'It's like a war zone': Chinatown businesses say crisis on the ground needs urgent fix

Vancouver's Chinatown has experienced many changes since it was established more than 130 years ago. While the historic neighbourhood was in decline before COVID-19, the lack of tourists during the pandemic has posed new and urgent challenges. In the first of a three-part series, Kristen Robinson has more on the crisis on the ground.

Vancouver’s Chinatown has experienced many changes since it was established more than 130 years ago.

While the historic neighbourhood was in decline before COVID-19 hit, the lack of tourists and shoppers during the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis on the ground.

“2020 (was) extremely bad,” Chinese Benevolent Association president Fred Kwok told Global News.

“Shops are closed and there’s a massive homeless invasion in Chinatown.”

On a recent tour of the area, Kwok showed Global News a mountain of trash including needles and human waste behind the Chinese Cultural Centre, where he also serves as chair.

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“That’s been like this for a whole year,” he said.

Almost everywhere you look, alleys are awash with graffiti and storefronts tagged in the heart of the neighbourhood.

“It’s sad to see all this, and in a way, it’s heartbreaking to see people being driven away.”

A spike in anti-Asian attacks and surge of street disorder left customers scared and put merchants on edge.

“Only Chinese stores got targeted — including graffiti, vandalism, broken glass,” Kwok said.

Said KK Boutique owner Michelle Luo: “It’s sad to see Chinatown get worse and worse compared to 20 years ago.”

After more than two decades on Pender Street, Luo’s event boutique barely survived.

“It’s very scary. We don’t know what they will do, right?”

For others, the constant crime and harassment was untenable.

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According to the Chinatown Business Improvement Association, many Chinese mom-and-pop merchants who were facing succession issues and considering calling it quits prior to COVID, closed in 2020.

Right now, Kwok estimates about 60 per cent of Chinese-owned businesses are being driven out, while newer businesses are left to battle for their turf.

“It’s like a war zone,” said dentist Dr. Philip Chang.

“It’s like ‘Escape from New York’ out here, it’s crazy.”

Chang opened Crosstown Dental on Main Street near Keefer in 2015.

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Since then, surveillance cameras have captured the mayhem outside his front door, including a man who recently sprayed some sort of liquid on the window before lighting a fire and scrawling graffiti.

The door to Chang’s clinic is now locked during the day with buzzer entry only, but he said many established merchants simply stand by and endure the decay, desecration and violence.

“Chinese people are generally very polite, passive people,” said the dentist.

“Especially older Chinese people — they’re not going to have confrontations with crazy drugged-out people. They put up with it.”

Two months after moving into a Columbia Street space next to the cultural centre, Chinese medicine practitioner Doug Moore’s windows were smashed.

Still, Moore is undeterred and even trying to counter the growing social issues with compassion.

“I serve tea to people who are around here using their drugs,” the Tree of Life owner told Global News.

“But at the same time, we need to have other agencies involved so it isn’t a hazard for our patients.”

The non-stop writing on the wall is the most vicious circle, according to Kwok.

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“Probably you got a window of a few hours and then the graffiti goes back up.”

He also claimed there are no consequences for the marks of mischief that taggers leave, yet merchants have been fined for not cleaning graffiti up — even though it reappears almost as soon as it’s removed.

“The whole thing is being orchestrated to trash Chinatown as much as you can,” said a frustrated Kwok.

Added Chang: “If we’re going to call Chinatown a heritage site with Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and all that, then we should put some money into taking care of it.”

If nothing improves, Kwok said, the future is bleak.

“Probably within a year, there will be a Chinatown with no Chinese at all.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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