Chinatown’s past making way for the future

Ho Sun Hing Printers is in the heart of Vancouvers’s Chinatown
Photo by George Chiang

Jordan Eng, Vice President of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association (VCBIA), is part of a group involved with the city council that is planning to bring new life to one of Vancouver’s oldest districts.

“We always hear stories of how Chinatown was [in the] past. We’re trying to create new memories, new projects,” says Eng.

Since 2000 the VCBIA, and other Chinatown organizations, have been key players in the area’s revival. Last July, city council approved a program designed to support Chinatown businesses and attract and retain customers and investors. The economic development strategy is still in its beginning phases.

Eng explains that the VCBIA’s main role is to create a marketing strategy for Chinatown, which includes plans to decorate storefronts, organize clean-ups and attract and retain tenants, among other things.

According to Eng, preserving Chinatown is important for not only retaining the Chinese identity, but also for the broader mainstream community to connect with their city’s past. In his view, it is distinct from other communities with a big Chinese population, like Richmond.

“People still consider Chinatown as the heart and soul of the Chinese community,” he says. “Here, you can identify with a historic past.”

Part of this historic past is Ho Sun Hing Printing, Canada’s first Chinese print shop, established in 1910. A family business that has been passed down for three generations, Stephen Lam still operates the store with his mother, Hilda.

He was in grade 4 when he started helping the family provide typesetting, printing and embossing services to the Chinatown community.

He describes a tight-knit community filled with people, restaurants, bakeries and no shortage of customers. Weekends would be so busy people couldn’t pass by without hitting each other.

“We used to know everybody down here,” he says.

Eng explains that it was more of a captive market in the old days and that the older generation used to come to Chinatown to do their business, even if they didn’t live in the neighbourhood.

“There’s a lot of loyalty because it was a smaller community,” he says.

It was around the 80s and 90s when business started slowing down, says Lam, and people started moving away due to high rent, high taxes and a drug problem. He also notes technology’s part in the slowdown, as more and more people started doing everything at home on the computer.

Eng explains that part of their economic development strategy is to educate the merchants and retailers on their competitive advantage and how to market themselves. He points out that Chinatown has the lowest rent in the city, which is one of its advantages.

He also maintains that the project will be good for Chinatown because of the products and diversity of goods and services it will bring.

Though Chinatown’s future is still in the works, Ho Sun Hing Printing is set to close down due to declining business and the Lam’s plans to retire. They are planning to sell or recycle all of their inventory and equipment, some of which dates back to the 20s and is still usable today.

Lam suggests that if the city wants to develop Chinatown, they should attract more stores and restaurants with low rent rates.

“The Chinese want the cheapest rent. If it’s expensive, they’re not even going to bother,” says Lam.