Class Struggle in Chinatown: Ethnic Tourism, Planned Gentrification, and Organizing for Tenant Power

Solheim Place tenants protest and chant in English, Cantonese, Mandarin, French and Spanish: “What do we want? Elevator! When do we want it? Now!” (Nat Lowe) Solheim Place tenants protest and chant in English, Cantonese, Mandarin, French and Spanish: “What do we want? Elevator! When do we want it? Now!” (Nat Lowe)

In this article, labour and community organizer Nat Lowe gives an update on the current situation in Vancouver’s Chinatown and discusses how city planners and Chinese Canadian elites are pursuing a local strategy of “ethnic tourism” gentrification. Lowe also draws lessons from the recent tenant organizing victory at Solheim Place, arguing that now is the time to organize as tenants and workers and seize the emerging moment.

Gentrification in Chinatown Today

Gentrification is alive and well in Chinatown today. Working-class residents are facing displacement through rising rents and increased costs of living, leading to less affordable places to shop and eat. Condo development continues to grow at a rapid pace as Chinatown is set to gain 170 new market condo units while losing 3 social housing units.1 Adjacent to the neighbourhood, thousands of luxury condo units will be built in North East False Creek and a new state-of-the-art St. Paul’s Hospital will be coming online soon, ramping up gentrification pressure from the South and the West. Gentrification is not unique to Vancouver Chinatown. Just this May, Chinatowns across Canada and the US banded together for a week of action to highlight the crisis of gentrification and displacement through marches, rallies, public art actions, gentrification tours, and petitions.2 

On February 26, 2018, Chinatown residents and allies stormed Beedie Group’s corporate offices demanding withdrawal of the development permit appeal. Police stopped Chinatown elder Mrs. Chen, affectionately known as Kong Tai, from delivering the letter because she was deemed a “security threat”. The city’s board of variance refused to hear the appeal. (Nat Lowe)
On February 26, 2018, Chinatown residents and allies stormed Beedie Group’s corporate offices demanding withdrawal of the development permit appeal. Police stopped Chinatown elder Mrs. Chen, affectionately known as Kong Tai, from delivering the letter because she was deemed a “security threat”. The city’s board of variance refused to hear the appeal. (Nat Lowe)

In 2017, the victory against a luxury condo development at 105 Keefer St in Chinatown became a turning point in the struggle for housing in Vancouver.  With the support of the whole city behind them, working-class residents and youth led the fight to stop Ryan Beedie from putting a 13-storey condo tower in the heart of Chinatown. Beedie, one of western Canada’s biggest industrial developers and landlords, proposed five versions of the project and was defeated every time through rallies, mass mobilizations, and direct action. The organizations who led the campaign, Chinatown Concern Group and Chinatown Action Group, demanded the site be 100% low-income social housing and a public intergenerational community spacenot luxury condos.

Post-105 Keefer Chinatown: Carol Lee and Chinatown Transformation Team

What we didn’t anticipate was how this victory inadvertently led to a new set of political dynamics, including the rise of Chinese capitalist Carol Lee within the Chinatown and City power structure. With rival developer Beedie out of the way, Carol Lee took advantage of the post-105 Keefer situation by advocating for a distinctly Chinese Canadian vision for Chinatown, albeit a capitalist one.

Carol Lee is the chair of Chinatown Foundation and the daughter of Robert Lee, one of Vancouver’s biggest real estate moguls, a philanthropist, and owner of Prospero International Realty. Through her charity, Chinatown Foundation, Carol Lee is infusing millions of dollars of real estate capital into projects like the storytelling centre, a vintage clothing store, a restaurant, and a social-mix building at 58 W Hastings – the site of a decades-old fight for 100% real social housing. What is her vision for the neighbourhood? Lee’s Trumpian motto is to “Make Chinatown Great Again!” The slogan adorned red MAGA-style hats at the Chinatown Foundation’s inaugural gala. In a news interview, Lee stated that she wants to make Chinatown “Vancouver’s number one tourist attraction”. Her vision is a strategy for “cultural revitalization,” or as organizer Vince Tao more accurately describes it “gentrification with Chinese characteristics.” 

Chinatown Foundation 2016 Gala Master of Ceremonies Gloria Macarenko poses with a Donald Trump-style red hat that reads “Make Chinatown Great Again.” (Province)
Chinatown Foundation 2016 Gala Master of Ceremonies Gloria Macarenko poses with a Donald Trump-style red hat that reads “Make Chinatown Great Again.” (Province)

After being thoroughly embarrassed by the defeat of 105 Keefer, City Hall supported this vision for “cultural revitalization” through the creation of the Chinatown Transformation Team. The team consists of mostly Chinese city planners with the goal of preserving heritage and culture through economic development and, eventually, UNESCO World Heritage designation. Many of the same planners on this team oversaw the very gentrification plans⁠—such as the 2011 Historic Area Height Review and the Chinatown Economic Revitalization Action Plan⁠—that continue to threaten Chinatown today. Claiming to learn from their past mistakes, the Chinatown Transformation Team has launched a “participatory planning” effort through recruiting community members to a Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group to champion their plan. The group includes only a handful of residents but is primarily dominated by unelected individuals aligned with Chinese Canadian capitalists such as S.U.C.C.E.S.S., Chinatown Business Improvement Association (Chinatown BIA), and the Vancouver Chinatown Merchants Association (VCMA). While the team claims to listen to all voices, they’ve shown their true colours by holding exclusive listening sessions for Chinese capitalists and property owners.

Gentrification with Chinese Characteristics: Racial Capitalism and Urban Planning

New York-based urban planner and scholar Samuel Stein posits in his book Capital City that gentrification happens in stages: investment, divestment, and reinvestment.3 Historically for Vancouver Chinatown, cycles of divestment and reinvestment are dictated by racial capitalism4 in the form of racist neglect or tokenized reinvestment. Since its inception, Chinatown was planned to contain the so-called vice and unsanitary conditions of “inferior races” and was largely neglectedwhile the neighbourhood housed the cheap Chinese migrant labour the city depended on. During urban renewal, a policy of “slum clearance” displaced thousands of racialized working-class residents from residential Strathcona (described by planners as a “revenue sink”) while preserving the commercial district of Chinatown (“Little China”), a tourist destination in planners’ eyes.5

Today, we see that cycle happening again with the same old planning tools of racial capitalism at work, and this time it’s called “cultural revitalization” and promoted by Chinese capitalists like Carol Lee and Chinatown property owners. Sociologist and scholar Jan Lin describes the rise of ethnic tourism in the context of a new global economy: “Popular culture and ethnic culture are also increasingly promoted, with the recognition that hip, bohemian neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves can attract tourists and become focal points for gentrification and urban redevelopment.”6 Ethnic tourism has become the main way in which ethnic enclaves like Chinatown are gentrified, redeveloped, and reshaped for capital growth.

Gentrification is planned and is not a natural phenomenon. Allied with Chinese capitalists, Chinatown Transformation Team planners promote cultural revitalization through gentrifying artist and tech-friendly coworking spaces (such as BC Artscape7 and Chinatown House8), creative pop-up markets, and other “cultural” activities. The planner team is working on mapping cultural assets in order to develop a “Cultural Heritage Assets Management Plan”, which so far defines objects, buildings, and land as “assets”, not the residents who live there. The end goal of this planning strategy builds towards a UNESCO World Heritage Site application, which is clearly an attempt to make Chinatown a gentrifying tourist district. Dr. Lee Ho Yin, a leading voice on the subject, was flown in from Hong Kong to speak about UNESCO designation in Chinatown. Yin plainly admits, “Gentrification may not be a bad thing. No matter what you do, most sites will gentrify and gentrification is one way to help sustain the local businesses.9 The intention is plain: bring in UNESCO, gentrify the low-income neighbourhood, and increase profits.

It’s clear why Chinatown’s real estate class, property and business owners are championing this vision. Cultural revitalization promises an improved market and tourist image of the neighbourhood, inevitably increasing property values and rents, and ultimately profits. Culture and heritage attract (white) tourists and tourist money goes in the pockets of property owners, businesses, and capitalists, not workers and residents. This is nothing new. Ethnic tourist districts eerily recalls painful memories of the 60s urban renewal strategy of preserving an orientalized and exoticized “Little China” for tourists while displacing residents en masse.

The Chinatown Transformation Team is based in Chinatown House, a new coworking space on Pender St. While billed as a “community initiative”, the space mostly consists of technology, design, and nonprofit professionals. (DailyHive)
The Chinatown Transformation Team is based in Chinatown House, a new coworking space on Pender St. While billed as a “community initiative”, the space mostly consists of technology, design, and nonprofit professionals. (DailyHive)

Frances Huynh, an organizer with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development in LA Chinatown, describes why “ethnic tourism” narratives are damaging to communities: “These descriptions are extensions of Orientalist narratives that dehumanize and hypersexualize Chinatown as a dirty, backwards, yet captivating tourist destination. Together they feed into a framing of the neighborhood as something that can then be exploited, conquered, and controlled.”10 

To be clear, this is gentrification and gentrification is racist. Without tenant protections and social housing, working-class and poor immigrants get priced out of their homes. Long-time Chinese residents are the garment, restaurant, factory, and janitorial workers who labour to make the neighbourhood what it is today. And, yet, the community they’ve built in Chinatown is being marketed and used to displace them.

Jessica Chiu, a Chinatown resident and former janitor, shared how low-income Chinese people no longer feel they belong in the neighbourhood: “Now it’s a lot more expensive to live in Chinatown and a lot more market condos. From the looks of Chinatown, we’ve heard a lot of seniors say ‘What? This is Chinatown? This doesn’t seem like it.'”

The role of Chinese capitalists such as Carol Lee in advancing gentrification should not be understated. It is no longer just white planners and politicians leading the war against poor and working-class people in Chinatown; the face of class and racial oppression is now Chinese. “Cultural revitalization” is more damaging because it is used by Chinese capitalists to disguise and soften the violent nature of gentrification promoting Chinese culture and heritage. All the while, white politicians like Mayor Kennedy Stewart gain the social licence of “diversity” to support gentrification.11 The ties between white politicians, planners, artists, Chinese capitalists, and banks is not unique to Vancouver’s Chinatown. In the context of LA Chinatown, Lin refers to this unholy political alliance as the “ethnic growth machine,” led by Chinese property owners (e.g. the LA Chinatown Business Improvement District).12 In Vancouver, we see Carol Lee and Chinatown BIA leading the “ethnic growth machine” with politicians and planners at their flank. Now cultural heritage groups and Chinese youth organizations are at a crossroadswill they be on the side of the “ethnic growth machine” or working-class residents who are organizing against displacement?

PeoplesVisionforChinatown

Working-class residents are developing plans of their own. Residents of Chinatown have put forward a bold vision for the neighbourhood called the People’s Vision for Chinatown: A Community Strategy for Social and Economic Development.13 As an alternative to the City’s gentrification plans, residents are demanding transformative solutions, not racist tokenistic ones, for Chinatown: a moratorium on new development, massive investment in public, permanent social housing, a public community centre, a resident-majority community council, raising income assistance rates, and free and culturally-appropriate health and social services.

But in order to stop gentrification and win transformative demands, we need to organize for power. As we’re seeing in Chinatown, real estate capitalists increasingly control urban planning today. Stein writes in Capital City, “Where real estate is the dominant sect of capital… the importance of a strong and dedicated housing, tenant and anti-gentrification movement increases…”14 It’s increasingly clear that tenant and anti-gentrification movements need to organize for power, building by building, in order to win such demands like in the People’s Vision for Chinatown.

Solheim Place: Tenant Power and Class Struggle Organizing

What we learned from 105 Keefer was that one site fight wasn’t enough to stop the real estate onslaught. It’s not enough to mobilize the same group of activists. While the 105 Keefer fight was successful in mobilizing hundreds of people, we weren’t able to recruit more working-class residents and workers into an organization to build for the long-term. We learned we need to build our membership basemeaning, expanding mass numbers of everyday working-class people in our movement to build power. We need to meet these folks by organizing in the very buildings where they are being exploited by their landlords. We need to link these tenants upbuilding by buildingto disciplined organizations in order to contend with the power of real estate capital.

As Chinatown organizers, our current focus is on base-building primarily through class struggle organizing.

What is class struggle organizing? The term “class struggle” centres the class divide between workers and capitalists. Capitalists exploit the productive labour of workers for profit. In the case of tenant organizing, the landlords are the enemy. Landlords don’t work for wages; they make profit merely by owning property and exploiting tenants through rent. By confronting landlords through collective direct action, tenants can win big and build power for the long-haul.

One recent example of class struggle in Chinatown is Solheim Place tenants organizing to get their elevator fixed. The building elevator was down for seven months. Many of the tenants face mobility issues, health problems, and are elderly. Two tenants passed away due to the elevator being down. The building is very racially mixed with Asian, Black, Latino, Indigenous and White tenants with many different languages including Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Vietnamese, Tigrinya, American Sign Language, and others.

The landlord of Solheim Place is S.U.C.C.E.S.S., one of BC’s largest service non-profits. S.U.C.C.E.S.S. has an annual budget of $45 million and is funded by developer and real estate money. One of the organization’s biggest funders is the developer Concord Pacific, owned by none other than one of the world’s wealthiest billionaires, Li Ka-Shing.15 Ever since S.U.C.C.E.S.S. became the owner-operator of the building a few years ago, living conditions got worse. Tenants lost their bike room and common spaces, and maintenance requests went unanswered⁠—and then their elevator broke down. Charities, often funded by capitalists, operate like profit-driven businesses and are among the worst bylaw violators when it comes to rental building maintenance, health and safety issues.16

On April 10, 2019, Solheim tenants met with the landlord, S.U.C.C.E.S.S., where they presented the letter of demands with tenant signatures. (Nat Lowe)
On April 10, 2019, Solheim tenants met with the landlord, S.U.C.C.E.S.S., where they presented the letter of demands with tenant signatures. (Nat Lowe)

Tenants were acutely aware of their class position and why this was happening to them. As one Solheim tenant put it, “An elevator being down for so long would never happen in a downtown condo building. This is happening to us because we’re poor.”

So what did tenants do?

The first collective action tenants took was to meet with the landlord. They created a list of demands, divided up speaking roles, and packed the meeting room. The landlord didn’t budge. The next thing they did was put their demands into a bilingual letter and got a supermajority (meaning, more than two-thirds) of their neighbours to sign it. At the following landlord meeting, tenant leaders presented the letter on a big poster board with all the signatures. To the tenants’ dismay, the landlord told them some disappointing news: it would take potentially up to 11 months to replace the elevator, and no monetary compensation would be offered, which was one of the tenants’ demands.

Immediately, the tenants of Solheim decided to take their campaign public through a multilingual protest in front of their building and invited the landlord to attend.17 Chants were led in English, Cantonese, Mandarin, French, and Spanish. The news of the protest was plastered all over the newspapers and TV, and was an especially big hit in Chinese media where the CEO of S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Queenie Choo was heavily criticized.

Three weeks later, the landlord met all of the demands: the elevator was finally fixed; compensation was offered to all tenants in the building; a permanent full-time tenant support worker job was posted; they got their common room and bike rooms back. The best part of it all is that tenants realized their power collectively, which in turn led to collective success, contrary to the individualistic struggles and ‘wins’ characteristic of legal- or arbitration-based processes. Now they’re self-organizing for the long-term by building up the Solheim Tenant Association in order to continue addressing management neglect.

Lessons Learned from Organizing at Solheim Place

So, what were some of our lessons learned?

First, organizing rightly places the power to win on tenants themselves. Organizing differs from advocacy where expert advocates, not tenants, are actually calling the shots. Union organizer Jane McAlevey says organizing “places the agency for success with a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mass of people never previously involved — that’s the point of organizing.”18 At first, Chinatown Tenants Organization organizers facilitated meetings and door knocked. As the struggle heated up, organizers constantly challenged tenants themselves to take responsibility for change—after all, it was their fight to win, not ours. Gradually, tenants felt their power through door knocking, mapping relationships, and getting neighbours to sign the petition. By the end, tenants were facilitating meetings, making key decisions about strategy and power, and eventually forming a self-governing tenants association. For many tenants, this was their first time organizing and participating in direct actionthat is what organizing is all about.

Second, we learned that race is central to class struggle. One of the main challenges was overcoming racial divisions and language barriers within the Solheim community. Interracial tensions flared up regularly. We held weekly meetings in English, Cantonese, Mandarin and American Sign Language, often simultaneously, and alternated between English and Cantonese as the primary meeting language. Community agreements were set before each meeting in order to allow for ease of translation and mutual respect: one person speaks at a time, allow translations to take place before responding, use hand signals to indicate to speakers to slow down, etc. Using “language caucuses”meaning language-specific spacesallowed for English-limited speakers to meaningfully participate with others in their native tongue. Over time, tenants developed understanding, respect and solidarity with one another. While it was never perfect and always messy, our multilingual, multiracial organizing approach was not just an exercise in “diversity” but was necessary in building tenant power. We, as organizers, understand that multiracial working-class unity is a prerequisite to dismantling white supremacy and racial capitalism.

Third, we learned the power of organizing that uses collective direct action. Using the law to fight landlords is often difficult for tenants to access, can take years and years, and too often deflates momentum for collective action. Capitalist government bureaucracies like the BC Residential Tenancy Branch are notoriously known to side with landlords and are designed to manage tenant discontent. Solheim tenants deliberately decided not to pursue the BC Residential Tenancy Branch application because they knew that they likely wouldn’t win demands such as getting compensation for all tenants in the building and a full-time tenant support worker. Instead, tenants continued to directly pressure S.U.C.C.E.S.S., knowing it made $1.38 million in profits in 2018.19

Intensifying Class Struggle in the Capital City

Stein talks about the need to scale up tenant organizing that wields the withholding of rent through mass rent strikes and other capital-flow-stopping methods (boycotts, occupations, eviction blocking) as a way to put property capitalists into crisis.20 As a tenant movement, we need to scale up these crises and intensify the class struggle by organizing the strength of the masses.

We are now living in revolutionary times, despite the rise of the real estate capitalist class. It is clearer now more than ever that capitalism is a failure. Another world must be possible. Militant mass organizing is on the rise and socialist organizations are growing in record numbers. We are seeing waves of teachers strikes, student walkouts, and mass civil disobedience across North America. Mass rent strikes are becoming a regular tool for tenant movements in cities like Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York in order to combat displacement.  In Vancouver, I believe the conditions for revolutionary change are on the horizon. However, this won’t happen spontaneously; it will require hard work, a long-term outlook, and a commitment to building power. As a tenant and worker movement, we need to get organized and seize that moment now. ■

 

Nat Lowe is a Chinese American labour and community organizer. For nearly a decade, he has been involved in anti-gentrification and housing struggles in the US and Canada. Nat currently organizes with the Chinatown Tenants Organization in Vancouver, BC to improve living conditions and build working-class power.

 

Notes

1 Carnegie Community Action Project. Displaced: Rents and Rate of Change in the Downtown Eastside. 2018 Hotel Survey & Housing Report.

2 International Examiner. Announcement: Chinatowns Coast to Coast Fight Against Displacement.

3 Stein, Samuel. Capital City (p. 49). Verso Books.

4 The term “racial capitalism” was popularized by scholar Cedric Robinson in Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition and is used to demonstrate how capitalism developed not merely in tandem to racism but that racial ideology was always part and parcel to capitalism.

5 Ley, David. Anderson, Kay. Konrad, Doug. Chinatown-Strathcona: Gaining an entitlement (pg. 116). University of Toronto Press.

6 Lin, Jan. Los Angeles Chinatown: Tourism, Gentrification, and the rise of an Ethnic Growth Machine (pg. 113). Amerasia Journal.

7 Mihailiuk, Andrei. Condos Love Culture: New Arts Development Brings “Creative Placemaking” to Chinatown. The Mainlander.

8 Chinatown House is a coworking space that opened in 2018 with the mission to “support and foster Chinatown’s creative culture through arts, culture and technology.” While claiming to be community-based, it is anything but. Chinatown House hosts inaccessible creative pop-up markets, artisan chocolate making AirBnB experiences, and a Microsoft-funded digital lab primarily catering to wealthy white professionals. The Chinatown Transformation Team offices are in Chinatown House.

9 Kwan, Tammy. New supermarket opens up in Vancouver Chinatown, could benefit bid for UNESCO World Heritage site designation. Georgia Straight.

10 Huynh, Frances. Behind LA Chinatown’s Hip Food Scene: Baos, Coffee, and Gentrification. Medium.

11 Kennedy Stewart for Mayor. Stewart to support community efforts around cultural preservation and tourism.

12 Lin, Jan. Los Angeles Chinatown: Tourism, Gentrification, and the rise of an Ethnic Growth Machine (pg. 117). Amerasia Journal.

13 Chinatown Action Group and Chinatown Concern Group. The People’s Vision for Chinatown: A Community Strategy for Social and Economic Development.

14 Stein, Samuel. Capital City (p. 204). Verso Books.

15 Concord Pacific. “Concord continually supports senior assisted living programs through the S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Foundation initiatives such as the annual Walk with the Dragon and the Bridge to S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Gala.” Concord Pacific website.

16 Woodvine, Stanley Q. Homeless in Vancouver: Social housing accounts for over 41 percent of rental building bylaw issues. Georgia Straight.

17 Ball, David P. Chinatown residents in Vancouver credit the ‘power of protest’ with fixing their long-broken elevator. Star Vancouver.

18 McAlevey, Jane. No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (pg. 10). Oxford University Press.

19 S.U.C.C.E.S.S. 2017/2018 Annual Report.

20 Stein, Samuel. Capital City (p. 205). Verso Books.