesn’t have anyone saying it directly, it’s clear, even from the enthusiasts among the Chinatown businesses who welcome the new operations, that there is anxiety about the loss of the old Chinatown and its traditional businesses.

FRANCES BULA

Published Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013 08:00AM EST

Last updated Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013 06:55PM EST

Passersby stop in confusion when they first see it.

A longboard store, dead in the heart of a Chinatown once dominated entirely by tea shops, basket and bamboo emporiums and restaurants of the Jade Garden and New Town variety.

“The 70-and-up crowd, they come and peer in the window and then walk away. I don’t know what they’re thinking of it all,” said Mischa Chandler Farivar, perched behind the counter of the five-month-old Flatspot Longboards on East Pender, Vancouver’s most historic Chinatown street.

But others come in, Chinese kids with their parents. The parents reminisce about coming to Chinatown with their families for far different reasons when they were young. The kids eventually leave with a longboard – an edgier form of skateboard – paid for by the nostalgic parent.

Mr. Farivar, 21, is part of the newest wave of gentrification to wash over Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside. It’s one that is generating another round of protests from advocacy groups fighting to keep the area feeling like home to its traditional poor residents.

But the newcomers are being welcomed, even encouraged, by the Chinatown business establishment and the old-time Chinatown associations.

In fact, Mr. Farivar and a cluster of new business owners around him have all rented from the Chinese Freemasons, the benevolent association that operates two commercial buildings and two housing non-profits in the area.

Those new businesses include a row of four stores along Columbia Street around the corner from Flatspot – Duchesse, a vintage store; The Shop, a space that sells coffee and clothing with a vintage-motorcycle theme; two art galleries – and a German-sausage-and-beer deli called Bestie about to open across the street on Pender.

Several blocks away on the edge of Chinatown, another entire block has turned into a poster row of new Vancouver businesses: clothing stores like Charlie & Lee and Board of Trade Co., and locavore-themed food operations like Harvest and The Parker.

Many of the new business owners are a slightly different crowd from the previous waves of gentrification the past decade in Chinatown, which included Bob Rennie’s real-estate business and art gallery, some high-end furniture shops, and hip restaurants and bars like Bao Bei and the Keefer.

These new businesses operate on the smallest of margins. The owners reject the idea that they are gentrifiers. And they live near the area – sometimes even in it.

“I think we’re the first Caucasians to live in this building since it was built in 1911,” said Mr. Farivar. He and his partner, as part of their lease, are renting small apartments above the longboard store and getting to know their new neighbours – a mahjong club, several older Chinese men renting small rooms, and the Freemasons’ headquarters.

The two young men about to open Bestie say they see themselves as serving a local market.

The two raised $16,000 through Indiegogo, an online crowd-funding platform, which essentially asked future customers to buy meals in advance.

“A lot of people who bought cards live and work in the area,” said Clinton McDougall, noting that the area is filled with graphic-design, film, app-development and art studios. “Our mainstay is those people like us.”

Mr. Farivar grew up in Toronto’s Kensington Market, which is part of that city’s Chinatown, so he understands some of the concerns about people like him moving into Vancouver’s Chinatown.

“I watched Kensington Market get gentrified, people get pushed out,” said Mr. Farivar, who is also completing a degree at Quest University in Squamish. He doesn’t want to push anyone out, and is working hard to fit into the area without performing “cultural appropriation.”

But he also says Chinatown is inevitably going to change.

“I don’t think it’s fair to the rest of Vancouver to keep this neighbourhood inhibited. If you don’t want gentrification to be so detrimental, you need to take some ownership.”

That echoes what local Chinese business groups and associations are saying.

“We’re quite pleased with the way this is working out. It’s diversification,” said Gil Tan, the real-estate director for the Chinese Freemasons who decided to rent storefronts to Flatspot, Bestie, Duchesse and the others.

“Somebody did ask, ‘Is that appropriate to have a longboard shop in Chinatown?’ But I said the only way to revitalize this area is to bring people in. I like those shops. It’s kind of fun.”

Albert Fok, president of the Chinatown Business Improvement Association, said the new businesses are helping fill some of the vacant storefronts that have become more prevalent in the past few years.

“It’s a perfect match. I welcome such a change,” said Mr. Fok. “Some people are worried about the watering down of Chinatown. But if it makes the community thrive again, so be it.”

There’s about a 10-per-cent vacancy rate in Chinatown right now, with a high number of shops empty on the block of Pender east of Flatspot. Some owners, like those at the long-standing Cathay Imports a couple of doors away from Flatspot, are simply retiring. A few are moving to the suburban Asian shopping centres. Others are just going out of business.

The Chinatown vacancy rate is not a problem of high prices, according to broker Jordan Eng. Chinatown lease rates, at $15-to-$30 a square foot, are the cheapest in town, about a tenth of the asking price on Robson.

But for the steadfast opponents of gentrification, the question isn’t just whether Chinatown’s identity will be affected, it’s what the impact these businesses will have on the public space, rental apartments and businesses that the neighbourhood’s poor people use.

“I would encourage these people setting up businesses to see their social role as gentrifiers,” said Ivan Drury, an activist currently working with the Carnegie Community Action Project. He and his group have approached the new crop of store owners to tell them that. In one case, they protested outside the Columbia stores – two groups of young Vancouverites whom many would see as identical, but with differing values.

Mr. Drury said the city’s current Chinatown plan, along with its incentives to restore shopfronts and encourage new businesses, are all aimed at bringing in the kind of young, first-time entrepreneurs who will make higher-income people feel comfortable coming into the area.

He’d like to see the city offer incentives to keep the old, working-class shops and restaurants open.

Andy Yan, an urban analyst working with Bing Thom Architects, says the conflicts are part of the changing economics of cities.

“There’s an increased polarization.”

The kinds of businesses that used to cater to working- and middle-class Vancouverites in Chinatown have moved to the suburbs or disappeared, as city residents have either become much poorer or much richer.

The poor can’t afford the old diners, while the well off often prefer to eat at Bao Bei instead of Vic’s – the diner across from the old police headquarters, frequently featured in the TV series DaVinci’sInquest, that was turned into a Waves coffee shop a couple of years ago.

“It’s reflective,” said Mr. Yan, “of the larger transition of the whole city.”

 

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  • J Smerdon

    Mr. Farivar and his inspiring cohorts, i would argue, are doing more to preserve the character of Chinatown than those who carelessly lable it “gentrification”. By signing a lease and operating viable businesses, the landowners are less likely to look for redevelopment opportunities than if the retail units sat empty.

    Granted, they are not the chinese-oriented shops that were once prevalent, but the business for those has long since moved to Burnaby, Coquitlam and Richmond, where their customers live and would rather shop.

  • Westender1

    It will be interesting to see the impacts on the historic character of Chinatown of projects like these at 611 and 633 Main Street (Items 5 and 6 under Policy Reports):

    http://former.vancouver.ca/ctyclerk/cclerk/20130115/regu20130115ag.htm

    FSR’s at over 8 for each of the projects would seem to present some challenges for the heritage aspects of the neighbourhood.

  • http://www.website.com Mark Bowen

    That was a really well done article Frances.

    While I’m sympathetic to some of the complaints the anti-gentrification crowd, I don’t feel that they offer many realistic alternatives. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, ghetto and drug market vs. million dollar condos and upscale retail shops, which seems to be their take.

    It is possible to bring in new homes and businesses without crushing the most vulnerable people who live there.

    I get the impression that given a choice between the two, the anti-gentrification crowd would prefer the status quo to allowing any new housing or businesses at all, and I don’t think that is at all acceptable.

    That aside, I am REALLY looking forward to getting a currywurst at Bestie when they open!

  • Frankenwaldorf!

    My advice to Chinatown landlords on this new crop of entrepreneurs:

    Get the rent up front!

  • Frank Ducote

    I generally agree with comments 1 and 3 above, having lived in the ‘hood for 17 years. The energy and vibe seems to be good and cerainly well-received by other (Chinese) merchants.

    When I was along E. Pender this morning there was a commotion outside of Flatspot, including fire trucks (no fire though, they VFD are the first responders for everything, it seems). I think the owners were the people I saw on the sidewalk in front of the shop gesturing down the street, as if someone just did something untoward. Don’t know what. The thot plickens.

  • Julia

    At some point a neighbourhood has to take their turn at revitalization. For years, Chinatown has been sitting there waiting for their turn to budge from the bottom of the pile. You cannot put it off forever and you also cannot dictate what it will look like. Watch out, Fraser Street – you are next.

  • Cheezwiz

    I think it’s positive that the older members of the community are open to new types of businesses.

    I understand some of the unease people feel around gentrification, but as Mark #3 pointed out, maybe some sort of middle-ground could be reached? Vacant storefronts are probably not healthy. It would be a shame to see some of these old buildings become derelict -they would be more vulnerable to demolition.

    There must be a lot of younger Chinese Canadians with family history in Chinatown who grew up in outlying suburbs. Perhaps some of them might be interested in returning to start up small businesses as well.

  • A Dave

    With the coming of 5 condo towers on Main Street, the viaducts coming down, and BC Housing bailing out philanthropist Marc Williams’ condo project on the Pantages site, expect many more exciting changes to come to Chinatown over the next decade.

    With Lee’s Garage recently demolished, it’s been rumoured that Tim Horton’s wants to put a drive-thru on Keefeer Square, which would utilize the little lane through the triangle for its pick-up window.

    The Jade Pony will soon be leased by McDonalds, which will use the iconic restaurant as a pop-up test restaurant for 60 months as it rolls out a new Chinese-Canadian fusion menu called “F McDonalds” (the “F” stands for “fusion”). At street-level, the restaurant’s front will be opened up and a kids’ play area installed, which will feature a giant toy ball-room in the window that passers-by can watch tykes frolicking in. Apparently, the thousands of little plastic balls filling the playpen will all be pink.

    Councillor Jang commented on a blog that, “The Jade Pony has long been out of reach for low-income people in the area. This new fusion restaurant will be within range of all income levels, and help bridge the cultural divide between the “Old” and “New” Chinatown. McDonalds will help to revitalize the area, without displacing anyone.”

    And finally, Disneyland is apparently looking to create satellites of selected exhibits in cities around the world. In Vancouver, they are planning to build a mechanical boat ride on the pond in the Sun Yat-Sen Gardens. Along the shore there will be wax children of all denominations singing, “It’s a Small World, After All.”

  • Joe Just Joe

    You forgot to mention that Council will jump on the Gangnam K-Pop phenomenon and will embark on creating a new Koreatown, it will be located between Chinatown and Japantown.

  • Mira

    JJJ
    Could you clarify this for me? Why does the city, the city manager, the mayor, councilors, media, … made such a big deal out of this when there was NO indication whatsoever that the Waldorf was doomed to come down?
    Paid city hall staff tied for days at union wages all so Vision Vancouver could play pretty, and for the mayor to pretend that he cares.
    Ridge, W2W, Playhouse, Bloedwell , Granville 7… What a joke !

  • Joe Just Joe

    I really hope you aren’t asking me to explain why council does what they do, sometimes I’m not even sure they know.

  • Threadkiller

    The so-called “gentrification” of Chinatown could be more accurately called “Caucasianization”. Everyone, at least in Frances’ article, seems to be dancing around the issue of the area’s changing ethnic demographic. Yet most of the new hipster-oriented shops and restos have non-Chinese proprietors and/or have been launched with non-Chinese money. It’s more than a bit absurd to use ethnically neutral terms like “gentrification”. To most of Vancouver’s Chinese population, at least that portion of it born and raised here, Chinatown was where the grandparents lived (or the parents, depending on what age demographic we’re talking about). The younger, affluent generations of Chinese abandoned the neighbourhood a long time ago and established new enclaves in Shaughnessy, Kerrisdale, Richmond… wherever. They have never had any interest in returning to live or open businesses in a run-down neighbourhood with which they feel no real connection, and they still don’t. This is one reason why Chinatown’s been stagnating for a long time.

    The Chinatown I once knew and frequented, essentially unchanged for probably 50 years, started to disappear in the late 70s when new money started pouring in from Hong Kong. The new arrivals evidently wanted a Chinatown that more closely resembled the places from which they’d emigrated. Done away with were the little herbalist shops with tiger’s genitalia on display in the window (OK, that was probably a good thing to get rid of), funky restaurants like the Green Door and the Ho Inn (which kept many of us hungry but impoverished young folk afloat back in the day by providing affordable food and lots of it), and the BC Royal cafe (best gai bao in town); the little bookstore where I used to buy martial arts magazines and beautiful Chinese Christmas cards; the curio shops where you could occasionally find genuine antiques at a good price; Lloyd Yee’s tiny shop, where Mr. Yee, an accomplished ink painter, sold art supplies and would carve custom stamps from jade on order; the Bamboo Terrace nightclub (once featured in every postcard shot of Chinatown); the beyond-wonderul Wo Fat Co., which for more than 60 years made the best almond cookies and bean cakes in this quadrant of the galaxy– real old-fashioned-style goodies the like of which you can’t get now– my father could remember going to Wo Fat with his mother in the 1920s. They had a worldwide clientele. The owner/proprietor eventually had to shut down the business. He was around 80 by then and could find no one younger who wanted to take over. And the Shaw and Golden Harvest Theatres, where you could see new kung fu films every week. Time was when you could walk along West Pender on a summer night and hear the clicking of the game pieces and the shouts of the players in the (illegal) pai-gow clubs in the buildings above the stores. This was back in the day when, if you wanted to buy a wok, you had to go to Chinatown and get it from Ming Wo’s one and only store.

    All this was swept away in the 80s and replaced with glitzy new stores with brushed-steel window frames. The charm disappeared with it. And the crowning irony, of course, was that these changes did not attract new business– at least not enough to bring Chinese shoppers and restaurant-goers back from Richmond, except out of nostalgia, perhaps. The neighbourhood has expanded, of course. The older folks still shop for food on east Pender, and Keefer, once lined with grim-looking warehouses and wholesalers, now hosts a whole new set of shops and bakeries. But it’s not the same. Chinatown has been stagnating for many years. Will this new influx of lo-fan hipsters arrest its slow slide? Maybe. But then will it still be “Chinatown”, which, the tourist guidebooks used to assure us, was “the second-largest Chinatown in North America”? If this latest influx really takes root, probably not. I honestly don’t know. Nowadays I don’t venture down there more than once or twice a year. As I said, whatever I valued about the place– its sense of being suspended in time, its “otherness”, even, if you will, its “foreignness”– which, tin this duller-than-dishwater city, used to make it such a pleasant diversion from the same old same old– has long gone. Obviously a neighbourhood cannot be forever preserved in amber just to keep nostalgic geezers like me happy. But…will this be yet another case of, in the classic military-speak phrase from the Vietnam War, “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it”? Quite possibly. I hope not. I really, really hope not. But it very well may.

  • Mira

    Threadkiller…
    ““It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it”? Quite possibly. I hope not. I really, really hope not. But it very well may.”
    Well said. Great post.
    JJJ,
    I am with you on this one. me too, am not even sure they know… what they are doing in there (city hall) :-)

  • Cheezwiz

    Thanks for the great post Threadkiller – your descriptions brought back many memories of childhood visits to Chinatown with my parents when I was a kid. Back then, it really housed all kinds of interesting shops and curios.

    Maybe some sort of mix of old and new will help it survive.

  • http://cyclewriteblog.wordpress.com Jean

    Thanks for these wonderful historic, heart-felt details, Threadkiller.

  • derp

    The existence of Chinatown is a reminder to the Chinese of the time how shunned, persecuted, ostracized, and segregated they were by the white community at large. It stands as a beacon and cultural hub to that generation.

    The Chinese that settled afterwards in the 90’s onwards don’t have that experience and are relatively more integrated.

  • DW

    @Threadkiller

    Your post about Chinatown is one of the best I have ever read on this blog. I am too young to have experienced Chinatown in its heyday, but I spent many Saturday mornings there in the 80s with my folks for the purposes of “mai-sung”.

    I do visit the area occasionallly to visit some of the still remaining meat shops, but it’s sad to see what the neighbourhood has become. I remain rather ambivalent about the gentrification or “lo-fanification” of the area, but the city has got to pay the bills so let if people are willing to set up shop, then by all means we should take their money and let business owners take advantage of consumers who are willing to lap up authenticity, no matter how contrived it is.

  • ksk

    Thanks Threadkiller. My parents took my siblings and I to the Ho Inn for great and reasonable dinners back in the early 1980s. I fondly recall the owners letting us help make the wontons.

  • Threadkiller

    @ksk:
    The father of an old friend of mine (with whom, I’m sorry to say, I appear to have lost contact) managed the Ho Inn for more than 20 years. Do you remember the jukebox terminals in the booths? The food was journeyman Cantonese but very consistent in quality. So much so that I once read a story– apparently authentic– about a visitor from another city who had had dinner at the Ho many years before and had, among other things, the green peppers in black bean sauce and rhapsodized about them. Simple dish but not simple to do properly. After more than 20 years, he finally returned to Vancouver. He made a beeline for the Ho Inn, ordered the same dish, and was delighted to find it was every bit as good as he remembered it. That sort of long-term consistency of quality, sorely lacking in most restaurants nowadays, is one of the things that kept the Ho Inn the success it was for so long. Eventually, of course, it burned down and its former location was the site of an unfinished, messy-looking construction project for too many years. Now Bob Rennie’s palace of artistic indulgence squats atop the grave of the Ho Inn like an exercise in bourgeois lo-fan triumphalism. It’s as good a symbol of the death of “old” Chinatown as we’re likely to find. Sad, sad, sad.

  • Norman

    Wait untill the viaducts come down. It will be goodbye, Chinatown, hello, Yaletown East. Actually, that might make a good new name since someone at city hall is busy renaming neighbourhoods. Or maybe we can adapt another name from New York City?

  • Jean Mitchell

    Threadkiller’s comments stir my own memories of Chinatown in the 60s and 70s. That is helpful. But his or her hostility to white young people living and working there is absolutely out of line.

    I shop here often so I’m familiar with the decay of Chinatown’s abandoned storefronts, while Threaadkiller says that s/he doesn’t “venture down there more than once or twice a year.”

    Threadkiller, Chinatown cannot be preserved in amber for those of you who won’t put your money where your mouth is and support its survival!

    If you won’t be part of the solution, then why not stick to history and soften these harangues against young idealists – of any skin colour – who bring in new vitality.

    I’m sure some young Asian entrepreneurs are getting interested in Chinatown too, but why should the landlords save empty storefronts for their possible future use while keeping the ‘lo-fans’ out?