United Against Neoliberalism: A Conversation on Artists and Organizers in Vancouver’s Chinatown

Jannie Leung (梁泳詩) of Chinatown Action Group (CAG) speaking out at city hall against the proposed Beedie Living development at 105 Keefer.
Jannie Leung (梁泳詩) of Chinatown Action Group (CAG) speaking out at city hall against the proposed Beedie Living development at 105 Keefer.

Editorial Introduction

Despite the latest rejection of Beedie Living’s application to build market housing at 105 Keefer, the ongoing gentrification of Chinatown remains a critical issue for residents. Several condo and retail projects – including a possible reincarnation of the Beedie proposal itself – remain on the horizon. In this context, artist and cultural workers in the neighbourhood face a critical juncture. They could aggravate the crisis by remaining politically absent, as the neighborhood becomes a runway for creative types, or they could align with the community groups that organize to protect the area.

What would it mean for artists to stand with organizers? How might allyship between artists and Chinatown community groups change the way developers instrumentalize the rhetoric of art and culture to justify and promote their projects? In this interview Steffanie Ling and Jannie Leung start from a mutual recognition of struggle against larger neoliberal and capitalist forces, drawing and redrawing class lines so often used to prevent broader collective resistance and political consciousness.

Steff: One thing I wanted to do was to paint a portrait of what the CAG does in the neighbourhood. Can you tell us a little about the Chinatown Action Group?

Jannie: Sure. Chinatown Action Group formed two and a half years ago. We focus on what’s happened to Chinatown specifically in the post-Olympic aftermath. There were a number of city-led strategies that led to the condos we see here today, and in response to that a lot of groups started forming and organizing. They saw this turn towards market development as a crisis, and so people came together. Chinatown Action Group saw the Chinese seniors from the Chinatown Concern Group, fighting and speaking out and going to City Hall, and just fighting against displacement from this neighbourhood. So we got together. Because everyone in our group self-identifies as Chinese, we have personal connections in this neighbourhood. We have organizers who live in this neighbourhood, and people like me who don’t live in this neighbourhood but spent our childhoods here, and it felt really important to organize around this. And also I think just seeing the seniors fight, we saw ourselves in the seniors, you know? For instance the experiences I’ve previously had with racism, I see what’s happening in Chinatown as a reflection of that and as an extension of that.  A lot of us, we do this work on top of our other lives. You know Byron [Peters] is here, Vince [Tao] is here, and they’re part of CAG. We all have day jobs and we also organize as well after our day jobs. And I think we see this as deeply part of the way we want to see our society and the way we see our lives. So it’s been two and a half years and we’re still going.

Steff: Great.

Jannie: I’m curious too about N.O.P.E., I mean N.O.P.E. brought me in because they wanted to have a chat, so I’m curious about how you guys started and how you guys came to do this work in the neighbourhood.

Steff: I would describe it as a research collective, and it changes every year. A group of people gather and they conduct research in the community and try and reap material results, such as things like this pamphlet, and to try and bridge that weird gap between cultural workers and art workers, and the residents of Chinatown and community organizers like yourself. And I would say that I had never participated in anything like N.O.P.E. before and I met a lot of people that I didn’t expect to meet like the burgeoning media-theorist that ended up translating this pamphlet, Brent [Lin], and yourself Jannie. And I think it just really helped me to be more comfortable with my own political engagements, coming from an art context and feeling quite welcomed by an organizer like yourself who was open enough to come into our white cube and I don’t know…listen to what we have to say, even though I think it’s more important that it’s the other way around. In terms of what’s happening in Chinatown, I wouldn’t otherwise have as much of a grasp on it, exclusively as an art-worker or cultural-worker. Which goes into my next question: what are the sorts of things that we should be concerned about in Chinatown from that perspective? Such as art washing and the 105 Keefer development.

Jannie: I have a particular experience in Chinatown, like spending a lot of time here and this neighbourhood being an important part of both my childhood and my identity as a Chinese person. I also think of the different experiences for people living in this neighbourhood, and how painful it is to hear the stories of how seniors are impacted. I think the word gentrification sounds like such a fancy word, then at the heart of it, it devastates people’s livelihoods. Seeing people get evicted out of their homes, or hearing seniors talk about how it doesn’t feel like their neighbourhood anymore, or that they don’t feel like they belong or they’re welcome here. These are really painful stories to hear and I think about gentrification as a very violent process, even though the word kind of hides that. We can see what’s happening in Chinatown, right? We see these condos and the appropriation of culture, it’s enraging and painful. And also on top of that is the way the neighbourhood is being cleansed. The city never wanted Chinatown to exist, and also I think people outside of Chinatown didn’t want it to exist. It’s always been seen as a slum, and there have been other attempts of slum-clearance and this is the latest one. It’s been pretty strong in this neighbourhood.

Materially speaking, you see low income people — not just Chinese, because there’s a lot of poor white people and Indigenous people who are part of the community — getting pushed out of the neighbourhood. You already brought up art-washing, which is the insidious side of what’s happening. Andrei Mihailiuk wrote a really great article about it recently. How I understand art-washing is that it’s a strategy; so it’s promoted by government and developers who are providing subsidies to arts and culture organizations/people to come into a neighbourhood…usually working class and racialized neighborhoods, where people are poor and the land values are usually depressed. That’s usually the first wave of gentrification, to make the neighbourhood seem more palatable to white middle-class people, right? What I often hear about Chinatown is that it’s a dangerous neighbourhood, it’s “sketchy,” people don’t want to come here. So the first phase is to bring arts and culture to make it more welcoming to potential home buyers. So it’s setting the stage for speculation, and for land values to increase.

I think the interesting thing about art-washing is that it denies that a culture existed here in the first place. On Gore and Pender there is the Lao Tzu mural, a really important figure in Chinese culture, and you just watch it get covered as that condo development gets built. Not only did that mural get covered but I just walked by and you now see that tattoo parlor, Black Medicine Tattoo, put these murals on top of [the construction site’s scaffolding] with these dragons and fans. It was just super offensive to me, because not only did they cover the mural, but [they’re] replacing it with art that appropriates the culture here.

Steff: And the [Lao Tzu] mural was also commissioned by the city in some sort of commemorative manner, wasn’t it? It was like, “150 years of Chinatown, here’s a mural, we’re gonna cover it up in five years with a condo!” That’s the narrative, right?

My next question would be do you perceive a distinction between art-washing and this first-wave gentrification and the artist-run centers that have been here for maybe five to ten years?

Jannie: The way I see Chinatown and how we try to struggle for Chinatown is that we try and think about who is causing the problem. There are big structures and big power and big money creating what we see in Chinatown, and it’s not so much individuals. I think there’s a diversity amongst artists. You’ve heard Bob Rennie’s name come up, and places like his art collection are odious, but then you have places like 221A that have been such an amazing support for us, they give us space. We have no resources, so they allow us to meet there, and they allow us to have our events like film screenings and language lessons and we kind of take over the space. That’s been super helpful and 221A sees themselves as part of the community and they fight with us as part of the community. So I think there are distinctions and I think there’s classes within artists. Chinatown has always been a working-class community and we unite with other working-class communities across Vancouver.

I see this as very much the same struggle—we’re in this together. This is about austerity measures, this is about neoliberalism, this is about capitalism, both in destroying this neighbourhood but also making it impossible for working-class people to get on in the city.

I had a question for you: I was wondering for you, as an artist, how has neoliberalism impacted artists and artist-run spaces.

Steff: Well I think that often enough, it’s a cycle where we are confronted with a problem such as gentrification and we find ourselves implicit in it and we see ourselves as being unable to participate in the struggle or the counter-activity, because we say, “Ok, well I have student debt, a studio that I can barely afford and I need to be present and stylish, because this is how I’ll gain opportunities and I can’t say no to dubiously presented opportunities to me because there are so few of them around.”

I read in your notes earlier (laughs) that this is a strategy where we get thrown one crumb and it splits what could otherwise be a unified collective effort in the neighbourhood. [Neoliberalism is] basically the wall between cultural participation and political consciousness, in my opinion. What do you think about that?


Jannie: Whoa…

Steff: Neoliberalism is the thing that causes us to think that we can’t participate [or have a political life], in the sense that we feel we have to compete for so few artistic opportunities. If our rent is high, and we don’t know why, we just throw our arms in the air and say, “Well I guess I have to try and scrounge up that extra little bit of opportunity to pay for that rent hike.” But we’re not really concerned with the systemic reason that our rent keeps going up and up and we feel more and more desperate. But it’s neoliberalism.

Steff Ling at protest against Beedie's 105 Keefer development proposal, photo credit Lawrence Boxall
Steff Ling at protest against Beedie’s 105 Keefer development proposal, photo credit Lawrence Boxall

Jannie: Yeah it’s true. One really good example is Artscape,  a somewhat infamous arts and culture non-profit with a multi-million dollar budget used to “revitalize” neighborhoods and promote mixed use developments. So in the building on Keefer and Gore, the Sun Wah building, Artscape has leased most of it and that was kind of interesting because there’s differing opinions within the small Chinatown organizing community about this. I think there are some who reasoned that this is happening anyway, gentrification is happening, so we might as well take what we can get, right? So with the Sun Wah building, if it’s not Artscape it’s gonna be someone else that leases it, so at least with [Artscape] we might be able to leverage some free community space for some organizations.

I see neoliberalism as constraining what we think is possible, both by isolating different groups and by pitting different groups against each other. It also chains us to what we think could be possible and what we could ask for. So the thing with Artscape is really interesting because now I see it’s kind of like splitting the community, by making us ask things like, “Should I try and get some space in there?” and kind of accept that this is what’s happening in the community, or do we ask for something different altogether?

Steff: Well the question is where are the amenities coming from? More or less you have to follow the money. There’s that example where you were offered space in Artscape but your rent as a community organization was going to be subsidized by an architecture firm that would also have a space there.

Jannie: Yeah so that’s the model, that’s the neoliberal model. I will preface that by saying it was just me asking a lot of pointed questions to the executive director so she kind of threw me a bone. She was like, “Oh we can get you free space, I’m sure we can get some architecture firm that would subsidize your rent to have a free space.” And that’s kind of like how all the developments work too—“Oh you want social housing, well then the developer is going to build three extra floors [of market housing].” Like there’s no government money for that so you’re going to have that privately subsidized and they kind of present it like it’s the only choice you have. But when you look at the way social housing had been federally funded historically, what we’re asking for is not outrageous.

Steff: Right, they’re just creating progressive optics, which I think could be tied to the idea of aesthetics, which more or less means concern over the look of something—but what is the meaning behind it, where did it come from? Nothing is skin deep. The concerns around art making and art viewership applies to the ways we could potentially deconstruct neoliberalism. I think the idea that 25 units of social housing were offered is a kind of aesthetic gesture on the developer’s part, definitely more than public art! It is emphasizing the surface of the action, and obscuring their capital flowing behind it.

Janie: At 105 Keefer? The city changed the definition of social housing so some of these units could be at SAFER [Shelter Aid For Elderly Renters] levels: so $700 a month. If you’re on welfare you get $610 dollars a month, you cannot afford a $700 a month apartment. So really nothing was affordable.

Steff: I mean, these are the sorts of numbers and facts that affect how our community orients itself as well, in the sense that artist-run centers are likely going to get displaced as well eventually and then we’re talking about second-wave gentrification here, where the gentrifiers get gentrified. And then that’s when I imagine people will become concerned and involved, but my intention is to be concerned before that happens. And I think it’s kind of a silly question to ask, “Well how can I prevent this?” I don’t know. I don’t have the answer.

Jannie: (laughs) I don’t either.

Steff: Yeah but I think that whatever we’re doing right now can’t be wrong.

Jannie: Yeah I think about that a lot. I think for me the most transformative moments were at the 105 Keefer hearing [at City Hall for the rezoning application], which was amazing. It was stressful but I saw so many familiar faces and we had so many members of the community come to show their support. I get a sense, and I could be wrong, that there are a lot of feelings of guilt among artists. And possibly we [anti-displacement organizers] may not be as friendly towards artists as we could be.

There’s a lot of frustration but I also feel that there’s a lot of really amazing work being done and still work left to do. I think that this conversation is good. I think there’s such a silence around gentrification; there’s a silence around what’s happening. Many people are trying to push this as a sort of natural process that’s happening in the neighbourhood, that this is the progression of events in the development of a neighbourhood. But I think it’s so important to name it and call it out and acknowledge that this event is taking place in Chinatown, and also that Chinatown is located on land that was taken and is being occupied. I think it’s important to keep talking about those histories and not just pretend that this is normal, or pretend that it’s normal that there are homeless people in tent cities.

There’s a lot to do and we’re all trying to figure out the best way to do it. But we [artists and organizers] are on the same side, because there definitely are two sides and there isn’t really a hanging out in the middle. If you’re hanging out in the middle, you’re on the bad side.

Steff: I mean if you’re hanging out in the middle then you’re not really doing anything.

Jannie: Which means you’re siding with the status quo.

Steff: I’m not saying that just because whatever we’re doing isn’t wrong that whatever we’re doing is right. There’s no resting on our laurels here. It’s a continued, continued, continued attempt to not aggravate gentrification and to become more informed without feeling so demoralized. I don’t feel demoralized even though often it’s a very intense and opaque social apparatuses that we have to confront.

Jannie: Yeah and I’ve seen some amazing collaborations you know, like the Chinatown Art Brigade in New York, artists collaborating with anti-displacement organizers and doing some amazing stuff together. So I think there are avenues for people to work together. When I think about the Artscape thing, we’re [CAG organizers] already kind of known as activists, right? People have already written us off. But I think it’s really powerful for [artists] to speak to their own community, and it would be really powerful if people from other parts of the community also speak out about what’s happening and lend support and stand with the residents here who are fighting. I think that’s really important. And thinking with my organizer hat, there’s just so many different entry points to get involved. There’s a petition going around, we’re putting out a People’s Vision for Chinatown*, and there’s the [Voice of Chinatown] newspaper, which people have been helping us distribute. The speakers here from the event donated their speaking fees to us, which is much, much appreciated. And people share their space with us, which is really nice. There are so few resources to grassroots organizations and artists, that it’s really nice to see the sharing of spaces. It’s also a way that we can talk together by co-inhabiting spaces and learning from each other. I think in a lot of ways we’re not sure how to work together so maybe that creates the separation.

Steff: I agree. I don’t have any final remarks. Do you?

Jannie: No, but I will just plug that there’s a lot of amazing work being done in the neighbourhood, and it’s such an uphill battle to gain legitimacy and I’m appreciative of being given a space here today to speak and that people are interested in hearing. It’s been a good experience.

Steff: Thank you Jannie.

This conversation between Jannie Leung of Chinatown Action Group (CAG), and Steffanie Ling occurred following a public reading from Chinatown Today: The Persistence of Anti-Asian Racism, a pamphlet co-authored by Leung (with Nate Crompton) and translated by Brent & Ricky Lin. The reading was conducted in both English and Cantonese as part of Sky Island, a temporary series of performances and art installations on the rooftop parkade in Chinatown organized by Kara Hansen. Chinatown Today is edited by Ling and published by NOPE/221A with printing and distribution support from DDOOGG.

Jannie Leung 梁泳詩 is a community organizer with the Chinatown Action Group. She grew up on unceded Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver) and has ancestral roots in Guangdong, China.

Steffanie Ling 林惠慈 is an art critic, writer and curator affiliated with various art organizations in Chinatown and has been an editor at The Mainlander since 2014.

Chinatown Action Group 華埠行動小組 is an intergenerational group of Chinese organizing for social justice and people power on unceded Coast Salish territories (Greater Vancouver). We are building a grassroots organization that centres the voices, issues, and leadership of the Chinese working class in our campaign against displacement and gentrification in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Their past and current work includes facilitating workshops and film nights, organizing events and rallies to defend our neighborhood from displacement and gentrification, and conducting outreach and neighbourhood surveys. These projects help us better understand community needs and identify projects or campaigns that we can organize together.

Visit www.chinatownaction.org to learn more about us and ways to support this work.