Vancouver’s Chinatown isn’t pretty, but no one can deny that it has character. One of the oldest neighbourhoods in all of Vancouver, it’s steeped in local history. For a photographer, there are few urban spaces in Vancouver that deliver the same sense of stimuli.
If you’re craving good Chinese restaurants, bustling nightlife, or a faux romanticized 1930s era Shanghai, you’re in the wrong place. But if you’re seeking an authentic, gritty, smelly, traditional working-class community, home to Vancouver’s Chinese pioneers from the 19th century, this is where it all began. The fish mongers, butcher shops, green grocers, apothecaries, tea shops, bakeries, benevolent associations, and greasy Chinese takeout – this is what makes Chinatown tick.
Cruise ship passengers fresh from Alaska will often meander their way into Chinatown from Gastown and become horrified by what they see: the grunge, the dirt, the smells, the padlocked façades. The junkies and the homeless and the prostitutes one street over don’t help. These imagined perceptions of danger as well as unrealistic expectations have inspired one too many negative reviews.
Compare Vancouver’s Chinatown to San Francisco’s, or New York’s, London’s or Sydney’s, and you may also be disappointed. “Chinatown in Sydney is a happening place to be at night” a friend told me, explaining his disappointment in Vancouver’s, which becomes a ghost town of a neighbourhood after 6pm.
And then there are those hoping to find the affluent Hong Kong side to Vancouver’s Chinese culture in Chinatown, only to find out that they should have gone to Richmond instead. Strangely, Chinatown’s rapidly gentrifying as the new hipster hangout, with bars, bike shops, and non-Chinese restaurants popping up in former vacancies.
However, Vancouver’s Chinatown isn’t a lost cause. The best approach for a visitor is to go with an open mind and your open eyes, and a bit of an acceptance to understand it in its own context. Only then does Vancouver’s Chinatown begins to reveal its charm one detail at a time.