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'It changes every day': Vancouver commissions retail gentrification study in Chinatown

The legacy business study is a response to longtime shops closing at an alarming rate

June Chow is part of the consultant team for the City of Vancouver's study on legacy businesses in Chinatown.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro Order this photo

June Chow is part of the consultant team for the City of Vancouver's study on legacy businesses in Chinatown.

A decades-old locksmith shop on East Pender Street, just east of Main Street, closed its doors for good last week, becoming the latest closure that has Chinatown residents and local businesses alarmed about the neighbourhood’s future.

“Change is happening very rapidly and without warning, especially when it comes to business opening or closing, and development applications,” said June Chow, a community advocate with Youth Collaborative for Chinatown. Part of her job is keeping tabs on how small business owners are doing. But even she can’t keep up with all the displacement.

“It changes every day. The rate is quite alarming. We’d like to slow that down a bit more.”

Chow is working with the City of Vancouver on its legacy business report, which will centre around a study on long-time Chinatown businesses by local firm LOCO BC. This past summer, she asked local storekeepers what they need to stay afloat in the rapidly changing neighbourhood.

They came back with a range of answers. For instance, Bamboo Village is a curio-type shop that dazzles visitors with a carefully curated interior, saturated with red and gold trinkets. The shop’s owners travel to China several times a year to source items directly, creating an incredible experience for many tourists. But their efforts have not been paying off as visitors usually leave without purchasing a souvenir.  

“It's so rich – being inside its like a mini museum but there’s no tradition of actually buying anything,” Chow explained.

They are just one of many “legacy businesses” struggling to keep up with the neighbourhood’s new retail landscape, filled with trendy clothing lines and hipster dessert offerings.

Abby Lai (front) is a longtime employee at Bamboo Village in Vancouver's Chinatown.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro

Abby Lai (front) is a longtime employee at Bamboo Village in Vancouver's Chinatown.

But unlike some businesses, Bamboo Village doesn’t want grant subsidies or relief from property tax assessments, said Chow. Instead, they want support for succession planning, and marketing campaigns.

These resources could benefit other similar businesses – those that provide value to the neighbourhood through its aesthetics and interactions with visitors, like herbal shops.

About 21 dry-good stores in Chinatown have closed in the last seven years, along with half of the neighbourhood’s cultural food assets like green grocers and BBQ-meat shops, according to a study by the Hua Foundation.

Chow hopes even people who don’t frequent the neighbourhood recognize their value.

“Step No. 1 is to acknowledge the contribution that these businesses make to the community,” she said.

There are a handful of herbal stores like this one left in Vancouver's Chinatown.

Wanyee Li/Metro

There are a handful of herbal stores like this one left in Vancouver's Chinatown.

The city is trying to do exactly that with its new legacy business study. City staff are modeling their approach after the San Francisco legacy business program. The program supports heritage shops in Chinatown – a Chinatown that, like its counterpart in Vancouver, is experiencing rapid retail gentrification.

City staff don’t want to freeze the neighbourhood in time, community economic development planner Wes Regan insisted. But after surveying 50 residents and businesses, they realized some communities need additional support to retain their identity.

Case studies in the draft report include Kam Wai Dim Sum, publishing company Liang You Book Co. Ltd., and Italian-goods store Tosi & Company.

“Even if businesses may change, the legacies in the neighbourhood and the stories that are there can continue to be honoured and re-invented,” said Regan.

Ideas include lease subsidies, translation services, restricting store frontage sizes, and more, he said.

And while Chinatown was a “catalyst” for the report, Regan confirmed city staff are already looking at other areas of the city, like Punjabi Market (49th Avenue and Main Street) where many businesses have relocated to Surrey.

The legacy business program will eventually make up a small part of an overarching retail strategy for the entire city, according to Regan.  

He and members of the research team presented their preliminary findings on legacy businesses to Chinatown residents and the business community last Friday. Regan hopes the neighbourhood’s newcomers will join the conversation as well.

“Its not just about retaining long-standing businesses that have been there, but also how can we re-invented businesses with younger store owners.”

One place-branding expert agreed with the approach but cautioned against over-“legislating” the retail landscape. 

“It’s the nature of competition,” said Rod Roodenburg, a partner at Ion Brand Design.The firm has worked with municipalities and firms across Canada.

But he pointed out new businesses can learn a lot from old ones and acknowledged the city could help broker that type of mentorship.  

“We need to be sensitive to the older stores and the people that, in essence, established and enable us to have communities there in the first place. Having some loyalty towards those stores and establishments…I think it is pretty important.”

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