Delegates from 18 Chinatowns across Canada and the United States gathered in Vancouver on Tuesday for the continent’s first Chinatown Cultural Preservation and Revitalization conference.
The two-day “Chinatown Solidarity” event, attended by 50 representatives, aims to facilitate an exchange of ideas on how to revitalize, preserve and secure the historic neighbourhoods, as well as foster new collaborations between community leaders on both sides of the border.
“There’s a passion to revitalize these neighbourhoods across North America,” Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim told Global News.
“Some people blamed the Asian community for being the cause of the pandemic, and we got to a place where anti-Asian hate crime was up in Chinatowns across North America. They were getting thrashed and it’s good to see saner heads prevailing and people are starting to build back up these neighbourhoods.”
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Sim was one of many recognizable names at the conference, which was also attended by U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen, U.S. Consul General in Vancouver D. Brent Hardt, and federal Minister for International Trade, Export Promotion, Small Business and Economic Development Mary Ng.
Chinatowns in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York were among those represented.
Lily Ho, president of San Francisco’s Delta Chinatown Initiative, said newcomers from China have long had to “band together to survive.”
“(Chinatowns are) ethnic enclaves, created to be self-sustaining and to support our own community because we were excluded from normal institutional support,” she explained.
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Jennifer Tam, co-founder and board chair of Welcome to Chinatown in New York, said Chinatowns in Canada and the U.S. share similar values and must be preserved for similar reasons.
“There is so much cultural context of what it has contributed to the American fabric, to the Canadian fabric,” Tam said.
“Step number one is the recognition of what is at stake here, and that’s preserving all the foundation and framework that has been laid for us, for immigrants whether it’s immigrants from hundreds of years ago, to immigrants like my parents, who came from Hong Kong to set for a better life.”
Chinatowns create an “intergenerational connection,” and while some disagree on how to honour history while ensuring long-term sustainability, those “uncomfortable conversations” are important to have, Tam added.
“It is an incredibly deeply layered community for Asian Americans, Asian Canadians. What’s at stake is being able to carry out that livelihood in a cultural context that’s meaningful.”
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According to the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, Vancouver’s Chinatown is the third-largest in North America.
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Carol Lee, the organization’s chair, said “change is the only constant” for Chinatowns, whose challenge is deciding what they want that change to look like.
“That’s kind of, in some ways, what worries me — there’s talk of a UNESCO designation. This is a living, breathing, evolving neighbourhood and it’s really about people and community,” Lee told Global News.
“There’s some sense of comfort knowing that you’re not alone in this battle, that other people, other communities are facing the same issues.”
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Over the past few years, Vancouver’s Chinatown has been beset by problems, including the financial blow of the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase in racism, and a spike in crimes such as window smashing, graffiti, theft and arson.
In February last year, the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association said half of the Chinatown BIA’s annual budget had been spent on security, adding up to $240,000 in 2021.
Earlier this month, the neighbourhood received $2.2 million in provincial funds to reshape and revitalize its shops, streets, décor and infrastructure, as well as nearly $390,000 in municipal grants to support graffiti removal and other initiatives. Ottawa also contributed $1.8 million in February to help upgrade infrastructure, enhance landmarks and improve tourism opportunities.
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