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William Liu gave up an opera-singing career to return home and take over the family business.Kerry Gold/The Globe and Mail

Thirty-year-old William Liu was on track to a successful opera-singing career in New York. But then his father fell ill and he decided to close the family business, Kam Wai Dim Sum at 249 East Pender St., in the heart of Vancouver’s Chinatown.

The family had run the business for 29 years and Mr. Liu wasn’t about to let it become one of the many traditional shops that have closed down in the past few years. Pender Street has been hit especially hard, with several stores currently vacant.

Mr. Liu gave up opera and returned home, taking over Kam Wai a year and a half ago. That means 14 employees continue to work at the shop, including his father, who still helps behind the counter, and his mother and sister, working in the backroom commercial commissary. Similar to most traditional shops in Chinatown, the majority of the business is now wholesale, selling their dumplings and steamed buns to supermarkets. With an aging population and swiftly changing demographic, wholesale is their main business, Mr. Liu says.

Days before Chinese New Year, he stands next to a table laden with seasonal red rice cakes and fried sesame balls. On the counter is a pile of zongzi, wrapped in bamboo leaves and tied with twine.

He mostly maintains the retail side of the shop, he says, just to stay in touch with the low-income seniors who depend on it. Some shop owners give out free food to seniors.

“People have to be mindful of the history of the neighbourhood and the businesses surrounding them. It’s not downtown, where you just move in and start a new business.”

The pressures on Vancouver’s Chinatown are typical of most major Chinatowns in North America – a perfect storm of redevelopment nibbling away at its edges, the gentrification that inevitably goes with it and an emerging market that’s younger and more diverse, eager for chai lattes and organic produce instead of the cheap eats that Chinatown has historically offered.

The majority of Vancouver is in the 29- to 39-year-old demographic and Chinatown is being displaced and aging out. Far more Chinese newcomers speak Mandarin and prefer Richmond, B.C., to Vancouver’s Cantonese-speaking Chinatown. As well, there is a bigger class division as wealth has flowed into the city, demanding upscale goods. On Mr. Liu’s street, a couple of vegan shops have opened, part of a growing trend in the area that mystifies him.

“It’s the weirdest thing – Chinatown, of all places,” he says with a laugh.

“It’s something that’s happened steadily for a few years,” he says of the shift. “And then there was a huge outburst of these new shops that – I don’t want to say don’t belong in Chinatown – but they really don’t represent what Chinatown is, in my mind. And that happened in such a short period of time, and was such a huge spike – a shock to the system at that point. Before that, I didn’t see it as an issue, but then I thought, ‘This is something that really has to change.’”

On his block on Pender, shops are closing “left, right and centre,” he says.

In the 1890s, Mr. Liu’s block was the launch pad for Chinatown, when the first wave of Chinese immigrants settled on Pender, which was then known as Dupont Street. The community quickly grew outward to more than 1,000 Chinese residents, with three Chinese opera houses. For the Chinese, it was a hub where they worked and lived, a safe place in an era of anti-Asian discrimination.

For decades, the inexpensive traditional shops have sustained a low-income population. And many of the seniors in Chinatown live in single rooms that don’t have kitchens. The old restaurants become their kitchens and the neighbourhood parks and benches their living rooms, says Christina Lee, the author of a new report on Chinatown released by the non-profit Hua Foundation, whose aim is to empower Asian youth.

“One of the really important things about Chinatown that needs to be recognized is the fact that it’s always been home to people who really didn’t have a home anywhere else,” says Ms. Lee, who’s from Burnaby, B.C., but is temporarily living in Hong Kong, learning Cantonese.

“It’s really important that as the population shifts, we are still holding space for these people, some of whom have lived here their entire lives.”

It’s this distinction that Chinatown’s young generation of activists wants new businesses in Chinatown, as well as city planners and policy makers to understand. Chinese youth activists are also leading the way to protect Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco.

The new density added to Chinatown so far has seen its total resident population grow from 2,286 to 3,424, says Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program. As a consequence of that growth, he says the young activists are fighting to protect Vancouver’s last remaining blue-collar precinct.

“It’s a group of young people who understand that Vancouver didn’t begin with them and it certainly won’t end with them – they need to be able to foster and share a sense of inclusion, through cultural and neighbourhood stewardship.”

Ms. Lee’s report mentions the potential impact on the neighbourhood with plans underway to develop adjacent Northeast False Creek and the False Creek flats. They want to get out in front of the massive change before it happens.

They want to bring light to how inequality works within Vancouver and the way we judge communities when we set about planning for them. They want people to see that Chinatown is a functioning and delicately balanced ecosystem. And they want less judgement about low-income residents and more inclusion of the people who are directly impacted by changes to their own community. For example, it’s classist to assume that a person who enjoys spending part of their day on a park bench is loitering, Ms. Lee says. Why not create more gathering spaces for those people? In other words, look at who is already using the space and how they use it, and plan from there.

Vancouver got the message loud and clear after a huge backlash against plans to develop an empty parking lot at 105 Keefer St., into another mid-rise condo tower for the area. Amid protests, Beedie Development ultimately got its revised plans rejected last year. The City of Vancouver responded by adopting a new policy that reduces allowable floor space, building height and storefront width from what was previously allowed in the 2011 plan.

Vancouver officials are also exploring the idea of designating “legacy businesses,” as a way to protect the traditional shop owners. San Francisco has a legacy business registry of qualified stores that can get grants, as well as financial incentives for landlords to keep them on as tenants.

Hua Foundation co-founder Kevin Huang says this isn’t about drawing a line as to who belongs in Chinatown. For example, although he’s generally opposed to big generic chains, stores such as Waves and Tim Hortons, both in Chinatown, are generally more accepting of low-income customers spending a few hours hanging out than a small hipster independent coffee shop might be.

The plight of Chinatown is merely reflective of the city, he says.

David Wu is one of the youngest business owners in Vancouver's Chinatown.Kerry Gold/The Globe and Mail

“It’s severe, the divisions – we are terrible at working with other communities of colour and marginalization. It’s not happening. And yes, it’s a class thing.

“And federal immigration programs are to blame for that in some ways,” says Mr. Huang, who studies the food supply chain.

Because the programs were designed to encourage wealth, Vancouver became more of a destination for wealthy immigrants rather than those looking for jobs, he says.

“For restaurants in the traditional Cantonese style, or Chinese in general, we don’t have the labour pool to sustain it.”

David Wu, 30, displays the new tattoos on his forearms, animal symbols for his kids and his wife. He is the Taiwanese owner of the stylish new Rhinofish Noodle Bar on Main Street and he is, similar to Mr. Liu, one of the youngest business owners in Chinatown. Mr. Wu has been in Vancouver since 2004, landing in the city after a stint in Britain. He worked in various trades before going to culinary school and then deciding to open a restaurant. He chose Chinatown partly because the rents were lower than downtown.

“I can see the potential of Chinatown and there have been a lot of new restaurants popping up in last few years, but sadly none of them are Chinese food. We have fried chicken and pizza. But where’s the Chinese restaurant? I wanted to give a bit of support to Chinatown,” Mr. Wu says.

Rhinofish is one of the few newcomers that has managed to bridge the gap between the older demographic and the new. Businesswoman Carol Lee’s Chinatown BBQ at 130 East Pender St., which serves traditional pork and duck, is another one.

For reasons Mr. Wu doesn’t understand, his restaurant is drawing older Cantonese people, although one patron yelled at him for not having Cantonese-speaking servers. Mr. Wu speaks Mandarin and understands only a little Cantonese.

“Myself alone, I won’t make a difference, but hopefully I can encourage other young people to come invest in Chinatown as well. “

However, Mr. Wu can’t find Taiwanese supplies so easily. That’s a problem. So is the fact that he has labour shortages and sometimes has to close down if an employee calls in sick.

He embraces the idea of new development, because he believes it’s necessary for Chinatown’s survival.

“To be honest, I think the new buildings are a good thing, and not everyone thinks that. But new buildings or new businesses – that is the process of development.

“I like is the mixture of old and new. It tells the story of this area.”

At heart is their message that Vancouver has had a huge inflow of money these past several years and policy makers have got to make sure people aren’t getting pushed out.

“Because even as the city shifts and people with a lot more money come into the city, it’s important to recognize there are people here who don’t have a lot,” Ms. Lee says. “There is something to be said about feeling you are a contributing member of the community by being able to have choice and buy your own groceries and not receiving free handouts.

“We need to push for more equity with the way our policies are implemented as a city. And all this can be incorporated not just into Chinatown, but the city as a whole.”

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