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Victoria’s Chinatown part of a Western Canadian wave of evolution and renewal

Community hubs adapt to changing conditions both inside and outside of tradition
Night lights and the Gates of Harmonious Interest on Fisgard Street in Victoria’s Chinatown. Don Denton/News staff

Every Thursday to Sunday evening, the wait staff at the Ugly Duckling Dining & Provisions restaurant carefully set knives and forks on chopstick rests at each table.

The Ugly Duckling, which opened less than two months ago in Victoria’s historic Chinatown, is not a Chinese restaurant.

But the fine dining eatery goes out of its way to add touches of Chinese culture to its dining experience.

Proprietor and chef Corbin Mathany incorporates Chinese ingredients and techniques in almost every dish.

The tasting menu includes dumplings, Chinese buns and steamed custards. The bill arrives pinned to a postcard of Victoria’s Chinatown in 1898, depicting children celebrating Lunar New Year.

Developer Robert Fung, whose company, The Salient Group, is renovating two city blocks in Chinatown, insisted on the inclusion of the homages for businesses looking to locate there.

“Honestly, at first it felt like a little bit of a restriction,” Mathany said. “It felt a tiny bit onerous. But it has helped refine our message and guide us in a direction that, I think, makes us a lot more interesting than what we would have been.”

The Ugly Duckling is now an important resident of Canada’s oldest Chinatown, and part of a phenomenon as Chinatowns in Western Canada evolve and the owners of traditional eateries age out of business or move away.

Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association, said that in the past five years, the neighbourhood has lost at least 20 per cent of its 100 heritage businesses, loosely defined as stores or eateries that have operated for more than 25 years.

Earlier this month, Kent’s Kitchen — a neighbourhood stalwart for more than 40 years — announced it will shutter its Vancouver Chinatown location in April.

In February, the Daisy Garden Kitchen, another four-decade mainstay, announced it was tapping out.

But new restaurants haven’t stopped opening, Eng said.

One example, fusion gastropub The Darkside, officially opened in January and features a mix of West Coast and Asian cuisine in a casual bar atmosphere.

Others, like tapas wine bar La Boqueria and boutique doughnut shop Mello, opened in Chinatown a few years earlier, each adding to the neighbourhood’s new identity, Eng said.

“Chinatown’s food culture has flourished over the last 10 years. Not as many might have envisioned, which is primarily Chinese based, but more international,” he said. ” … And so at nighttime at Chinatown, one of the good things between now and 10 years ago is that the nightlife has really picked up again.”

Eng does not discount Chinatown’s battle retaining small heritage food establishments, and he wonders if things may have turned out differently had plans to build a nine-storey mixed-use building on a site known as 105 Keefer not been rejected.

“It had a big impact,” Eng said of the 2017 decision that followed a fierce community battle. “There hasn’t been any new development in Chinatown since then. Capitalism is fleeting, right? So it will go wherever it sees the least resistance, so to speak. So that set us back.”

In 2018, the City of Vancouver voted to reduce the size of buildings that can be built in Chinatown.

Without more residential density and with the pandemic hitting traditional small businesses’ clientele, Eng said the neighbourhood had no choice but to seek an evolution towards new types of shops, geared toward younger, often non-Chinese, audiences.

Fung, president of The Salient Group, said culturally sensitive development can be a potent ally in the revitalization of Chinatowns across the region, especially if the goal is to bring in a younger crowd.

Salient specializes in urban revitalization projects, such as its latest work in Victoria’s Chinatown.

“So the effort is, how does one participate in the economic evolution of the area, but still maintain what’s really important to the cultural history of the place?” Fung said.

Fung said the project is crucial for Victoria Chinatown’s future, and the neighbourhood shares many of the challenges seen in other Chinatowns in terms of losing traditional businesses.

The key, he said, is to have developers who understand the historical significance of Chinatowns’ past while planning for their future.

Part of that responsibility is selecting the right tenants to take over heritage buildings. Fung said new businesses do not need to be Chinese but must respect and bridge the neighbourhood’s roots with the present.

“I feel that there’s actually a very narrow bandwidth (of tenants) that we can work with to deliver what we think we want to do, which is be authentic to the restoration,” Fung said. ” … Try to tell the story of that history or celebrate it, while enabling the space to be relevant today and financially viable.”

Similar efforts are happening in cities like Calgary and Winnipeg, where the mix of businesses in their Chinatowns is changing.

In Winnipeg, a revitalization plan was announced in 2019. The city has added more than 500 units of housing and a $95-million Red River College Polytechnic innovation centre that will bring new students and businesses to Chinatown.

“There’s no point hanging on to yesterday when no one’s coming,” said Ben Lee, past president of the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural & Community Centre. “So I think the markets may shape the types of businesses and shops that come into Chinatown.”

In Calgary, city council passed a cultural and development plan dubbed “Tomorrow’s Chinatown” in December after three years of consultation.

Wilco van Bemmel, CEO of urban development consultancy Dunefield, helped create the Calgary plan that will help heritage businesses evolve while officials work at “active retail recruitment” to bring “younger and non-Chinese groups into the community.”

Van Bemmel said while attracting new business is important, the real key to a successful transition to a younger Chinatown was in the hands of second-generation heritage business owners — children who take over their parents’ shops and add new flair that naturally shifts the community to reflect new demographics.

“The economic footprint of these small and humble businesses is often much larger than we think, because these are actually places where people make things,” van Bemmel said.

One such shop is Vancouver’s Kam Wai Dim Sum.

Co-owner William Liu is a second-generation business owner. He took over Kam Wai from his parents in 2014 and renovated the Vancouver Chinatown shop on Pender Street with large steamers and deli counters to do more retail sales to patrons.

But he said the key to Kam Wai’s continued resilience as Chinatown faced higher crime levels, slower foot traffic and rising inflation was the fact that the store never lost sight of its business plan: a local manufacturer and distributor of frozen dim sum to supermarkets and restaurants all over the city.

The pandemic, Liu said, wasn’t the first Chinatown malaise that Kam Wai has had to navigate.

“In the early 2000s, Chinatown was going through an economic downturn,” Liu said. “That was at that time when my dad started reaching out to a lot of wholesale clients … And that’s why we were able to sustain ourselves, through those contracts, because doing retail business in Chinatown is really difficult.”

Carol Lee, chair and co-founder of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, said Chinatowns need many more stories like Kam Wai’s to overcome their current challenges.

Lee said the foundation is continuously talking to all stakeholders, ranging from the federal and provincial governments to other Chinatowns in North America and private sector partners.

New, non-Chinese businesses in Chinatown are welcome and important, she said. But it does not make the loss of eateries like Kent’s Kitchen any less painful because they give the neighbourhood its distinctive flavour.

“So I think now it’s just like, how do we balance the new with the old?” Lee said. “This is the mission statement at the foundation: helping to revitalize Chinatown while retaining its irreplaceable cultural heritage. That’s the underpinning of everything that we do here.”

—Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press

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