On Saturday March 19, folks gathered at Sun Wah Centre on Keefer Street for a public conversation about how seniors in Chinatown are affected by the changes in the neighbourhood.
There was a clear effort on behalf of the organizers to create an environment where seniors felt comfortable sharing their stories and where listeners felt welcomed and included. The event had live English-Cantonese-Mandarin translations, as well as translation to American Sign Language. As cultural sensitivity was an underlying theme of the day, the event began with an acknowledgement that we were on unceded Coast Salish Territories. Audrey Siegl, who has Musqueam heritage, performed a traditional welcome song.
The event was moderated by Chanel Ly, a Chinese Seniors Outreach Worker who works with Chinese Seniors of the Downtown Eastside. Chanel explained that we need this event because the voices of Chinese seniors are often not heard; they are overlooked when it comes to planning processes even though they are the lifeline of the community. Four seniors, the majority of whom were from the Chinatown Concern Group, lent their voices to the conversation.
These previously untold stories were eye-opening. Some tales were charming and were rooted in the nostalgia of traditional Chinatown, while other stories were heart-breaking and conveyed feelings of hopelessness.
One woman remembered when she was new to Vancouver and befriended someone on a bus by speaking Mandarin. This led to a job opportunity, which she was able to seize and gain employment from. She said she loves Chinatown, it’s hard to go anywhere else because of language barriers.
Another woman recalls getting lost with her husband after going for a walk after dinner. Unable to find their downtown apartment, she approached a couple and repeated her address over and over to them. Although her English wasn’t strong, the strangers understood and kindly escorted them home.
Feelings of belongingness and community are threatened as the landscape of Chinatown changes. With new developments and new residents moving in, the seniors feel the cultural and economic impacts. As property value and property tax in Chinatown continues to increase, the existing Chinese businesses will not be able to afford to stay open in the neighbourhood. When a traditional herbal store goes out of business, it’s replaced by a trendy, hip café. The newer restaurants and coffee shops are uninviting to Chinese seniors, especially if one doesn’t speak English. To exemplify the drastic changes in Chinatown, one senior states that there used to be 26 BBQ pork stores in Chinatown and now there are only 4.
For many Chinese seniors, Chinatown is a place where they can buy groceries, go to the pharmacy, receive medical care, or visit an herbal store without the discomfort of language barriers. Chinatown not only offers resources that are accessible and conveniently located, but it provides Chinese seniors with a sense of belonging. It needs to remain a safe place for them to be able to practice their culture and language.
Some seniors expressed that the housing available for Chinese seniors are unsafe. Chinatown has the reputation of being an unsafe place where panhandlers coalesce. They shared tales of seniors who had been on the receiving end of vandalism, breaking and entering, and physical assault.
Considering the history of Chinatown, these seniors need to feel safe and respected. One man said, “There was Chinatown before Vancouver.” He was referring to how Chinese workers were brought in to build the railway in 1881, which was before the establishment of Vancouver in 1886.
From their perspective, the new buildings resemble cold, square, cement boxes that aren’t welcoming and accessible to seniors. Chinese seniors are often impacted the most by the development that happens in the neighbourhood, so the city should cater to their needs. One senior suggested that they should be consulted when it comes to community planning.
After the conversation, the audience was encouraged to write comments on a paper mural. One attendee wrote, “It was nice to feel connected to a group of people I feel disconnected from (usually) even though we live in the same neighbourhood.” This demonstrates that there is interest within the community to hear from seniors in Chinatown. Hopefully, events like this will continue to spread awareness about the issues that affect Chinese seniors, and will promote unity and connection between groups within Chinatown.