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From resignation to resistance in Chinatown

An interview with King-mong Chan on mobilizing Vancouver’s low-income Chinese community against gentrification

by Tyson Leonard

"All communities need to be engaged and fully supporting their own capacity and their own right to fight," says King-mong Chan, a Chinese Community Organizer. Photo by Tyson Leonard
"All communities need to be engaged and fully supporting their own capacity and their own right to fight," says King-mong Chan, a Chinese Community Organizer. Photo by Tyson Leonard

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This is the fourth and last in a series of conversations with Vancouver-based anti-gentrification activists. These conversations will culminate in an article with an in-depth look into the tactics being proposed to resist and ultimately stop gentrification in Vancouver.

In the first interview, I spoke with Karen Ward about the unique community of the Downtown Eastside (DTES). In the second interview, I spoke with Richard Marquez on the pressing need for diversity within Vancouver’s anti-gentrification movement. In the third interview, I spoke with Harold Lavender on organizing structures to resist gentrification.

King-mong Chan is the Chinese Community Organizer for Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) based in the Downtown Eastside. He has a bachelor’s degree in social work.


How is gentrification currently affecting the Chinese community in Vancouver?

I think gentrification is more of a class issue that transcends ethnicities, but there are important intersections within it that affect different marginalized communities. The Chinese community’s stories of gentrification are not as well known, primarily because of language barriers.

The biggest issue that is specific to Chinatown, which people associate with the Chinese community, is the Chinatown heights review. The review was brought in a few years ago and allowed for taller buildings, which led to what we see now, which is a whole slew of condos. But I think gentrification occurs, is occurring, and has occurred for quite some time already.

A very big landmark was Woodward’s. After Woodward’s, what we see is that the “social mix” model of housing ends up losing more social housing units than we gain—and with more and more market condos, there is an ensuing change in retail spaces. That, then, obviously changes the environment of that area.

In your work as an organizer working with residents of Chinatown, what is the general understanding of gentrification in that community?  What are the worries surrounding that?

Most of the people I’ve spoken to don’t have a solid understanding of gentrification. Some people I talk to have an understanding that, generally, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. 

Something that highlights the lack of focus on gentrification in the Chinese community is that I still have yet to find a term in a Chinese dialect for gentrification that people seem to identify with. There isn’t a set word. I just use one that the newspaper used, but I don’t know how widespread peoples’ understanding of it as a term is. So the idea of “gentrification” is not very established.

The Chinese community knows the condos are here, but some of them think there is social housing in them too. They just don’t have the information about what is going on. So that lack of information is a huge barrier to them understanding what’s going on in the community. I think they see that rent is increasing, but there is still a huge gap in their understanding of what exactly they are facing in terms of the effect on housing.

What tactics have successfully overcome barriers to organizing in Vancouver’s Chinese community?

Language is one of the main barriers for people. To overcome it, you need more community organizers who are willing to be engaged and help the Chinese residents, particularly with information. That’s not just exclusive to people who can speak a Chinese dialect, because others can gather information and utilize those who can translate. Engaging the residents is one thing I’m trying to do—getting the right information to them so they can actually make the connections themselves.

In terms of resistance, I haven’t had too much experience. Right now, I think it’s important to get people engaged in these issues and have a place for them to talk. Language acts as a barrier in the way that we don’t know what a lot of the non-English-speaking Chinese community is thinking. We don’t know what their understanding of gentrification is, their views of community are, how they see the community changing, and how they are responding to it.

The Chinese community is very diverse. There are people that have been here for a long time, but also people from the different waves of immigration. Some come from mainland China and some from Hong Kong. So the community as a whole has a huge variety of experiences. That diversity limits any generalization of “the Chinese community.”

Within the larger community, though, I sense there is almost a cultural barrier, in that many Chinese residents are more accepting of gentrification. It’s something we need to acknowledge—this resignation in the face of gentrification. But I think as we continue to mobilize and to organize within the Chinese community, it will give them the confidence that they can actually fight back against gentrification.

I think that’s where the strength lies in terms of a main tactic. It’s inspiring hope among the residents so that they can come together and effect change. If everyone is scattered with no hope, then the battle is almost lost.

Is there anything you would like to add?

There is a lot to still be learned. The sense I get from being in this kind of role for just over a year is that the wider low-income community has a lot of history in terms of organizing around the issues of gentrification. The Chinese community hasn’t been mobilized to that same extent. We are starting to, but it will take some time to see the same kind of strength as the wider community.

Hopefully, when we build that organization, we will have additional strength to put towards these issues. It adds a different voice—and I think it can be such a powerful voice for the anti-gentrification battle, if the low-income Chinese community mobilizes and becomes vocal and more visible.

This goes for not just the Chinese community, but for any other ethnic minority communities. All communities need to be engaged and fully supporting their own capacity and their own right to fight.


Tyson Leonard is a journalism student interested in adversarial journalism, and is currently interning with the Vancouver Media Co-op.

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