Vancouver’s Chinatown was years in the making. When gold was discovered in the lower Fraser Valley in 1857, Chinese laborers began heading to the west coast, seeking a better life in Gum Shan (Gold Mountain). In the years that followed, thousands of additional workers came to toil on the railway that was being built across BC. However, by 1885, anti-Chinese sentiment had grown in Canada, and the government imposed a $50 head tax on each Chinese immigrant who came (this rose to $500 by 1903).
With the cost of entry so high in those early years, few Chinese women made it to Canada. And after the railway was complete, racism was so common that the Chinese men had nowhere to go. So, the men started their own businesses and political associations within segregated enclaves such as Vancouver’s Chinatown. “The restaurant owner down the street may have been an engineer, but he wasn’t allowed to be an engineer, so that’s why he started a restaurant,” Lee says.
After World War II, when the federal government repealed the discriminatory laws against the Chinese, immigration opened up. This is when Vancouver’s Chinatown became a cultural and commercial hub for many newcomers to Canada. But then, after decades of growth, residents of Chinatown began wanting their kids to take advantage of all Canada had to offer. They encouraged them to head elsewhere for different opportunities.
For many, Chinatown felt old-fashioned; a place that couldn’t keep up with cultural shifts. By 2010, shops were closing and the famous neon signs were long gone. For Lee, the losses in Chinatown felt personal. In the 1920s, her paternal grandfather immigrated to Vancouver from China. His village chose him as the most capable, and raised the money for him to come to Canada where he became an early founder of Vancouver’s Chinatown. For her, protecting Chinatown doesn’t just protect his legacy; she says it preserves the larger story: “This is how we all became Canadian.”