TWO SELECTIONS AT this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival cast their gaze upon historical neighbourhoods in Vancouver: Chinatown and Japantown. Together, they raise interesting questions for discussion about not only the past, present, and future of these areas, but also about what is becoming of our entire city as urban change and development overtake us.
Although Chinatown and Japantown were distinct from one another, they shared many parallels.
Both areas neighboured one another on the edges of the Downtown Eastside, and both were formed by ethnic groups as a result of numerous historical social factors, including language barriers and racial discrimination.
Julia Kwan‘s documentary Everything Will Be takes an intimate and sensitive look at how current changes in Chinatown are affecting citizens who live and work in the area. Meanwhile, The Vancouver Asahi, which tells the story of a legendary local baseball team of Japanese Canadians, recreates life in Japantown during the 1930s.
Reblogged from The Georgia Straight | Craig Takeuchi
Chinatown, past and present
UBC planning professor Andy Yan was one of the people Kwan chatted with while conducting research for her film. Like Kwan, Yan has ties to the neighbourhood—his family owned businesses there. His great-grandfather owned Most Modern Cleaners while his father owned the Kwong Chow Restaurant. His grandmother also raised him in the area.
For his master’s thesis, Yan took an in-depth look into Chinatown and issues about revitalizing degenerating neighbourhoods.
What’s interesting to note is that prior to Chinatown, the area was an Italian and southern European enclave. As Kwan’s documentary reveals, one Italian family-run business in that area remains, Tosi & Company (current proprietor Angelo Tosi is featured as an interviewee in the film).
This shift in ethnic dominance in various areas is one that has repeatedly occurred throughout the city’s history. Both local, national, and international economics and politics have determined not only waves of immigration from different countries but also what types of class and professionals the city has attracted. As but one example, Robson Street used to be known as Robsonstrasse, due to the growth of German immigration in the area.
Yan explained by phone that Chinatown began as a bachelor’s society, but grew as women arrived and families began to grow, particularly after the Second World War.
“The completion of the [Canadian Pacific] railway in 1886 certainly helped increase the population of Chinese Canadians to concentrate and move to cities like Vancouver and Victoria and begin in neighbourhoods like Chinatown, but also the kind of ongoing relationships to Chinese settlements throughout the province was in part connected and coordinated out of the neighbourhood.”
Both Chinatown and Japantown were also hit by the Anti-Asian Riots of 1907. The Asiatic Exclusion League, formed by local labourers concerned about their jobs being taken away by cheaper Asian labour, became upset by Asian immigration. In reaction, they marched through downtown Vancouver and continued into Chinatown and Japantown (also known as Little Tokyo) where they smashed businesses and looted stores.
The attacks did not deter the communities, however. While Japantown blossomed up until 1941, Chinatown particularly boomed in the 1960s and ’70s.