What did you do in Chinatown? As little as possible.
That's from the 1974 film Chinatown, a crime story based on California's "water wars" of the 1930s.
Today, in Vancouver's Chinatown, nobody has declared war. Not yet. But discontent abounds in a neighbourhood struggling to maintain its status as a cultural hub. The Asian diaspora long ago assimilated and settled across Vancouver. Chinatown, meanwhile, shares a northern border with the Downtown Eastside. As the open drug market grows, neighbourhood businesses suffer, residents move away.
Yet thanks to the vital Asian vote, Chinatown remains important to Vancouver politicians-if only for a few weeks every three years. As the November election looms, candidates court Chinatown votes and dollars. Earlier this month, hundreds packed the Floata restaurant on Keefer Street for a Vision Vancouver fundraiser starring Mayor Gregor Robertson, a remarkable turnout considering Robertson's record of inactivity in the area, especially the Downtown Eastside.
Since 1987, Rod Chow, president of Jack Chow Insurance, has worked at the family business inside "the world's skinniest building" near Chinatown's iconic archway. According to Chow, Chinatown's never looked worse. "We've seen Chinatown deteriorate. Right now it's in its lowest state and has to be brought back to its heyday when the streets were full of people.”
From his office window, Chow looks north down Carrall Street into the Downtown Eastside. It's a quiet street, dead and dark. City hall has eliminated off-street parking on Carrall to make room for a so-called greenway and separated bike lane, part of a citywide strategy to encourage cycling and discourage driving. But apparently Robertson and company failed to consider the unintended consequences of linking North America's largest open drug market with a narrow street devoid of parking. "When there are less people, less circulation, that leaves the street open for the undesirables to come over," says Chow. "And we've seen more drug dealers infiltrating Chinatown."
Furthermore, according to Chow, police presence has dwindled. And he's probably right. During my two-hour stroll around Chinatown last Friday morning, I didn't see one uniformed police officer. But I saw several empty storefronts, evidence of Chinatown's struggling economy.
At the KC Trading souvenir shop on Pender Street, Wendy, a smiling cashier, says increased drug activity has chased away business. In fact, if not for her job, she'd avoid the neighbourhood. "I don't do my shopping here no more, and I don't live here."
Up the street, Anita, who sits behind the counter of an empty home decor shop, tells a similar tale of declining sales. "No tourists, no local people. Business is no good."
So what do the candidates say about Chinatown woes?
Coincidentally, last Friday I bumped into city councillor and NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton on a Chinatown street corner. In her power suit and red, white and blue campaign button, she was pressing flesh on the campaign trail. Anton says she's sympathetic to Chinatown's crime concerns, but like her mayoral rival Robertson, won't promise any change in police strategy. When asked about parking on Carrall Street, Anton, a committed cyclist who helped Robertson install bike lanes on Hornby, Dunsmuir and the Burrard Street Bridge, is more resolute. "We're not going to go backwards on Carrall." She points to three parkades in the neighbourhood before NPA council candidate Francis Wong, who rode shotgun during Anton's Chinatown tour, notes that two of the parkades are used sparingly due to theft and safety concerns.
Across the street, Lilly Chong, a 25-year-old immigrant from Hong Kong, tugs on her white apron among barrels of dried mushrooms and shrimp at a Main Street food market. Chong worries about the neighbourhood and its people, especially older immigrants who rely on Chinatown. She doesn't follow civic politics. Being "green" ranks low on an immigrant's agenda. But as far as she can tell, Chinatown is an afterthought at city hall. "They don't care that much, that's what I think."
Maybe. But to be fair, people can change. Maybe after the November election, city politicians will listen to Chinatown. Or maybe the people of Chinatown need to get with the program. Haven't they heard? This is a world-class city. Get out of the way.