Vancouver's Chinatown in revitalization efforts to lure more visitors during Winter Olympics

09:21, December 19, 2009      

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Vancouver's Chinatown is looking to capitalize on the city's upcoming hosting of the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics with a variety of activities designed to lure in visitors.

With its location in the downtown eastside, not far from General Motors Place and BC Place, two of the key stadium venues hosting Olympic events, Chinatown, with a history dating back to the 1880s, is well placed to attract the visitors but is also looking further ahead.

In British Columbia where about 10 percent of the province's 4.1-million population is of Chinese origin, predominantly Cantonese with Mandarin speakers increasingly on the rise, business organizations representing Vancouver's Chinatown are admittedly trying to revitalize what is one of the city's oldest areas.

Their concerns are understandable as for about 20 years the majority of the new Chinese immigrants -- those who came to the Greater Vancouver area in waves starting in the late 1980s - have been more likely to frequent newer areas that have become popular Chinese enclaves. Victoria Drive in East Vancouver, for one, features numerous grocery and produce stores, while the neighboring city of Richmond, home to the city's airport, has an abundance of high-end shopping malls targeting Chinese migrants with ample free parking for the luxury cars the newcomers so prefer.

Speaking at an event to announce the winner of a "Seasonal Window Display Contest" where local college design students submitted proposals to decorate six shop windows in Chinatown for the Christmas season, Jordan Eng, vice president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association (BIA) Society, said it was vital events like this were held to bring young people and families back to the area.

While admitting times had been tough for the area in recent years, he said the BIA and other groups working to revitalize Chinatown had taken "baby steps" in their efforts to beautify the area which comprises about a nine-block area. Among the changes was a successful campaign to rename the nearby metro stop the "Chinatown-Stadium Station," bringing new lights into the area and in creating the Chinatown Festival which will celebrate its 11th year in 2010, among others.

In time for the February Olympics, Chinatown is planning phase II of its window decorating campaign to welcome the visitors, as well as an expanded Chinese New Year's parade. This year's parade attracted about 60,000 patrons but more are expected to welcome in the Year of the Tiger.

"In the last year we've seen a real turnaround," said Eng who grew up in Chinatown and leases real estate in the area. "We've had new businesses coming back into Chinatown, not only because the rents, which are cheaper than any other part of the city, but also the surrounding area population. We have got about 26,000 residents within one kilometer of Chinatown. We're still a major hub for retail and we are always getting interest."

Helping the revitalization of Chinatown has been the establishment of a pedestrian corridor along Pender Street, a thoroughfare that provides a connector with nearby Gastown, the city's oldest area along the waterfront. Pender, the main street in Chinatown, features such attractions as the Millennium Gate, the western entrance to the area, the Sam Kee Building, the narrowest commercial building in the world measuring about six feet wide, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, and an abundance of shops and restaurants.

Easily the most significant structure to re-emerge on the street in recent years is the Wing Sang Building. Owned by Bob Rennie, the city's top real estate marketer, the property, which features two structures and about 27,000 square feet of space, has been refurbished at a cost of more than 10 million Canadian dollars (about 9.3 million U.S. dollars). It now houses the realty king's extensive art collection and offices, and will be the headquarters for the World Olympian Association during the cames.

Yet for all the area's improvements, Chinatown is still faced with the uneasy situation of bordering Vancouver's "Skid Row," Canada's poorest address. The once-vibrant street is a virtual no-go area for most city residents as it is home to cheap rooming houses, beer parlors and a growing army of homeless people, many with mental illness and substance abuse problems.

With Hastings Street, the main corridor of the troubled Downtown Eastside, sandwiched between Gastown and Chinatown, Wendy Au, Vancouver's assistant city manager, said the area was quickly changing for the better and dismissed any concerns about safety.

"There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about Chinatown. There's a lot of concern about so-called safety, but actually it is very safe down here," said the Hong Kong immigrant who has lived in Vancouver for 30 years. "Now we also want to get younger people coming down (here). So therefore by having the students to design and to create the (window) displays, they have the fresh ideas. It may be something that traditionally we hadn't thought of in the past."

Au said with a new nightclub, restaurants, wine bars and other businesses opening in the area, she felt the momentum in Chinatown's revitalization was picking up.

"Different businesses are starting to come in and it's going to be quite diverse businesses. So it's not only about coming down for wonton noodles but you can have a variety of different things," she said.

"There are a lot of different businesses coming up so we are hoping that this whole Olympics as a catalyst is going to springboard a lot more other interests in Chinatown and that we'll have a bright future."

Source: Xinhua
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