Although Chinatown is officially part of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), it is generally understood to be a separate community. It reflects the barriers between the English-speaking members and the Chinese-speaking members of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) low-income community, the most significant of which is language. Without the ability to communicate verbally with each other, there is a lot that each group does not know and understand of the other. And most sadly, a lot of stories, past and present, are unknown to members of the other group.
Thankfully, the barriers aren’t impenetrable. After all, the two communities do live in the same neighbourhood, on the same unceded Coast Salish territory. They live together in Chinatown – in Single Room Occupancy hotels (SROs), social housing, co-ops – and they also take part in activities together at the Carnegie Centre. In spite of some negative interactions, there are also positive ones in the food lines as well.
It is really important to remember the immense diversity within each of these “communities,” such as the Indigenous community, the Latino community, and various Chinese communities that speak different dialects, so please forgive me for seemingly lumping everyone into simply two groups of English-speaking or Chinese-speaking.
However, when comparing the two groups, drug use appears to be a significant issue for members of the Chinese community, who don’t understand drug use and see it in a negative light. Part of the reason is likely because there is a language barrier and so the influence of Chinese mainstream media – which often neglects the stories of trauma and abuse behind drug use – is strong.
But while recognizing these differences in opinions and worldviews, I hope that we don’t miss the obvious fight in front of us. Living in the same neighbourhood means both groups are facing gentrification right now. In the same way how the Woodward’s redevelopment project (with 536 condo units) led to the loss of over 404 low-income units within a 1-block radius due to rent increases, the future of hundreds of SROs and low-income housing in Chinatown is at stake, as there are 768 more market-rate housing being built (including proposed projects; see “Update: Development Projects in Chinatown” in this newsletter).
We know that both communities are being attacked by the same force by looking at the marketing (videos, photos etc.) for the condo projects that being built in the neighbourhood. The low-income community – English-speaking and Chinese-speaking – are altogether erased. There is no one pushing a shopping cart with their belongings around. There are no Chinese community members shopping at the grocery store on Georgia St. or the herbal store on Pender St. This is the vision that the developers have for Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside.
The two groups will have many differences because everyone has their own story, background, and experiences. But I hope that the two groups can build stronger bridges of understanding as well. Right now, those who are part of the DTES and Chinatown community are all threatened by gentrification and its destruction on our community – displacement due to rising housing rents and the retail transformation of our neighbourhood, especially for Chinatown, which is on course to disappear unless we fight for it. Members of the Chinese community are calling for a moratorium on development in Chinatown and to require all development projects to include at least 50% social housing for low-income people. This is the fight that unites us – against gentrification, housing for the low-income community, and for Chinatown. -km