Revitalizing Vancouver’s Chinatown: A Cultural, Retail, and Dining Destination

Chinatown Gate. Entrance to Chinatown on Pender St; Photo: Destination Vancouver/Nelson Mouellic

Dating back to 1886, Vancouver’s Chinatown has a rich history and continues to be an extremely important neighbourhood within the city. In the last few years, Chinatown has taken on even more life with the opening of new restaurants, shops, and cultural institutions.

Jordan Eng, President of the Vancouver Chinatown BIA Society, has a long connection to the area. His parents launched Success Realty and Insurance in 1960, and he joined the business in 1989. Meanwhile, Carol Lee, Chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, has been instrumental in revitalizing the neighbourhood. Her grandfather ran a dry goods and furnishing store in Chinatown so she also has strong familial ties to the area.

Eng feels that Chinatown is truly special for a number of reasons, the first being its connection to Chinese Canadian history. He says, “It’s one of the original founding neighbourhoods in the city that remains fairly intact. It’s important to the history of the Chinese community not only in Vancouver, but also throughout the country.”

Lee echoes Eng’s sentiments: “Chinatown is one of Vancouver’s oldest and most culturally-significant neighbourhoods. It is deeply tied to Vancouver’s birth, identity and legacy. The neighbourhood is home to many stories of success, struggles, and community, and as it has done since its founding, it continues to foster a vibrant and diverse community.”

Chinatown Gate. Entrance to Chinatown on Pender St; Photo: Destination Vancouver/Nelson Mouellic

While other areas of Metro Vancouver, such as Richmond, have become prominent for Chinese commercial activity, Eng emphasizes that Chinatown remains “the heart and soul of the Chinese community.” Especially in its early years, it was a gathering place for those working on the railway as well as in the province’s many resource industries. And over its years, the neighbourhood has seen considerable evolution. Lee says, “Chinatown may be small, but these blocks are rich in culture and stories. It is rare to find a neighbourhood in Vancouver that immediately connects you to the past, and Chinatown does just that.”

While Chinatown—like many Chinatown across North America—has seen some decline, the Vancouver Chinatown BIA Society and the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, in addition to numerous other organizations (e.g., Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, and the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver) and various levels of government, are working together to bring renewed life to Chinatown. For example, “The BIA’s mandate is to promote the economic vitality and development of the neighbourhood. There are 22 of them in the city. Ours is unique because it’s culturally distinct,” Eng explains.

Lee explains the Foundation’s mandate: “The Vancouver Chinatown Foundation is committed to supporting the physical, economic, and cultural revitalization of the neighbourhood. We’re working to bring together leaders from all levels of government, industry stakeholders, and the Chinatown community to work together to support the revitalization of the neighbourhood.” Initiatives that Lee is particularly proud of include their Economic Revitalization Program, which helps businesses apply for government relief funding, and a social housing project at 58 West Hastings Street, with first residents arriving in Spring 2024.

Photo: Destination Vancouver/Nelson Mouellic

Eng says that Chinatown suffered considerably during the early stages of the pandemic but is getting back on its feet. And while Lee recognizes the difficulties Chinatown has faced over the last few years, she is optimistic about its future. “We’re seeing a lot of positive momentum in our effort to support revitalization in the area, and we’re starting to reach a turning point,” she says. She points to “critical infrastructure upgrades to some of the neighbourhood’s landmarks” as evidence of change happening.

An exciting development was the opening of the Chinese Canadian Museum. Its launch occurred on July 1, 2023, which was the 100-year anniversary of the Chinese Immigration Act (known as the Chinese Exclusion Act), which banned virtually all Chinese immigrants from Canada. “The Museum is a really grassroots history of the Chinese community,” Eng says.

Another important cultural location is the Chinatown Storytelling Centre, a project of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation. The Centre involves a permanent display of artifacts, photos, and recordings, spanning the 1880s to today and capturing Chinatown’s many eras. “Since it opened its doors in 2021, the Storytelling Centre has become an important educational and cultural landmark in the neighbourhood, where visitors can learn more about the stories of Chinatown and the people who have lived here over the last 150 years,” explains Lee. The Centre holds intimate events (e.g., LiterAsian Festival) where authors, artists, and performers showcase their creativity and talent for guests.

Chinatown Storytelling Centre; Photo: John Sinal Photography

Both Eng and Lee recommend a visit to Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, which was the first Ming Dynasty-style garden of its kind to be constructed outside of China. Lee says, “It’s one of the neighbourhood’s most precious hidden gems, and it’s a beautiful place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.” Eng loves the events that the Garden hosts, such as an Enchanted Evenings Concert Series, which are bringing new energy to the area.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden; Photo: Destination BC/Grant Harder

Chinatown has also become a significant and critically-acclaimed hub for diverse food and dining. It is well known for its grocers, butchers (e.g., Dollar Meat Store), and bakeries (e.g., New Town Bakery and Restaurant and Boss Bakery). There are approximately 60 restaurants found along the 6 key blocks of Chinatown as well as many more on its outskirts. These establishments include more traditional Chinese restaurants/food shops (e.g., Floata Seafood Restaurant, Kam Wai Dim Sum, and Jade Dynasty Restaurant) as well as more contemporary establishments, such as Juke Fried Chicken, Torafuku, DD Mau, and Harvest Community Foods. Eng draws attention to Chinatown’s impressive representation in Vancouver’s Michelin Guide. Two of its restaurants (Kissa Tanto and Barbara) have a Michelin star, while many others are recommended: Bar Gobo, Bao Bei, Fiorino (Bib Gourmand), and Phnom Penh (Bib Gourmand).

Torafuku; Photo: Leila Kwok

In addition to cafes, Chinatown also has many top-notch bars, as evidenced by their superior placing in the 2023 Canada’s 50 Best Bars. The Keefer Bar, with its apothecary-themed cocktails, placed #8 while Laowai garnered #10 for its inventive, historically-rooted drinks. Other lively spots include The Irish Heather and The London Pub. “The nightlife has come back,” Eng says. Popular is Fortune Sound Club, which hosts themed nights as well as concerts. “It’s one of the top night clubs, and it’s distinct from ones downtown. Chinatown has that small neighbourhood vibe to it,” he says.

Photo: The Keefer Bar

Chinatown has a thriving retail landscape, with a wide range of retailers, including gift shops, jewelers, clothing stores (e.g., Private & Co., K K Boutique for cheongsams), bookstores (e.g., Massy Books), a knife shop (Ai & Om), and an appliance store (Forum Home Appliances). A huge draw are the herbal shops, with their impressive array of products that are fun for browsing and purchasing. “You find things here you don’t find in other parts of the city,” Eng says. Other service businesses such as exercise studios (e.g., F45 Training), yoga studios (VanFitClub), and physiotherapists (e.g., Myodetox) have set up shop in the neighbourhood.

Chinatown’s many organizations hold numerous events throughout the year to celebrate the neighbourhood and attract people from across the city. The annual Chinatown Festival, organized by the BIA, is held in July over two days and features live performances, kids’ activities, food trucks, an artisan market, a walking tour, and much more.

Meanwhile, the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation hosts Light Up Chinatown!, taking place September 9-10, 2023 on the 500 block of Columbia Street.  It welcomes everyone to Chinatown with lights and lanterns, food trucks, live entertainment, and numerous lively activities. Food collaborations occur (e.g., Chinatown BBQ and Beaucoup Bakery), and many restaurants have special promotions. “It’s a great opportunity for people to explore everything Chinatown has to offer,” says Lee.

Light Up Chinatown! 2021

While Eng foresees Chinatown continuing to evolve and expand with new establishments, he emphasizes that its cultural heart remains. He mentions the Chinese seniors who regularly visit the societies and associations. “They are the intangible assets. It’s their presence that gives Chinatown its uniqueness,” he says.

Lee highlights the crucial nature of collaboration for Chinatown revitalization. This year, Vancouver hosted the first US-Canada Chinatown Solidarity Conference, with representatives from 18 North American Chinatowns in attendance, sharing stories of their revitalization work. “This initiative opened the door for collaboration on an international scale and brought the issue of preserving and revitalizing Chinatowns to the forefront of the conversation,” Lee says.

Chinatown is therefore a place of past, present, and future. Lee emphasizes that everyone has a role to play in keeping Chinatown vibrant. “Vancouver’s Chinatown is an incredibly important and culturally significant part of this city, and it’s critical that we come together to continue to support the community and drive revitalization efforts, she says.

Both Eng and Lee encourage honouring Chinatown’s heritage while also experiencing all the new things Chinatown has to offer. “We want people to come and make their own memories in the neighbourhood,” Eng says, continuing, “There’s always something for people, whatever their interest is.”

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