When I was young, I spent a lot of time in Chinatown. It was the only place where my immigrant parents could find Chinese grocers. I also attended school there.
I still remember buying groceries with my mom in Chinatown. I remember the smell of the fish markets and the sounds of streets and shops filled with people speaking different Chinese dialects.
In recent years, however, many long-standing businesses have shuttered their doors. Concerns about safety and cleanliness within Chinatown have increased, especially around graffiti and human waste sometimes being found outside businesses and in public spaces.
Of course, a big reason for this is the pandemic. With fewer people visiting Chinatown, there have been fewer customers, fewer eyes and less activity on the street.
Another key factor, which has been a long-standing problem, is the insufficient affordable housing options and support services in Vancouver for people facing substance use, mental health, or food security challenges. Those that are available are heavily concentrated in the Downtown Eastside, right next door to Chinatown, instead of being distributed across the city.
There are tangible actions to make Chinatown safer and more comfortable for residents, businesses, and visitors. Having worked in the city as an urban planner, I know these actions are complex, often involve significant funding and need multiple partners to work together. However, through conversations I’ve had with merchants and organizations in Chinatown, it’s clear these actions are urgently needed to make Chinatown vibrant again.
Here are five tangible actions to improve community safety in Chinatown:
1.) More free, 24-hour public washrooms
It’s a basic human right, but finding one is difficult. Without this amenity, people use what they can find, like a bush or behind a garbage bin. This is a horrible and undignified situation, it creates cleanliness issues, and can be a major health risk.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The success of washroom trailers that were opened in the downtown south and Downtown Eastside neighbourhoods during the pandemic shows safe and well-maintained public washrooms can make a big difference. Not only do they allow people to relieve themselves with dignity, but these washroom trailers also offer overdose prevention and other support. Free public washrooms do require significant financial commitment to install and maintain, though, so it’s essential to find a way to sustain them for the long run.
2.) Adequate street lighting
While most streets have lighting for people driving, there’s often not enough sidewalk-level lighting, which is important for creating a sense of security and comfort at night. Alleyways are often even darker and as a result, can be scarier places to be.
3.) More festivals and other outdoor public events
Events such as the Chinatown Festival, Light Up Chinatown and Fire Dragon Festival have drawn people from all over the region to come and experience Chinatown. With more people around, it feels safer, spaces are often cleaner, and there’s less likelihood of graffiti. They also enable people from all cultures to come together and feel welcomed in Chinatown.
Many local organizations, such as the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, Chinatown Business Improvement Association, Youth Collaborative for Chinatown, and Chinatown Foundation, are trying to make these types of events happen again, and they require enough funding and streamlined permitting processes.
4.) Support legacy businesses to reimagine themselves
Some of the Chinatown merchants I’ve spoken to such as William Liu, co-owner of Kam Wai Dim Sum, and Tracy To, co-owner of Forum Home Appliances, have successfully modernized their long-time family-owned businesses to meet the needs of a larger customer base. Liu has also been gradually adding more features in their store to further education about dim sum and its significance in Chinese culture. It’s this type of innovation that needs to be supported and fostered and can make Chinatown a place where you can find Chinese goods and learn about the rich history of Chinatown and its people.
5.) More collaboration between organizations in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside
There’s a lot of great work being done in both areas, but organizations are often so stretched that coordination is challenging.
There’s also an opportunity for more lines of communication between the Chinese, Indigenous, and Black communities in this area. Historically, these communities have had positive, supportive relationships. Digging into areas of common concerns and interests could be a way to strengthen these relationships and move forward on shared priorities.
In the years to come, I hope to continue bringing my kids to Chinatown and the surrounding neighbourhoods to experience all of their deep and colourful histories. I hope they feel safe in these neighbourhoods, feel connected to them, and come to understand the true cultural significance and resilience of the people and places in these areas.
Iona Bonamis an urban planner and a Vancouver City Council candidate with OneCity.