A fading legacy

Calgary’s historic Chinatown to face changes

CHINATOWN REDEVELOPMENTCalgary’s Chinatown, and Chinatowns in general, are often viewed as being disparate, something not altogether a part of the city surrounding it.

So, recent news that, despite the community’s protests, a development application for three new towers has been passed by the city might not have struck much of a chord with the general population.

The new towers will be twice as tall as any other building in Chinatown and risk casting daytime shadows on both a seniors centre and a church. 

At face value, it looks just like another real estate dispute. A new development comes into a neighbourhood and hurts the property values of the land around it. 

The reality, though, is much deeper.

It is not just the value of the land that these new developments threaten to depreciate, but the irreplaceable connection to our city’s history.

Chinatown did not grow in a vacuum. Its history and culture belongs to everybody, not just the immigrants who built it.

After all, it was not the Chinese immigrants who rioted and destroyed Calgary’s previous Chinatown over fears of a smallpox outbreak. Nor was it discrimination from within their communities that drove Chinese immigrants to form isolated ghettos.

It is important for all of us to remember the parts that Canadians, both Chinese and otherwise, had to play in the formation of the community, as well as its turbulent yet proud history. 

When asked about the city’s plan for new developments in the neighbourhood, Alice Lam, a member of Calgary’s Chinatown Task Force, said that the area has a reputation of being difficult to work with.

And who can blame them? Chinatown would never have survived a century of mistreatment and discrimination without a strong resilient streak.

According to Lam, Chinatown was built over 100 years ago with arduous labour.

But, Chinatown was not built to memorialize the struggles and hardships of non-European immigrants. 

It was built to house a community that was not welcome in the rest of the city.

It is a community that became what it is today because of the lack of opportunities that were afforded to them. But, today’s Chinese community in Calgary faces far less discrimination than it did a generation ago.

And now the community is dispersing through the rest of the city and into suburban neighbourhoods like Hawkwood and the Hamptons.

What remains of Chinatown today is, in large part, a retirement community.

There are multiple seniors housing facilities as well as an elderly citizen’s association specifically for Chinese immigrants who would not be able to assimilate into a westernized retirement home.

According to a 2014 study by the city, more than 32 per cent of Chinatown’s residents are over 65-years-old, compared to just 10 per cent throughout the rest of the city.

And, with nearly three times as many seniors as there are residents under 25-years-old, it’s clear that the population is not going to be able to support itself. 

“Chinatown is dying,” said Jillian Mah, a Calgarian of Chinese descent.

“While revitalization is ideal, it’s unrealistic.”

Young Chinese Calgarians are moving out of Chinatown, said Mah, and the community, as it exists today, is not engaging enough to draw Calgarians back in.

Without a drastic change, the neighbourhood as we know it will be lost to time.

But, Chinatown is not something that can be designed or manufactured. It is an organic, living, breathing part of our city and many Calgarians, Mah included, are worried that attempts to revitalize the community could undermine its identity.

“I just hope that making a profit doesn’t take anything away from the legacy that Chinatown has left, since it’s such a great part of Calgary’s identity.”

It is a tricky balance that the city and the community must strike to preserve this slice of our history.

But, our history, like everything else, is subject to both time and tide.

People die, new developments bury the old and floods wash away years of history.

It is noble for the community to try to preserve itself, but fighting against time is a losing proposition.

The history of Chinatown is all of ours. Be a part of it while you can.

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