Founded in 2013, the Chinatown Concern Group has been working with residents, many of whom are elderly and face language barriers, to encourage the enactment of representative policy and social services. Most recently this has meant protesting against developers who put continual pressure on the area and threaten residents with rent increases and displacement. To learn more about how the Concern Group has fought to ensure social justice and protect living cultural heritage, we spoke with Beverly Ho, who has been working with the group for two years as a representative, facilitator, and activist.
Lotusland: How did you first get involved with the group?
Beverly Ho: I started around almost 2 years ago getting involved through King Mong Chan who founded the group with a bunch of Chinese speaking residents in this area. So not just Chinatown but the greater downtown Eastside, like Oppenheimer, Strathcona. He started it in 2013-2014 [while] doing his social work degree at UBC and he realized that even though they did great organizing and anti-gentrification work in the neighbourhood they didn’t have any Chinese-speaking organizers. So he thought that whole aspect of organizing was missing, so he decided to do that and he formed Concern Group with a lot of our current core members.
King Mong didn’t want to be their representative, even though that sometimes happens with him and I because we speak English. But we hope we can be more of a platform for them and give them information that the city isn’t willing to translate. But yeah for sure we’ve kind of become the faces because there’s a lot of English media that’s interested, such as yourself.
Have you noticed an increase in the group’s recognition over the past year?
Yeah it’s pretty crazy, I first found out about the Concern Group when they went to city hall a little over 2 years ago and demanded a moratorium on market development in Chinatown until there was a better plan in terms of dealing with the displacement caused by the market development. I think the 105 Keefer win has been really big. Of course, we didn’t do it ourselves. We had a lot of supporters and allies who came out to City Hall. I think it was a big surprise because most of us thought city hall would pass again.
Could you say more about 105 Keefer, and why you were skeptical about city hall not protecting it?
It’s a big twelve story market condo that the city and developers proposed for the corner of Keefer and Columbia, right beside the Chinatown Memorial. The same arguments keep coming up: we need revitalization, we need more bodies on these streets—like there are bodies on the streets because they don’t have housing, and like we’ve already seen so many condo towers come in on Main St. and it really hasn’t improved Chinatown at all. Because the neighbourhood is just getting more and more unaffordable for them…they can’t really afford to move anywhere else in Vancouver or in the Lower Mainland. The second floor is for 25 units of seniors social housing and a seniors amenities space, and you can imagine all that on one floor is really small so the units are like 180 square feet, so yes we want to protect the existing SROs (single room occupancies), but the new social housing should be more dignified. Like why can’t the seniors get a penthouse or something?
And I was pretty unsure about it personally. Other members were like: “Vision Vancouver is so pro-development and so is NPA (Non-Partisan Association), so maybe we’ll get Adriane Carr to vote against it 1 out of 11.” But I think that both parties are scared with the impending election in October 2018. Right now people in Vancouver, or in B.C in general, seem very dissatisfied with the current political scene.
What are some social problems particular to the area the Concern Group deals with?
I think there are a lot of big problems, and we’re seeing a lot of it just in our day to day work. Like a lot of our members, especially since a lot of them are elderly women who only speak Chinese, face a lot of discrimination. Or a lot of people have really racist assumptions, like that all Chinese people are wealthy and they’re just greedy…like you really wouldn’t be standing in a food lineup if you were wealthy. That’s just ridiculous. And so I think a lot of it stems from the media and our government pushing this foreign investment myth [as] the main cause of the housing crisis. Even the B.C assessment authority said 70% of foreign investment is European and American, so it’s really not Asians buying property, it’s just that the government hasn’t built housing in years.
Could you speak on the intergenerational work that the group has facilitated?
I feel like when King-Wong formed the group he didn’t specifically have an intergenerational mandate, but it obviously happened because he is young and a lot of our members are elderly. I think because we’ve worked harder this past year on having a social media presence and being more frequent with emails, and also working with other groups that have a bigger presence, I think we’ve been able to get a lot of younger people, especially Chinese youth. I mean I didn’t really think it was a big deal, but then sometimes we’d have a potluck like in someone’s space or their apartment and we’d invite all our volunteers, it would be nice and fun, and people would sing and dance, there’s all kinds of food, and a lot of youth would message me and say, “I never really knew my grandparents” or, “I wasn’t really close to them.” And all the elders say, “Oh, it’s so great having young people here, it makes it lively.” So I think it’s great. I hope we can get more young people involved but I’m really glad that our group is really diverse.
What is something surprising that you learned since being a part of the group?
I think regarding the history of Chinatown what I’m most surprised by is that racism and discrimination are still really prevalent, it’s just manifested in different ways, like this foreign investment myth. It’s still a big form of Yellow Peril. And the second thing I’m most surprised by is [that] I didn’t know any of this and I’m born and raised in Vancouver. I’ve come to Chinatown my whole life and I didn’t know anything about the anti-Asian riots or the barbecue meat fights in the 70’s, and the freeway fights before that. So there’s a long history of community organizing, of government policy trying to wipe out Chinatown, and I think we should acknowledge that.
Could you break down your vision and mandate?
So our vision going forward is 100% affordable housing. So first of all the social housing proposed right now, the 25 units, are not enough at all. And secondly, they’re just not that affordable. Like the cheapest ones would be 800-900 a month, and those would be the smallest ones as well. And if you’re a senior on old age security and you’ve immigrated here not too long ago, you wouldn’t receive a lot of CPP (Canadian Pension Plan) either, only a little over a grand a month. So it’s pretty unaffordable, and that’s why we want it at pension rate, 30% of the renter’s income. And we want a bigger community space for the seniors that is free and permanent; right now it’s only for 10 years and it’s going to be leased. We also want something that will complement the memorial square as well as house the most vulnerable people in our community who just want to live the end of their lives peacefully.
We’re still organizing and mobilizing in the neighbourhood. I think a lot of the residents don’t know about the new zonings and don’t know that they have a say. Like they’ll think “well it’s the government, they’ll just do that they want.” Or it’s developers: “they bought the land so they can do whatever they want.” Which is true, it’s all legal. But it’s not fair, and it’s not right.
The Chinatown Concern Group, under the Carnegie Association and Carnegie community action project, has many mandates that they are continually pursuing, including alternate neighbourhood plans, protesting condo developments, and resisting gentrification.
To learn more, participate, or donate to the group visit here. To follow upcoming events visit here.
Illustration by Anita Rudakov.