Bulldozers in Chinatown

Though some of Canada’s historic Chinatowns have faced demolition, residents of Vancouver’s Chinatown successfully lobbied to have it declared an historic site in 1971. It remains a strong cultural symbol in the bustling metropolis (photograph by Maurice Jassak, image provided by www.seechinatown.com).

"Urban renewal" was a buzzword of Canada in the 1960s. Many city planners eyed Chinatowns not for preservation, but for demolition, regarding them as "eyesores." In economic decline, Chinatown's last remaining residents were typically aged men. When the largest in Canada, Toronto's and Vancouver's, faced the threat of bulldozers, protest was not expected.

Save Chinatown

In the mid-1950s, Toronto citizens voted in a plebiscite to build a new city hall and civic square that was bold and modern, to be emblematic of the city. The city expropriated and levelled two-thirds of Chinatown, taking with it 500 jobs from Chinese businesses. Even as Nathan Phillips Square was officially opened in 1965, city planners were already proposing to replace the rest of the old Chinatown with office towers. Land speculators seized on the news. As before, local Chinese business owners' and residents' views were not sought. However, neither were they heard from, many perhaps resigned to the disappearance of their historical beginnings, or feeling helpless to affect any decision. Eventually, a Save Chinatown Committee was organized, which, over the next decade, averted other threats of development there. Today, only a handful of buildings remain from the original Chinatown of the early 1900s.

In 1966, Vancouver city planners announced a project for the city's first major freeway, which included on and off ramps through Chinatown that required razing what was left of an area called Strathcona that housed many of Chinatown's residents. Six years earlier, the city had levelled 11 blocks of Strathcona for social housing. What enraged Vancouverites was the apparent disregard yet again for public consultation. After two years of protest, Vancouver's citizenry forced city council to abandon the project. In 1971, the British Columbia government declared Chinatown a historic site.

Learn more: Toronto’s First Chinatown