Jenny in the House: We must work to preserve Vancouver's Historic Chinatown

On October 6, 2017, Jenny rose to speak about Chinatown:

Jenny Kwan (NDP) Vancouver East, BC

"Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House to speak to an important private member's bill brought forward by the hon. member for Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes.

Bill C-315 is an act to amend the Parks Canada Agency Act. Its enactment would permit national historic sites operated by Parks Canada to maintain a separate account for donations that would earn interest, which could be used for the restoration and preservation of those sites. Currently, designation as a national historic site by itself does not bring in any monetary funds for the upkeep of the site. Therefore, I am pleased to support the hon. member's motion to introduce one more way for national historic sites to generate revenue to support their upkeep.

However, our effort should not stop there. We need the federal government to partner with all levels of government and the community to make infrastructure and program investments to help protect and preserve these national historic sites. There is no question that national historic sites are places of profound importance to Canada. They bear witness to this nation's history and showcase its diverse cultural traditions.

Canada is a nation of diverse indigenous peoples and cultures, as well as immigrant communities who have come from all over the world. Each community brings with it its own unique heritage and contributes to the social fabric of Canada in different ways. Entwined in our history is also a history of discrimination faced by many communities in Canada. This discrimination is still very much alive today, evident in the rising number of hate crimes reported. Remembering and honouring the contributions of our diverse communities is one of the most powerful ways we can combat the arguments put forth by those who want to claim Canada for only a portion of the country's population.

In my riding of Vancouver East, there is a national historic site that is a perfect example of the way these sites remind us of both the richness and challenges embedded in Canadian history. Here I refer to Vancouver's historic Chinatown. Vancouver's Chinatown developed as a self-segregated enclave due to discriminatory laws forbidding people of Chinese heritage from living and working elsewhere in the city, as well as the racially motivated violence and hostility experienced by the community outside the enclave.

The distinctive and beautiful buildings in the community, constructed by benevolent associations to help fellow community members, are living monuments to both the struggle and resilience of the community. Many of the historic buildings continue to serve the community today as gathering places, activity spaces, and homes for Chinese Canadian seniors.

In the heart of the community, the Chinatown Memorial Monument stands to honour the Chinese railway workers who helped complete the most treacherous sections of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the World War II veterans who served to keep our country safe. This monument depicts the history of Chinese Canadians in Canada and has profound meaning to our community.

Surrounding it is the Chinese Cultural Centre, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden, and the Andy Livingstone Park, all of which are important cultural sites and spaces for the Chinatown community. Historic Chinatown received designation as a national historic site in 2011, and in May 2017 community members and activists celebrated the unveiling of a series of plaques that mark the designation.

However, despite its status as a national historic site, Vancouver's Chinatown is number three on the Heritage Vancouver Society's top 10 watch list of endangered sites in Vancouver and the top 10 endangered places list of the National Trust for Canada. In fact, ongoing immense development pressure is having a direct impact on Chinatown.

The National Trust of Canada has stated:

Relentless development threatens the physical fabric of this nationally significant urban cultural landscape. Design guidelines meant to maintain a “Chinatown look” are often overlooked and building heights have been dramatically increased. At the same time, intense speculation is driving up rents and displacing long-time residents, many of them seniors, who are central to the area’s rich cultural identity. Without better control on new development and efforts to sustain local businesses, Chinatown’s unique character will be lost.

According to research done by the Chinatown Concern Group, since 2008, Chinatown has seen almost 800 market housing units built and approved, while only 22 non-market housing units were built in the same period.

Many people are worried that Chinatown may lose the rich cultural essence that makes the neighbourhood unique, and the future of Chinatown remains uncertain. As we celebrate Canada's 150, our community is calling on the federal government to not forget that B.C. was able to join Confederation through the labour and sacrifices made by the Chinese railway workers who helped complete the most treacherous sections of the railway. We are also asking the federal government to remember that 2017 is the 70th anniversary of Chinese Canadians winning the right to vote.

Our community would like to see all levels of government work together to recognize the cultural importance of historic Chinatown and to honour the contributions of Chinese Canadians to our nation by protecting the community that was built out of that history.

The government of B.C., a willing partner through its efforts to reconcile historical wrongs and discriminatory laws faced by Chinese Canadians, has created a legacy fund. One of the legacy initiatives is to examine ways to rejuvenate the Chinese society and clan buildings. Clan and society associations were founded in the spirit of kinship. Historically, they served to address the social, political, and financial needs of Chinese Canadians in communities across the country. These buildings would be renovated to better serve the needs of today's community by creating usable community cultural spaces, space for food programming, and affordable housing.

To date, a clan association needs assessment has already been conducted, and a Chinatown senior housing feasibility study has also been completed. The City of Vancouver has committed to restoring clan associations through its Chinese society legacy program. What we need now is a partnership with the federal government so that together we can ensure the success of this meaningful legacy initiative.

When we designate historic Chinatown as a national heritage site, action needs to be taken. Both infrastructure and programming dollars are needed. For our community, historic Chinatown is experienced through both its physical structures and its ambience. When our community thinks about protecting the heritage of Vancouver's Chinatown, we are not just looking for the installation of plaques. We are also envisioning a Chinatown vibrant with aromatic food stalls, similar to the food streets in Hong Kong and China. We are imagining a hub of intergenerational activities, where elders share stories of the past, teach the youth various traditions and the secret of how to make homemade Chinese delicacies in celebration of different cultural festivals, or play mah-jong together.

We are thinking about a community with a capacity to learn from and care for its elders, as many of the residents of Chinatown are seniors now and are living in substandard housing. Some of those seniors are people who still recall the discriminatory practices of the past. We therefore feel very strongly that there must be a commitment to invest in affordable housing and services for seniors and families in and surrounding the Chinatown area.

Our community is never short on ideas, passion, and effort. Some of the dedicated members of our community even envision Vancouver's Chinatown designated a UNESCO world heritage site, and they have been working hard to try to realize this dream. However, all of this important work cannot be done by the volunteer efforts of individuals alone. All three levels of government must step in to honour the commitment we make when we designate a community as a site that is historically significant to Canada.

Because it is a major historical site and tourist attraction, it is vital that we do everything we can to help revitalize Chinatown in a way that preserves, protects, and reinvigorates the integrity of this historic neighbourhood. I call on the federal government to join all of us in this vision."

 

https://openparliament.ca/debates/2017/10/6/jenny-kwan-2/

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