Saving Chinatown raises big questions

Updated: 2016-03-17 05:32

By HATTY LIU in Vancouver(China Daily Canada)

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Saving Chinatown raises big questions

"The world's narrowest broom closet", the historic and newly renovated Jack Chow Insurance building in Vancouver's Chinatown, is scheduled to re-open to the public soon. JACK CHOW / FOR CHINA DAILY

From a controversy in January over a 12-storey condo development to the remodelling of the world's narrowest building, the preservation of Vancouver Chinatown's heritage in a growing city is posing big questions for the neighbourhood's leaders and residents.

Recent meetings of the Vancouver Chinatown Revitalization Committee were attended by city councillor Raymond Louie and representatives of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation. Issues discussed included restricting building heights in Chinatown and the impact of on-going repairs on Pender Street water mains on businesses, bus routes and foot traffic.

A condo development at the corner of East Hastings and Gore Street, approved by the city on Jan 25, also frustrated heritage activists as it replaces a section of one-storey shops — including an affordable "mom-and-pop" barbershop and butcher — and will stand out in a neighbourhood of low-rise buildings.

According to Judy Lam Maxwell, a Chinatown historian and member of the revitalization committee, the two major concerns over Chinatown's development are regulating the height of new buildings and attracting businesses that will not compromise the character of the neighbourhood.

"Chinatown is a national historic site and provincial historic site, but it's not a heritage site for the city of Vancouver, except for some heritage buildings," Maxwell said. "There are currently no height-restrictions on new buildings in Chinatown, and slowly [older] buildings have been knocked down or left to deteriorate."

In addition to the disappearing buildings and businesses, the aging population and lack of youth or families in the neighbourhood are also of concern, as Chinatown is no longer the hub of services for the area's Chinese community.

Maxwell said the neighbourhood is not opposed to development, even when it brings in non-Chinese businesses.

"A lot of new, great non-Chinese businesses and restaurants are opening with mostly non-Chinese clientele [that] bring a young energy to the neighbourhood," she said. "[Chinatown] building owners want people that can pay rent, and the revitalization committee has some standards, such as new non-Chinese businesses have to have some Chinese signage, and everyone has complied so far."

"The concern is only when new businesses or residential buildings end up pushing out local seniors and other residents or business-owners, or mostly don't provide services they would use," Maxwell explained.

Another recent development in Chinatown has been the remodelling of the Jack Chow Insurance building at 8 West Pender Street. Built in 1913 and just 1.5-1.8 meters deep from storefront to back, it is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's shallowest commercial building.

In honour of the building's 100th anniversary, the Chow family, which has owned the building since 1985, restored the glass sidewalk outside the building, built a glass frontage and glass staircase, and installed programmable energy-efficient LED lights and a sound system.

According to Rod Chow, president of Jack Chow Insurance, the renovation not only adds modernized upgrades but restores the building's historic façade and incorporates features keeping with the building's history and reputation as being "the world's narrowest toaster, the world's narrowest coat closet, and the world's narrowest broom closet".

"We also brought back a historic use of the building by installing new window wickets, so customers can walk up and be served out the window like in the old days," Chow said. "Like any historic area, Chinatown's development has to balance respecting history and the neighbourhood's need to grow."

The building will host a grand reopening to the public with tours later this year.