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The future of Vancouver’s Middle Kingdom City

January 3rd, 2010 · 17 Comments

I’ve been writing about Chinatown for 15 years and it never fails to fascinate me, the way it resists what is happening anywhere else in the city and the way I learn something new, peel away another layer, every time I look at it again closely.

Last year, Chinatown went through a huge upheaval as talk of building towers in the historic neighbourhood brought various camps to the brink of war. The towers talk is receding — the last time I spoke with city planner Brent Toderian, he was talking about no buildings higher than 100 feet — but the angst remains and there’s a whole new layer of Chinatown fans who have entered the fray.

My story on this in Vancouver magazine this month.

By the way, the Bao Bei restaurant I refer to in here hasn’t opened yet, but I drove past it today and it looks very cool. “A Chinese bistro” is what the sign in the window said, I believe. It’s right across Keefer Street from the Floata Restaurant mall. The operator, Tannis Ling, has been until now working with Chambar, I discovered while snorkelling the Internet recently.

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  • “The towers talk is receding — the last time I spoke with city planner Brent Toderian, he was talking about no buildings higher than 100 feet — but the angst remains and there’s a whole new layer of Chinatown fans who have entered the fray.”

    This sounds like more irresponsible talk from some one who should know better. Are the four other 450/700 ft towers similarly to be down sized? Is not development more than a whim on the note pad of someone who has nothing better to do?

    The late Abe Rogatnik once remarked to me, and I paraphrase . . . if you were to stand in the middle of ancient Rome, any time of day or night, and concentrate you would hear above the cacophony, one or another jerry built housing projects collapsing.

    We cannot say the same of our contemporary cities: indeed it could be worse. For we are building luxurious, for hundred-year-or-more-durability, ugly, expensive, mindless concrete clichés void of social purpose.

    Legalized developer/design/planning corporations avoid responsibility for what they inflict in public. These powerful entities do not plan or design for “commodity, firmness and delight”!

    An antediluvian plan approval bureaucracy is impermeable to innovation. An out-dated land tenure system, void of integrated urban public amenity, is supported by politically ordained remote disconnects.

    A soporific, conditioned public stressed, ignorant of its own best interests is blindsided by a media intent on keeping it that way.

    Vancouver is, despite massive expenditures on self-serving rhetoric, a magnificent setting willfully desecrated. Shame on those who pretend otherwise!

    The second decade of the twenty-first century deserves better!

    A lightness of being is possible if we could but see it!

  • Joe Just Joe

    Chinatown lost a whole generation, most newly arrived Chinese and 2nd generation Chinese prefer the Richmond #3 Road allure to what China town offers.

    Sadly a large part of it is due to parking, status being what it is, those with money do not want to take public transit, and they also don’t want to pay for parking when they can head to Richmond instead for free parking. No idea how you solve that one.

    The comment in your Vancouver Mag article really struck me that some do not want to see non-asians gain ground in Chinatown. While I would like to see it remain Chinatown, I feel they need non-asians to help them survive. What I’d like to see is the societies help the businesses add English onto their signs/menus. Chinese should remain the primary and larger of the signs but including English will help attract more customers. Even if the shopowners don’t speak any english having the signs will allow non-asians to know what the store is selling and more welcoming.

    As successful as the Richmond Nite market has been I always felt that Chinatown should’ve been were it took place. I know it has it’s own but it pales in comparsion.

    I agree that towers are not the solution but there does need to be much more residential introduced into this area.

  • Kai Jung

    We _cannot_ ever ever ever foster tribalism and special areas for non-asians or any group in any area of vancouver. not ever. open city means open city.

  • Bob Ransford

    An interesting story well told, Frances!

    Your story details some of the intriguing and complex challenges of ensuring this architecturally and culturally rich urban area remains a special neighbourhood in a Vancouver of the future.

    Reading between the lines of your story, there is some real hope and optimism alive in the passion shared by the group of talented people who will undoubtedly shape Chinatown’s future.

  • Sorry, “Reading between the lines of your story . . . ” isn’t good enough. There has to be real change in the process.

    For instance:

    1. Planning must be directed by tactile, spatial concepts. Statistical does not work. By that I mean FSR’s, set backs, heights and zoning are no longer appropriate. Skyline studies are meaningless in real time as are the many reports planners busy themselves writing.

    2. The city must be a series of undulating spaces, large small, inter connected. Buildings must be shaped to define such concepts.

    3. Usage must be mixed limited only by noise, odours and appropriate juxtapositions.

    3. Planning is art. Planner must be educated as artists: i.e ECCAD. Planning is diploma level: over education instils ennui and inertia.

    4. There is so much wrong with the current process. It is incredible that the department seriously considered imposing towers over 100′ in this historic district.

    Even 100′ is inappropriate. whatever possessed planners to even consider such impositions?

    5. Public input is meaningless under such conditions. Public participants become overwhelmed by jargon. One way to avoid more of this is to sensitise planners in an art environment.

    6. Nothing short of a complete process overhaul is acceptable: the sooner the better.

  • John

    You want Chinatown to survive? Spend some money and clean the place up, then! Sure, it’s got a heritage status in Vancouver, as the various Chinatowns in most North American cities do, but people don’t want to go there if it’s a pig sty. Clean it up. Money well spent.

    “If you clean it, they will come.”

  • Joe Just Joe

    Just to clarify 100′ heights aren’t proposed for Chinatown proper, but are already allowed in the outskirts. Here is the proposal hopefully it answers some questions.

  • More Be Us

    I am unfortunately disappointed by the lack of research and over-simplification of the situation in Chinatown. It’s a shame that the thoughts and views of the media savvy are being peddled as the whole story, especially by such an experienced and respected journalist who should know better and dig deep enough to fairly capture the different facets of the truth.

    There is general consensus in the Chinatown that development is welcome in community, but there is disagreement in the form. There is little opposition to increasing the number of residents or opening up the community to rest of Vancouver – the increasing number of businesses opened by non-Asians in the community attests to that. There is no desire in the community to lose the heritage and character that defines the area and its significance to the rest of Vancouver. The complexity of how all the different issues inter-relate is lost in this story, and that’s ultimately where the challenges really lie. The community deserves to be properly represented, and this article does little justice to many.

    The framing of this piece of writing reflects the incomplete context with which the conclusions were conceived before the insufficient research never was able to clarify.

  • Bill Lee

    And we have seen the cheating that has gone on in Hong Kong Central with short towers being made tall towers when no one was watching.

    Maybe a re-reading of UVic Prof. Emerita Patricia Roy’s book “Oriental question: consolidating a white man’s province” would be of value. Or Kay Anderson’s ” Vancouver’s Chinatown: Racial Discourse in Canada,
    1875-1980″ might be of interest.

    Andy Yan has mapped all of Chinatown with present and previous uses of the retail bits. But Fabula talked to him as well.

  • landlord

    Might have been useful to talk to the Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee. It is currently chaired by Shirley Chan, one of the people we have to thank for the fact that there is a Chinatown. Their website is at

  • Westender

    Is this the same Shirley Chan who had an opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun congratulating the STIR program on its recent “success” in the approval of a new tower in the West End? The STIR program – the rental housing initiative that apparently can be used to over-ride any existing planning and zoning provisions to allow the creation of market rentals? The program that does essentially nothing to address housing affordability, but results in taxpayers subsidizing market rentals? I wonder how the Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee might be expected to react when someone comes forward with a STIR tower proposal over-riding the past and current efforts at planning for the preservation and revitalization of Chinatown.

  • Yes, yes, I know the towers were, are, slated for peripheral areas: Hastings, Victory Square, Chinatown: thanqxz JJJ.

    The only reason us Gåwailos treat Chinatown with kid gloves is tourism: that’s what Grant Ave and Soho are all about too.

    The ” Renmin” left for Richmond decades ago and if Aberdeen gives us an idea of how they see themselves and their heritage it looks like money all the way down: like us!

    I’m back to my old saw. Treat Chinatown as a lucrative anachronism and clean it up. “Old Hastings” is just as attractive for the sentimental as is Pender: tourism, obviously.

    Treat the area as a whole, and forget the “everyone-gets-a-free-lunch-and-good-time-Charrettes”. Inevitably, the ideas are impractical and the whole exercise is always shelved and forgotten.

    Did the “skyline” review go ahead? That’s cronyism for you.

    For a planning department to propose umpteen-foot towers and then down grade is a condescending concession to us plebes.

    I guess I have been under the delusion, for the last sixty years playing this game economic necessity was the generator of development, not planners’ whims!

    See my 5. The whole damn planning edifice is in dire need of a complete reassessment: big time!

    Don’t hold you breath!

  • PS . . . wasn’t it Mao himself who said, constant change is the only was to keep it clean . . . or somenthing like that!

  • Ever since the first zoning ordinances were adopted over 90 years ago we have thought of zoning rules as “fixed” – at least until City Council acted to change them. Minimum lot sizes, building heights, and setbacks were written down for each district, and they didn’t change without Council action.

    A 35 foot height limit was a 35 foot height limit until Council amended the ordinance to make it 45 feet. Obviously, this made zoning predictable, but it also made the rules rigid, and most zoning codes are filled with “fixed” rules adopted by some long-dead City Council that no longer make sense. In fact, much of the history of zoning can be seen as a dance (or a battle) between the desire for flexibility and predictability. Fixed rules are predictable at the expense of flexibility.

    But local zoning rules don’t have to be fixed – we can design them to change with the times in those neighborhoods where change is wanted….

    These are not my words; they are the words of Don Elliott, a planner based in Denver, Colorado and written earlier this year in a Planitzen article titled ‘Towards Dynamic Zoning’.

    I wrote in support of this concept earlier this year, and was inspired to write again by Urbanismo’s second posting above.

    With new thinking and technologies, combined with the ability to visually model neighbourhoods, we should be able to draft zoning bylaws that allow more incremental changes to occur, as changes occur. It won’t be easy, since it will require a significant departure from what most of us are used to, (in both the public and private sectors), but I sense that our planning department might be willing to support such an innovative zoning approach, if given the necessary funding and/or staffing.

    I would support this, since it might ultimately reduce the staff requirements to arbitrate the ‘dances and battles’ that inevitably result from zoning changes.

    In response to Urbanismo’s statement ‘The only reason us Gåwailos treat Chinatown with kid gloves is tourism: that’s what Grant Ave and Soho are all about too’, I would add that I have just returned from Havana where the government is going to extraordinary lengths to renovate portions of the old city . The reason?

    With the decline of the sugar industry and financial support from Russia, Cuba has had to turn to tourism as its primary economic generator. A key aspect of its tourism strategy is the restoration of La Habana Vieja. I was very pleasantly surprised with what I discovered (you can see some photos at and I have no trouble with the concept of improving the visual appearance of our Chinatown as part of a similar tourism strategy in Vancouver.

    The key is to retain authenticity. But hopefully through the retention of many elements of the old Chinatown, combined with new uses (like Rennie’s mixed use development) and new residential developments (like Ginger and V6A), we can do this successfully.

  • False Creep

    Not sure how I feel about the options for Chinatown. As your piece suggests, the results of genetrification are often bland. The West End is less gay every year, I just read that Harlem is getting less black, and what’s the alternative? I’ve asked hip young Chinese if Chinatown would ever be cool (Sino-Yuppies take over?), but the question never generates much interest.

  • I enjoyed your VM article Frances. It’s nice sharing the issue with you (I think a story of mine is tucked in there somewhere too).

    PS. More mentionable restaurants are on their way to Chinatown.

  • Good that we are on the same side, Michael, your measured approach is more convincing than my hyperbole.

    Long out-of-date the current zoning by-law is, in my opinion, corrupted by numbers and views.

    Views sound good until the neighbouring towers rise up. I estimate about 15% views survive after the area shakes out. As for southerly views, the Sun bleaches the furniture and glares-out colour and contrast.

    Views are a shibboleth.

    Over the years I have been practicing numbers seem to expand like “that boy’s” balloon and to the same trivial purpose: Vancouver’s architecture, rather than describing unique and international, has become homogenized.

    Street level amenity, a huge attraction, seems not to figure. Looking at amenity, Metro is about the same size, and far wealthier, than most capitol cities south of the border, DF, Buenos Aires, Montevideo et al: none of them have the “view” (DF is smogged-in 24/7), and street level is stinky, chaotic, crowded and fun: just the way we like it . . . which appears to be to their advantage.

    As for a reassessment here: I sense a beleaguered planning department is in no mood to experiment.