The next big thing coming to Vancouver’s historic Chinatown is a crowd-funded curry-sausage and beer emporium inspired by the street food of Germany and operated by a betoqued and bearded young man with thick-framed glasses, and his pal who bears a passing resemblance to David Byrne, circa 1978, when Mr. Byrne, perhaps presciently, sang songs about buildings and food.
It will become the new neighbour to a café for motorcycle enthusiasts, a tastefully curated vintage shop, a longboard store, an art and craft facility, a pilates studio, and other businesses that may not immediately leap to mind when you think “Chinatown.”
It will open on East Pender Street in the heart of Chinatown, beneath the ornate balconies of century-old Chinese clan and county society buildings where the clickety-clack of mahjong tiles echoes in the narrow hallways.
The sausage shop – along with all of the other businesses listed above – may, in the end, save the neighbourhood.
After passing through the shadows of those historic buildings countless times, I finally got a chance to step inside this week. My guide was Judy Lam Maxwell, historian, educator, tour guide, food consultant, and member of the Chinatown Revitalization Committee.
Her connection to Chinatown runs through her European-Canadian father and stretches four generations into the past to her great-grandfather, a Caucasian, the first Liberal Member of Parliament in B.C., who also happened to be anti-Chinese.
“I found handwritten letters from my great-grandfather to Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who was the prime minister at the time, about raising the head tax,” she told me. Her great-grandfather petitioned the prime minister to double the tax, in an effort to keep Chinese people out of the country.
Among the people Ms. Lam Maxwell introduced me to on the tour was Cecil Fung, a director and secretary of the Chinese Freemasons, which traces its roots back 400 years to the Ming Dynasty. Like most people in Chinatown, he has a lot to say about the changing face of the neighbourhood.
“Some of the rental spaces, the street-level retail stores, have been taken by mainstream Caucasian young creatives. They see a lot of history in Chinatown, they like old buildings and the cheaper rent,” Mr. Fung said.
“Foot traffic has slowed, restaurants have closed, shops have closed, the traditional Chinatown Chinese stores have all moved away. Either they do not have successors in the family who want to look after the store, or the business just wouldn’t sustain itself.” Mr. Fung says the changing face of the neighbourhood is inevitable because the owners of the buildings, many of them benevolent societies, need new tenants at street level to sustain themselves or face selling off their buildings.
One of those new tenants is Flatspot Longboards, a skateboard shop that opened six months ago on the ground floor of the Chinese Freemasons building.
Mischa Farivar, the business’s co-owner, found the storefront listed on Craigslist.
“I was quite stoked,” he told me. “It was a diamond in the rough and a location full of potential and opportunity.” He says an added bonus is the fact that there are apartments upstairs, where he now lives.
Mr. Farivar says in the short time the store has been open it has become part of a closely knit community of new businesses in the neighbourhood. “This is a real stick-together community,” he said. “And the Chinese Business Association has welcomed all of the newcomers.”
As have many of the businesses themselves. Across the street from Flatspot is the Chinese Tea Shop, owned by Daniel Lui. Mr. Lui, who prepares tea with the precision of a vascular surgeon and the ritual of a high priest, has been in business since 2004 and has cultivated a devoted following.
“The new shops give a new image to Chinatown and bring more people to Chinatown,” Mr. Lui said. “It’s not important whether it’s owned by Chinese or not; what is important is that when people come to Chinatown, there are businesses.”
In the rush to occupy vacant storefronts and redefine Chinatown, Carol Lee is the voice of caution. Ms. Lee is the CEO and co-founder of Linacare Cosmetherapy, which is headquartered in Chinatown, and also chairs the steering committee for the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation for Community Revitalization. She argues that Chinatown is unique.
“This is a neighbourhood that’s not just important to Vancouver, but to British Columbia. This is part of how the province was built; the people who worked on the railroad and in the mines,” she said. “We have to be careful that we don’t lose the culture and heritage of the neighbourhood.”
Culture and heritage is about more than buildings and food. It’s about the history of a place, the struggles that become the stories that define generations.
Is that lost because a dude on a longboard is munching on a currywurst?
Chinatown is stronger than that.