Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Chinatown's Changing Face

The happening scene at The Keefer Bar in Vancouver's Chinatown
After dinner at The Farmer's Apprentice, my friend took me around to see neighbourhoods in Vancouver that have changed.

She drove us down to Chinatown, and the landscape there has changed considerably. The area was very vibrant when I remembered it in the 1970s and 80s. But next door the Downtown Eastside became known as the poorest postal code in Canada with a number of homeless people, prostitutes and drug addicts who inhabited the area and spilled into Chinatown.

This also coincided with other Chinatowns sprouting up in Richmond and then Coquitlam, so Chinese families didn't have to go all the way downtown to get Chinese groceries and cheaper fruits and cuts of meat.

Cool Chinese furniture sold here
As a result, some businesses folded and meanwhile the homeless, drug addicts and prostitutes would wander the streets of Chinatown, which made it a tricky problem for the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Area Society.

No matter how much security the group would hire or contact police, the issue would not go away -- until business owners were open to the idea of inviting non-Chinese and non-traditional Chinese entrepreneurs into the area to set up shop.

This happened when I was in Vancouver in the early 2000s, with Wild Rice, a fusion-style restaurant opened on Pender Street next to the Lotus Hotel. The hip dining establishment was known for creating items like lychee martinis and western takes on potstickers and char siu bao.

One shop called Peking Lounge was opened by a pair of Caucasian men who liked going to China, where they bought antique furniture and knick nacks and sold them in Vancouver.

And then another big milestone happened when real estate marketing guru Bob Rennie bought the Wing Sang Building, the oldest building in Chinatown in 2004. Rennie kept the facade of the building that dates back to 1889 and renovated the inside which had been left neglected for decades.

It is now an office and gallery where visitors can come for free tours by appointment to look at the historical building that was both a home and storefront for businessman Yip Sang. He also had 23 children with four wives...

The rejuvenated Wing Sang Building
But back to 2014 -- many of the old shops have been changed into cool bars and restaurants. One that used to be a corner grocery store has been transformed into Oyster Express, serving freshly shucked bivalves with drinks, The Keefer Bar offers slick cocktails. Upstairs used to have suites for rent and had a luminous swimming pool on the top floor, but now are under private ownership.

There's also Caffe Brixton, a neighbourhood eatery and on the edge of Chinatown is Pizzeria Farina, a small pizza place my friend raves about.

When we visited on a Monday, most of the places were closed, but it was still heartening to see the momentum of breathing new life into Chinatown. The place isn't like I remembered, but has definitely become the hip place to be in Vancouver.


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