When she was young, Claudia Li’s grandmother would bring her to Chinatown on her trips to buy groceries. She was amazed by the number of people her grandmother knew, calling out to passersby and shop owners by name.
Today, Li helps organize a team of young Chinese-Canadians determined to protect Chinatown’s unique and intimate community. Individually, they have led Cantonese workshops for non-Chinese, organized sporting events from street hockey to kung fu, assisted seniors with computer work and have helped determine what constitutes as Chinatown character at city planning workshops.
“[Chinatown] is a place that’s important for Canada,” said Li. “I feel there’s a common yearning among youth to learn and be proud of this neighbourhood.”
Connecting the old and the new is one of Li’s passions. She co-founded Hua Foundation, a non-profit which launched its first project last summer to create bilingual and seasonal veggie guides for Chinatown grocers, blending knowledge of traditional veggies with a modern interest in eating local.
The youth group has the same goal: reinvent the neighbourhood, while respecting its heritage, and bridge cultural and generational gaps. They hope everyone will feel welcome, not just the ethnically Chinese.
“Many people who grew up in Vancouver have fond memories of coming to Chinatown,” said Carol Lee.
Lee is chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Revitalization Committee, a group of neighbourhood leaders who tackle issues regarding the area’s future, from alerting key needs to the city to advocating Chinatown’s unique qualities to developers.
The youth group was organized by members of the revitalization committee.
VIDEO: Watch King-mon Chan of the Carnegie Community Action Project say how working in Chinatown has helped him connect more with history and language. He helped organize the call for a temporary moratorium on Chinatown development.
While some youth have been involved in Chinatown for a few years, the group only started meeting in November to share ideas, collaborate on projects and support one another. Some members work with benevolent associations, seniors, student projects at UBC, Ricepaper magazine and contemporary Asian art gallery Centre A.
Many have gotten involved out of a concern for the future of the historic neighbourhood. Chinatown was established in the late 1800s as an enclave for immigrants, mostly from southern China. It was a thriving hub for the Chinese community, but struggled after the ‘70s due to competition with satellite
“Chinatowns” elsewhere in Greater Vancouver. Three condo developments are under construction on Main Street and there are fears of gentrification and loss of the neighbourhood’s identity.
“We’re at a turning point where it can go either way,” said Lee.
It’s more than Chinatown’s identity that’s stirring youth interest today. Youth are exploring their own identity as Chinese-Canadians through their work in the neighbourhood. However, they’re not the first ones to do so.
Fred Mah, a Chinatown advocate with over half a century of volunteering in the neighbourhood, remembers the ‘60s and ‘70s when youth involvement was the strongest. Sports like badminton, basketball, table tennis and volleyball were the gateway to more interest in Chinatown.
VIDEO: Watch June Chow say why she's helping out in her late grandmother's association. Chow's grandparents brought her to massive banquets with the Hoy Ping Benevolent Association, the Vancouver community of immigrants from Hoy Ping county in China.
“With the sports and so on, you got the volunteers,” said Mah.
“Without the youth movement, activism wasn’t going to happen.”
Community-building events established the strong base of youth volunteers that was crucial to activism in the area, such as the fight against the freeway the city wanted to build through Chinatown and the city’s efforts to close barbecue shops due to strict health regulations.
Youth interest in the neighbourhood slowly declined after the ‘70s as the Chinese community grew elsewhere in Greater Vancouver. A group called Chinatown Next in the 2000s tried to modernize activities for younger crowd with outdoor movies, talent contests and even DJs and break dancing at the annual night markets, but they struggled with recruiting new leaders.
Most of the new youth group are in their 20s, but the term “youth” is used loosely to refer to anyone who has grown up in Canada.
“In Chinatown, youth means anyone under 50,” said Edmund Ma, one of the group’s organizers.
VIDEO: Watch Chanel Ly say how her parents met in Chinatown, where her father worked at a meat shop. Ly works as an SRO tenant advocate and supports Chinatown seniors with housing and health needs. She realized having amenities within walking distance is crucial to seniors.
They don’t have an official name yet, but are casually referring to themselves as “Chinatown Awesome Together.”
The youth group meets at the Hua Foundation office, which opened September in Chinatown.
The office space is above the headquarters of the Mah Benevolent Society of Vancouver. The staff hope it will serve as a clubhouse to mobilize young people and a space for community events. It’s a clubhouse for the new generation, not unlike the clubhouses of clan associations in Chinatown that have existed for decades.
“When the opportunity came up it seemed perfect,” said Megan Lau of the Hua Foundation. “We had all these memories and fond connections with Chinatown.”
Condo developments and changing demographics aside, there are many challenges within Chinatown itself that this younger generation will have to work with. One is the sheer number of associations and organizations who have managed themselves independently for decades, making planning, let alone communication, difficult.
VIDEO: Watch Kathryn Lennon perform 'This Daughter's Tongue,' her poem on learning her ancestral languages. Lennon brings ideas from Edmonton's Chinatown, where she worked with a team of diverse ages to plan events. She writes poetry and often uses it to explore Canadian diversity and her heritage as Irish-Cantonese. She also helped plan a Cantonese workshop for English speakers at Centre A last May, where she is a director.
In addition, many Chinatown groups are also not ready to welcome involvement from a younger generation. Some have done things their way for over a hundred years.
“Most of the senior people pay lip service,” said Fred Mah with his decades of volunteering. “They say they want younger people in there, but at the same time they still want to control everything.”
VIDEO: Watch Kathryn Lennon perform 'Dragons Might Have Been Here,' her poem on the Chinese building the CPR.
Mah believes stirring up youth interest in Chinatown is another challenge, something Edmund Ma has seen firsthand.
Like Fred did in his day, Edmund helps out everywhere he can: the night market, kung fu lessons, joining groups like the heritage buildings association and his family’s benevolent society.
It can be tiring work, which is why numbers and having key, dedicated individuals are important.
“There’s so much stuff to be done with so few people,” said Edmund. “Chinatown just needs people… Everyone minds their own business now. It used to be a community. A real community does exist here but it exists behind closed doors.”
It’s not easy making those intergenerational connections, especially when language is a challenge for some, but today’s group of youth are determined to maintain a spirit of collaboration.
Fred commends the younger generation for being patient with the process. He said, “If you work alongside [the other associations] and accept some of their ideas, then they will gradually accept you.”
“We’re progressive and forward thinking,” said Edmund, “but we also respect tradition and how things used to be.”