Chinatown 'like a wound that we all have,' says advocate

· The Pulse

A mother is only as happy as her saddest child, says Hon Leong of the Chinatown Transformation Collaborative (CTC). If Edmonton is the mother, Chinatown is that unhappiest child.

"If we want to be a family in this city, we have to take care of everyone. Not just our own — everyone," he told Episode 182 of Speaking Municipally. "When we realize that Chinatown is like a wound that we all have, then that is part of that road to recovery."

Much has happened since Taproot's civic affairs podcast recorded this episode with Leong as well as Chinatown event organizer Sharon Yeo and city planner David Holdsworth. On June 9, the city announced its Downtown Core and Transit System Safety Plan, which includes an operations centre in Chinatown to be jointly run by the city and the Edmonton Police Service, dispatching police, peace officers, and social agency staff where needed. The plan is the city's response to Justice Minister Tyler Shandro's demand for action in the wake of the deaths of Hung Trang and Ban Phuc Hoang and concerns about transit safety.

The recording also pre-dates the CBC's revelations on June 10 about the events leading up to those deaths, namely that Justin Bone, the man accused of killing the two men, was taken to Edmonton by RCMP three days before the May 18 homicides, even though his bail conditions prohibited him from being in the city unsupervised, and that Edmonton police spoke to him but neither detained him nor connected him with mental health or addictions supports. The police service had not disclosed its officers' interactions with Bone during highly charged discussions about police presence in Chinatown, after which city council set the police service's base budget at $407 million and directed the development of a new funding formula.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi deplored the release of offenders into the community without care. He asked Shandro's department for a review — which the province has already rejected — and called on the Edmonton Police Commission for a "fulsome investigation into what led to this failure to keep Edmontonians safe and whether it reflects any systemic practices."

Because of the concentration of social services in or near Chinatown, and the inadequacy of those services to meet the need, the area has become a place where people with nowhere else to go end up, hence the large degree of social disorder.

"The Chinatown I remember growing up was one that was very vibrant. My family would visit Chinatown in the commercial areas especially on the weekends where we would have family meals together and do a lot of our grocery shopping," said Yeo, remembering produce sold on the street and enticing smells wafting from windows. "That's something that is not a part of my current Chinatown visits. It's a very different streetscape than the one I remember."

A woman wearing a T-shirt that reads "I (heart) YEG Chinatown" behind a crowd on a tour

The 2017 Edmonton Chinatown Walking Tour, co-organized by Sharon Yeo, is one of many efforts over the past few years to bring vibrancy to the area. (Mack Male/Flickr)

Public safety has been at the core of many revitalization plans, whether it be the 2010 McCauley revitalization strategy, the 2017 Chinatown Strategy, or the long list of projects compiled by the city in May. If little progress has been made, it's because the general attitude toward Chinatown has not been addressed, Leong suggested.

"The word 'Chinatown' itself is not created by Chinese people. It's created by Western civilization — it's an area where you can herd Chinese people," he said. "It's why perhaps Chinatowns are not respected areas of belonging ... I think this is a problem that literally sets its roots back into the 1800s. Before we can even call Canada, Canada."

Yeo noted the more recent history of displacement in Edmonton's Chinatown, starting with its relocation in the late 1970s to make way for Canada Place, which led to a geographic split between commercial Chinatown along the north part of 97 Street and cultural Chinatown further south.

"That lack of connection has sort of started Edmonton on that path of displacement, which is a history that that has continued in more recent years," she said, citing the removal of the Harbin Gate to make way for LRT construction.

"Many people in the community were very upset over that because they saw that as, again, another sign of the Chinese community having to give up something for someone else," Yeo said.

A plan is in the works to replace the gate, said Holdsworth, a senior planner with the city who is responsible for downtown. The original will not fit the new location at 97 Street south of Jasper Avenue, but a new design is in the works, and if council decides in the fall to fund it from the downtown community revitalization levy, it has a landing place.

Meanwhile, the old gate is in storage, but the city would like to return it to a culturally appropriate place. "It's a great asset," Holdsworth said. "It's certainly a beautiful, beautiful piece."

Whether it's the restoration of the Harbin Gate or the decision to spend $300,000 on security or $1 million for Chinatown post-COVID vibrancy, it can all seem like not enough in light of the scale of the problem. But Leong cautioned against hopelessness.

"If we consistently talk about gestures of goodwill like they're band-aids, that's how you create an environment where people don't want to help one another," he said.

And Yeo hopes that after all is said and done, people don't forget about Chinatown as a place to be enjoyed.

"There are many businesses that are well worth people's time," she said. "And we hope that they're still around."

Hear much more about the past, present, and future of Chinatown in the June 10 episode of Speaking Municipally.