December 21, 2017

A New Generation of Activists Assist in Chinatown's Next Chapter~Melody Ma

There are a lot of unsung heroes in Vancouver that care deeply about place and culture, and recognizing that some elements of the City are important enough to fight for. Melody Ma is one of the emerging voices in Vancouver who quite simply, calls it like it is. The City of Vancouver has just announced a public process review~but as Melody points out on social media, this process is being announced in English, despite the fact that there are significant other language groups in the city. When the public hearing for 105 Keefer was held, people who required English translation to speak to Council had that translation service counted as within their alloted speaking time. Melody and Nat Lowe spoke up about it, and made others aware of this.
Evan Duggan in the Vancouver Sun has written about Ms. Ma who leads the #SaveChinatownYVR group, an organization attempting to hold onto the 130 year history of the Chinatown neighbourhood, which is the largest and most intact Chinatown remaining in North America. (In San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake that Chinatown was rebuilt with Asian references by architects who were not Chinese and who had never been to China.)
Chinatown is not only one of the City’s oldest neighbourhoods, it housed the people who fundamentally built Canada by working on the railways. Price Tags Vancouver has written about  the neglect and “deboning” (as noted columnist Daphne Bramham calls it)  of this area which was the focal point for the 17,000 Chinese labourers who built the railway. This has also the place where their descendants said no to the development of a freeway cleaving Chinatown in the 1970’s. There’s been abject racism, and bias to this area’s conservation~but there is also a resiliency and cultural pride in Chinatown  that is captivating.
As Melody Ma observes“It’s a place … where I went to Chinese school every day, where I learned Chinese dancing every weekend. It’s where I found my identity.” Ma’s involvement with 105 Keefer Street has reawakened a younger generation in Chinatown about the importance of structure, use and function of buildings in this historically signficant areas. “This is a gateway site in Chinatown,” she said, standing next to the war memorial. “If you could imagine a 13- or nine-storey building overlooking this site, it is going to be pretty massive. It is on a site that is surrounded by these amazing cultural assets,” she said, referring to the Chinese Cultural Centre and Dr. Sun Yat-sen Gardens.
A new generation of people with attachments to Chinatown are now actively reviewing developments that could displace Chinese businesses and disrupt Chinatown’s history.  Chinatown is of international importance and is nationally significant as a historical neighbourhood that was the core for a group of workers that built Canada. While the City of Vancouver is now persuing World Heritage status through UNESCO, Melody Ma looks at the Mah Society building at 137 Pender Street as a key example of a renovation in keeping with Chinatown’s traditions: It embodies all of the aspects and characteristics of what I think a lot of the community is looking for,” she said. “On the bottom floor … you have Jade Dynasty restaurant, which is a culturally appropriate business. Locals enjoy it, tourists enjoy it, it’s packed on the weekends. On top, you have social housing. … It’s not just limited to Chinese seniors. It’s open to everybody.” As Ms. Ma also notes, “We need to think about cultural implications, and it is more than just a facade”.

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