News / Vancouver

Historic Chinatown wrongs echo in present neighbourhood fight

Council receives report on Vancouver's historic racism against Chinese people.

Pender Street in Chinatown in Vancouver on June 19, 2017.

Jennifer Gauthier / For Metro

Pender Street in Chinatown in Vancouver on June 19, 2017.

Between 1886 and 1947, Chinese residents of Vancouver couldn’t vote in municipal elections.

In the early 1900s, the City of Vancouver actively lobbied the provincial government to increase the Head Tax on Chinese immigrants, from $50 to $100 and then $500. In 1923, Vancouver lobbied the federal government to bar ‘Asiatics’ from coming to Canada.

Chinese children and their parents were barred from the city’s only public swimming pool, except for one day per week, and Chinese people were prohibited from renting or owning property in certain neighbourhoods.

According to various city bylaws, Chinese residents were prohibited from working in professions like law, pharmacy, medicine, nursing and retail; it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that Chinese-Canadian professionals began to practise.

A team of historians and community members have delved into the city’s past to bring to light just how ugly and abusive discrimination towards Chinese people was. Except for a few dissenting voices, the discrimination was sanctioned by the city’s municipal leaders.

The group presented their work to council on Oct. 31. Their report could inform an official apology, an application to designate Chinatown as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and educational and commemorative activities. Council will hear from speakers on Nov. 1.

But Chinatown advocates who have been fighting against a proposed condo building in a historic part of the downtown neighbourhood are pointing out that past historic wrongs continue to echo into the present, as an area that was once both refuge and ghetto threatens to slip away under a tide of new development.

"While we’re talking about historic discrimination against Chinese in Vancouver, just how distant is this past that we’re talking about?” asked June Chow, a member of Youth Collaborative for Chinatown.

105 Keefer, where Beedie Living proposes to build a nine-storey condo building.

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

105 Keefer, where Beedie Living proposes to build a nine-storey condo building.

“There are undercurrents that are still very prevalent.”

A marathon nine-hour development permit board hearing on Oct. 30 was the latest iteration of community opposition to Beedie Development’s proposed nine-storey condominium building at 105 Keefer St., next to a memorial to Chinese-Canadian veterans and railroad workers.

The decision was deferred to Nov. 6.

“If you listen to some of the presentation, there was overt discrimination there,” said John Atkin of the development permit meeting. Atkin is a Vancouver historian who worked on the historic wrongs report and also attended the Oct. 30 meeting.

“Yesterday, Chinese seniors, whose first language is Cantonese, had five minutes to speak and no extra time for translation. When somebody sitting next to someone whisper-translates to them, and then is told to be quiet — and there was no accommodation for translation.”

The city’s chief planner, Gil Kelley, has asked city staff whether the development permit board can consider any aspect other than zoning, such as social and economic factors. He also wants to improve translation services.

City staff are also planning to develop a new community plan for Chinatown that will likely lower building heights — but it’s unlikely the Beedie building would be compelled to follow those new guidelines.

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