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An LRT runs through it: When city growth leaves Chinatown behind

Infrastructure plans can debilitate communities. In the changing of guards from one generation to the next, the future of spaces like the Chinatowns of Canadian cities looks uncertain.

Ani Castillo

Fireworks are fun, but they’re fleeting. What makes this country real are the people and communities that form it. As the country celebrates 150 years of nationhood, Metro’s national columnist Vicky Mochama set out across Canada to discover how five different groups are creating space here.

Here, Part 4: Holding on to heritage

When cities make big changes, it’s often through the places where their minority residents live and thrive.

This is where Edmonton’s Harbin Gate comes in.

A gift from Edmonton’s sister city in Harbin, China, the massive gate has stood at the entry to the city’s Chinatown for three decades. Since 1987, the gate on 102 Avenue has represented the city’s ongoing relationship with China and stood as a symbol for the city’s Chinese community.

Earlier this year, as part of a plan to make way for a new LRT, the two handcrafted stone lions flanking the gate were put in storage. The gate’s next home isn’t clear.

For Chris Chang-Yen Phillips, the city’s historian laureate, the move and the uncertainty isn't surprising.

“That is representative of how I see the city as having interacted with the Chinese community — accidentally realizing ‘Oh right! There are Chinese people here’ over and over again.”

He noted that Canada Place, the federal government’s massive complex, cut Edmonton’s Chinatown into two separate areas when it was constructed back in 1988.

Infrastructure plans can thus have a debilitating effect on communities.

For example, Vancouver’s famed Chinatown still stands after the community rallied to protest a freeway planned to run through it. The freeway project was redirected around Chinatown but it levelled Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver’s once-thriving Black community.

In Vancouver, the fight to preserve Chinatown continued this year. A long and determined fight at city hall against 105 Keefer, a condominium development, led to the project’s cancellation this May. Advocates say it threatened to disrupt the life of the neighbourhood’s seniors and community spaces, and had initially been planned without their consultation.

For young people, home might be outside Chinatown but it’s still a place filled with memories. Angela Ho’s memories live in noises. Her favourite sound from Vancouver’s Chinatown is of a grandmother scolding her grandchild.

It’s a slice of Chinatown life that she recorded as part of a sound-mapping project, which collects audio from the Vancouver neighbourhood. For Ho, Chinatown used to be a regular visiting place from where her family lives in East Vancouver.

For older residents like Ken Mah, Chinatown was once the place that he and other mostly Chinese immigrants first called home.

Mah lives in the seniors' home on 102 Avenue in Edmonton, and the ongoing LRT project now makes a daily difference.

Construction on the street has permanently removed the parking spots in front of the building, forcing his kids to circle the block for a spot when they pick him up for doctor’s appointments or to drop off groceries.

“Sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes it’s 20 minutes,” he says. “That’s too much time.”

Chinatown’s changes aren’t just in the uncertain futures of big symbols like the Harbin Gate. Their evolution is also found in the daily experiences of the people like Mah who live there. It’s also seen in a generational shift of new immigrants opting not to live in spaces like Chinatown.

Research shows more immigrants are settling further away from major metropolitan areas in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Although a majority of immigrants say they have a strong affinity to their country of origin, those who live further away from major cities are less likely to have strong networks or to have strong relationships with fellow minorities.

It’s a demographic change that shows Canada as a more accessible space than in 1952 when Mah first arrived.

Still, it presents a challenge for the community. Chinatowns are not quite old enough to be heritage spaces — officially, most are under 100 years old. Though they’re relatively new, they remain an essential space for preserving culture and community ties.

Says Ho, “I’m hoping that Chinatown will continue to be an inter-generational space.”

In the changing of guards from one generation to the next, the future of spaces like the Chinatowns of Canadian cities looks uncertain.

More in After The Party:

Part 1: Making space

Coming up:

Part 5: Being Black at school

Part 6: Scenes from Caribana

Part 7: Welcome to the Gaybourhood

Part 8: The Indigenous City

Join the conversation and tell us how you make space in this place: #AfterTheParty

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