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Customers visit Kent’s Kitchen, a restaurant in Vancouver’s Chinatown neighbourhood on March 24. The family-run business, which serves low-cost Asian food, is closing next month after 46 years of operation.Kayla Isomura/the Globe and Mail

Next month, Kent’s Kitchen, a family-run business serving low-cost Asian food in Vancouver’s Chinatown, will shutter after 46 years in operation. It is the second within weeks: Daisy Garden Kitchen, which had been in the neighbourhood for about 44 years, has also closed.

The closings were cold water on the optimism of a few months earlier. Thousands filled the streets of Chinatown in late January to embrace the return of the Lunar New Year parade for the first time since the pandemic began. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, B.C. Premier David Eby, and the city’s first Chinese-Canadian mayor, Ken Sim, were all there. Mr. Sim has vowed to uplift the area and, earlier that week, city council unanimously approved a $2.1-million project aimed at that goal.

Many did not foresee the fate of Kent’s.

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Customers visit Kent’s Kitchen ahead of it's closing next month. The restaurant is among about 20 legacy businesses in the area that have closed in the last five years.Kayla Isomura/the Globe and Mail

“I think everybody was shocked, because it has operated for such a long time,” said Carol Lee, chair of Vancouver Chinatown Foundation.

“It’s an institution in Chinatown, and I would say a hidden gem. … Having one of your most important small businesses close … is really tough for everybody.”

The eatery’s owner, Robert Woo, said he is reaching retirement age and no longer has the energy to take care of the Chinatown shop and his other location farther east on Victoria Drive. He noted the business in Chinatown kept up during the first year of the pandemic, but a series of other challenges – including rising inflation, worsening safety and cleanliness of the area – contributed to his call.

“Physically, I can’t do it any more. I am getting old. … It’s my personal decision,” he said, adding his children have no plans to succeed him in the business started in 1977.

Chinatowns across North America are facing challenges as the effects of pandemic closings linger and as development pressures threaten to change their character. Vancouver has an added challenge: The neighbourhood is contained within the Downtown Eastside and the homelessness, mental-health and drug crises that play out on the streets spill into Chinatown. Declining foot traffic and increased graffiti inhibit customers. Meanwhile, business owners are further challenged to keep their prices down to cater to the low-income residents and seniors in the neighbourhood.

Mr. Woo, 63, said he’s seen the ups and downs of Chinatown for the past decades, but he said now, “Chinatown is a past.”

According to the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Area Society, there were about 100 legacy businesses in the area and about 20 have closed in the past five years.

Last summer, an iconic housewares supply store on Pender Street bid farewell to Chinatown after nearly three decades of operation. Francis Wong of Tinland said the safety concerns of his customers and his staff led to his exit, even though he was offered free rent by Ms. Lee, his former landlord.

Without increased security measures, “nobody wants to go down there,” Mr. Wong said.

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A for lease sign hangs next to Tinland Cookware on East Pender Street, a housewares-supply store, which closed last summer after nearly three decades of operation in Vancouver’s Chinatown neighbourhood.Kayla Isomura/the Globe and Mail

William Liu, owner of Kam Wai Dim Sum, said there are other reasons that people aren’t willing to come to Chinatown. He said the neighbourhood no longer has the core services it used to have, and does not have big supermarket-type stores to entice people.

With rising food costs, Mr. Liu’s store pledged to put price freezes on many of its hot items to serve the community.

“We’re losing our profits,” he said. “The only reason why we’re able to survive in this climate is because we are able to supplement our retail business with our wholesale business.”

But Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown BIA Society, said not all legacy businesses in the area are struggling and the neighbourhood has a new nightlife that it didn’t have before. He said he’s positive about the outlook for the area now that different levels of governments are stepping up with money for renewal initiatives.

The City of Vancouver has a plan focusing on enhanced cleaning and sanitation, graffiti removal, a safety program and other community supports. The federal government announced last month it’s investing $1.8-million to modernize iconic neighborhood buildings with new lighting, signage and other improvements, and to expand an annual festival to attract more visitors.

City Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung said the ruling ABC Party’s key election promise of 100 new police officers, as well as 100 psychiatric nurses, will help tackle public-safety concerns. She also pointed to a new property-tax reduction program that would bring relief to some of the city’s independent small businesses.

Ms. Lee said an economic revitalization program will soon be launching at Chinatown’s foundation and hopefully that will be able to help stabilize the situation.

Amy Robinson, who was hired by the city to study the legacy business support program in San Francisco years ago, said while such government measures may be helpful in improving the image of the area, they are not “direct support” for some of the huge challenges these businesses face.

“None of the money really goes to businesses directly,” she said.

Ms. Robinson, who works for the consulting company LOCO BC, noted several of her recommendations to the government in 2017 haven’t been implemented.

“Helping with succession planning, helping with prepping the business, too, helping with relocating, all these kinds of things would have really helped to maintain some of those businesses,” she said.