Canada’s largest Chinatown, among the largest in North America, is in the City of Vancouver, British Columbia, in the blocks around Main, Pender, and Keefer Streets with the Gastown and Downtown districts to the west, Downtown Eastside to the north, the residential district of Strathcona to the east, and False Creek to the south. Chinatown remains a popular tourist attraction despite the growth of the newer Chinese immigrant business district in the suburb of Richmond south of Vancouver on Lulu Island in the Fraser River. Many affluent Hong Kong and Taiwan immigrants in Richmond have developed successful Chinese businesses in the area now named Golden Village by the City of Richmond, which once proposed the name “Chinatown” only to encounter strong resistance from the original Chinatown in Vancouver and from non-Chinese Richmond residents and merchants.
The Greater Vancouver Regional District received large numbers of Asian immigrants during the late 20th Century, primarily Chinese, whose population reached 300,000 by the mid-’90s. More immigrants settled in Richmond than in Vancouver Chinatown for its lower costs of living and closer distance to the Vancouver International Airport. The development of suburban Asian shopping districts with plenty of parking space like Richmond’s Aberdeen Centre, visibly impaired the business heart of historic Chinatown.
Chinatown businesses today consist mostly of working-class retailers, small groceries, tea shops, and souvenir stores. Some restaurants stand out, but there are no longer so many, and their declining numbers brought less foot traffic and nighttime activity than in former times. The 10-percent Chinatown vacancy rate shows the need for a fresh approach to development to replace businesses that have moved to suburban locations, retired, or simply closed. Redevelopment opportunities are clearly present. Chinatown lease rates from $15–30/square foot are the cheapest in the city, much lower than those in Vancouver’s Downtown shopping district.
The Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Area
In the 1990s, the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association searched for an effective vehicle for projects to revitalize the area. Gastown and Downtown Vancouver had formed business improvement areas (BIAs) with evident success. With the consent and support of merchants and property owners, the association planned to establish a Chinatown BIA.
After several attempts, the association succeeded in winning the community support necessary establish a Chinatown BIA. The Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Area (VCBIA) incorporated in 2000 on a model of BIAs successful in other areas of the city to improve Chinatown’s cleanliness and safety, expand and promote its events, and work with media and external partners to make Chinatown popular and prosperous again. A voluntary board of property owners and tenants manages the VCBIA. The city assists with annual funding through a special property tax like a local improvement levy. Each property’s contribution to the annual BIA budget is according to its proportionate share of the total BIA taxable value.
A new Chinatown business plan now encourages entrepreneurs to move in to rehabilitate storefronts, attract a young crowd, and make visitors more comfortable. Attracted by low rents and heritage buildings, new businesses have moved in with owners in apartments above the shops. Chinatown’s priority now is to attract people of all backgrounds in the belief that non-traditional stores will bring a new flow of energy and income. Commercial activity is increasingly diverse with vintage stores, two art galleries, bars, and now a nightclub at the location of the former Ming’s restaurant, an attempt to bring back some of the nightlife atmosphere of the 1950s and ’60s. The diversity of new shops and businesses has created a new Chinatown image of vibrancy to compete with suburban districts and complement nearby Gastown and Downtown Vancouver.