Let us be Water: Grieving Gentrification in the Heart of the City

A few years ago, I was walking home from work in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and took my usual route down Main Street, through Chinatown. The mural by the tea shop was starting to crack: the family’s traditional robes fading to dusty pink, the youngest girl’s face crumbling inwards into emptiness. I paused to look at her. All over the city, colourful new murals were being painted as part of the Vancouver Mural Festival, a developer-sponsored initiative to “revitalize” low-income neighbourhoods, and here in the middle of Chinatown she went unnoticed. Did anyone else know she was disappearing?

Chinatown has always been a special place to me, the site of overlapping welcome and estrangement. When I moved to Vancouver from Calgary, so much of this lush, dense city was unrecognizable, but Chinatown in all its smells and sounds was achingly familiar—an approximation of home. I couldn’t speak the language or read the newspapers, but at least I could order the same steamed buns and congee that recalled my childhood. I could still duck into markets to buy bean curd and white rabbit candy as tinny opera music played on the radio.  I belonged here because of these things, even if the storekeepers always knew to speak English when they saw me. Like so many immigrant kids, I was raised in between cultures and languages, so my definition of home is one that, like me, is always on the move—it lives in scents and tastes and mannerisms and moments, continually stitched together. Chinatown is one of those threads, and so is grief: the particular inheritance of being born into loss and having no exact place to return to, bits of a bricolaged home constantly under threat.

As I walked, I noticed how much Main Street had changed, even in the few months I had been working in the Downtown Eastside: gleaming new storefronts on the west side, tattered awnings and shuttered shops on the east side. First, it was the hipster coffee shop which had opened directly across from a long-standing single residence occupancy hotel (SRO), one of the many low-income housing buildings in the neighbourhood notorious for subhuman living conditions, the last possible option to homelessness. Next, it was the boutique grocery store, complete with a security guard, then, a vegan pie store, a poke restaurant. Meanwhile, the Chinatown I knew was being methodically erased, a shrinking circumference of cheap produce, convenience stores, herbs, and traditional medicine. The Carnegie Community Action Project’s 2017 Retail Gentrification Report details that over twenty-five historic and low-income-friendly businesses were lost in a single year, with twenty new businesses (to add to over a hundred others) categorized as zones of exclusion where poor and working class people do not have the economic or social capital to enter. In Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, over 13,000 people are on social assistance; rates have been raised only twice in ten years, by minuscule increments. Certainly not enough to buy an $11 juice, even on cheque day.

I was passing what would later be the site of Ten Year Tent City—a women-led long-term encampment—when I saw a young couple, dressed all in white formalwear, carrying a picnic basket. They walked briskly from their parked car towards me, then they veered away, white shoes clicking. I wondered if I’d seen some kind of apparition, or perhaps performance art. Absurdist theatre. It wasn’t until I saw several more of these apparitions—all young, done up, dressed completely in white, and speed walking with single-minded dedication—that I realized they must be on their way to Dîner en Blanc. This invitation-only pop-up dinner is an odd bougie phenomenon, the outdoor location changing each year. Attendees are required to wear all white and, judging from the photos, are mostly young white professionals looking for Instagram boosts. It all seemed vaguely dystopian, more so than in the general late-capitalism way. Perhaps it was the irony of rich white folks, dressed in white, banqueting on stolen land as Chinese seniors and Indigenous residents have their food security, community, and neighbourhood eaten away, day after day. Obscene wealth disparities span the city, but the image was especially bruising here in this neighbourhood’s complicated and contested space.

In Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, over 13,000 people are on social assistance; rates have been raised only twice in ten years, by minuscule increments. Certainly not enough to buy an $11 juice, even on cheque day.

In his writing on spatial justice, Edward Soja argues that the spatial shapes the social, just as much as the social shapes the spatial. Space being socially produced means it has the capability to compound unjust power dynamics; it has the power to dominate and discipline, and therefore, must be recognized in any struggle for justice. Space is never neutral, and neither are the ways we move through it (or cannot move through it). Zones of exclusion that implicitly forbid entry to working class Chinese seniors, poor and homeless people, and displaced Indigenous people who live in the Downtown Eastside, are a purposeful impetus that, regardless of friendly branding and progressive rhetoric, reproduce racist and colonial frameworks of attempted assimilation, of who belongs and who does not. Harsha Walia and Dave Diewert point out in a 2012 rabble piece on gentrification in the Downtown Eastside that “power is operative regardless of the personable façade, co-opted language, and token gestures of alliance promoted by some of the newly arrived gentry.” As a recent example of this, some gentrifying businesses have started adding Chinese characters to their signage, regardless of the fact that their price points make them completely inaccessible to residents.

I thought about the Chinese senior women (colloquially, po-pos, from the Cantonese 婆婆) I’d met in the neighbourhood who don’t speak any English. Their lives were contained to the handful of blocks in the vicinity. I thought about Gangster Po-po, dubbed such by Downtown Eastside workers, who fought off other bottle pickers and spoke Toisanese to everyone at the Women’s Centre despite no one else knowing the dialect, and Po-po Li, who would pass on a gift whenever she saw me: tomatoes from her garden, homemade dumplings, a giant 2L bottle of blue Gatorade. I wondered what it would be like to have your home—not just an approximation of home—slowly disappear as a hungry pale flock descended, sharp heels and teeth sinking in.

Like Chinatowns across North America, Vancouver’s Chinatown coalesced from ostracization, a fierce demonstration of cultural kinship and resilience in an era when settler-colonialism and white supremacy were overtly the way of the day. And, like all of Vancouver, Chinatown exists on unceded Indigenous land: the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh. The same state mechanisms that settled stolen land and relegated Indigenous people to reserves (0.02% of land in Canada, as pointed out by the late Secwepemc leader Arthur Manual) built a city based on the designation of racialized people as less-than. Only European settlers could purchase Crown land directly, which limited where people of colour and Black people could live. Housing covenants included explicit forbiddances (“No Asiatic, Negro or Indian shall have the right or be allowed to own, become tenant of or occupy any part of [the property],”) which, in some cases when families continue to pass down property and wealth, are never removed. Chinatown, Japantown, and Hogan’s Alley (at one time the heart of Vancouver’s Black community) emerged from the crucible of struggle and survival.

Today, none of these spaces show up on a map of Vancouver neighbourhoods. Japantown never recovered after WWII internment, Hogan’s Alley was demolished to make way for the Georgia Viaduct, and Chinatown, mysteriously, just isn’t listed. Now that the City is planning to take down the viaduct, Hogan’s Alley Society has been reminding the powers that be of the viaduct’s grievable history, advocating for a community centre and land trust for Vancouver’s Black residents. Those who do the sacred work of memory-keeping are invaluable to envisioning spatial justice, dreaming up futures of equity and flourishing. Grief is about remembering, and memory is a potent tool for resistance.

In May 2017, I’m sitting at a packed public hearing at City Hall. I’ve worn a red dress for the occasion, a way to honour my biological and adoptive ancestors: Hakka women who walked miles in unbound feet, grandparents who crossed oceans, the disappearing mural girl, Chinatown po-pos, Elders in the Downtown Eastside who taught me how to honour and learn from the land I live on. I recognize some po-pos from work and make affectionate hand-gesture greetings, receive chuckles and the clasp of warm palms. We’re here to speak in opposition to a proposed condo development at 105 Keefer Street, mobilized by a patchwork coalition of seniors and youth, artists and activists, non-profit worker bees. More than a hundred speakers have signed up. Some are fixated on details like the height and the design of the proposed building; others from the development industry and business world speak in favour of the condo to increase traffic through Chinatown. Boos rumble, unstaunched by the disgruntled city clerk.

Those who do the sacred work of memory-keeping are invaluable to envisioning spatial justice, dreaming up futures of equity and flourishing.

The bulk of testimonies are stubbornly, starkly personal. They are stories of grief, naming and bearing witness to what has already been lost. One Nikkei youth speaks to what the loss of Japantown means to her own family. She says she doesn’t want the same thing to happen to Chinatown. Fearless Downtown Eastside and Chinatown residents decry the slow violence of gentrification and the inertia of the City in protecting its most vulnerable populations. Not everyone respects the two-minute mark; the indomitable po-pos shout down the timekeeper on their way from the speaker’s platform. Three days of speakers later, the City votes down the proposed development. It’s the fifth application from Beedie, the developer, in three years, and a rare victory. Homelessness has nearly doubled, rents are rising, and seniors teeter on the edge of eviction, but we stopped this one. We stopped this one.

My counsellor used to ask, where can you feel that in your body? I never knew how to answer. Everywhere, nowhere. Sometimes grief knots up tight in my gut, where anger and stress tend to coalesce, where it’s hard to tell the difference between them. Sometimes, grief pulls me into its gravity well, my bones heavy, head buzzing as if after a blow, and everything slides into sharp focus—peeling street signs, market stalls under fluorescent light, old men smoking with their lined faces turned to the sky—as if I’m seeing it for the last time, this piece of home, pulse in my chest.

Later, I read a melodramatic quote in the newspaper about a chill going through the development industry, and I want to smile, bare my teeth and shatter glass. I can still feel the drums of the Downtown Eastside thrumming in my bones. I fall asleep to the smell of sage and incense, dream about rivers wearing down rock.

“What about a riot tour?” I’m taking a group of Elders out for lunch in Chinatown, and we’re talking about undertold histories of the neighbourhood. Teresa reminds me of the anti-Asian riot of 1907, when 9,000 people (more than a third of the city’s population at the time) ransacked businesses in Chinatown and Japantown, sixteen years before the Chinese Exclusion Act and thirty-five before Japanese internment. Ronnie reminisces about community resistance to Expo ‘86, when more than a thousand SRO residents were evicted, and the fight for CRAB Park by Downtown Eastside residents, which meant access to green space and sight of the ocean. When I get home, I look it up, and a riot tour actually exists. Artist and professor Henry Tsang has created the 360 Riot Walk, an interactive self-guided tour app that takes the walker through Gastown, Chinatown, the Downtown Eastside, and Japantown. I can’t help wondering what a riot tour led by the Elders would be like. These warrior women, memory-keepers who refuse to be displaced and erased, picking at chicken bones and comparing chopstick skills, redistributing piles of rice and green onion among our circle of plates until all the food is eaten.

How can those of us with migratory histories, those of us who live in the liminal home of diaspora, orient ourselves to Indigenous leadership in the fight against gentrification in Chinatown? It’s a question with no single answer, but I think one of them might be sharing meals, grieving practices, and memory, which fortify all of us. A while back, I went to a university talk on Chinese-Indigenous history and learned that Chinese restaurants were rare havens for Indigenous folks in the early days of settlement, since Indigenous people were excluded from white-owned establishments. Chinese-Indigenous relationships go back a long way, and not just in Chinatown. The Sto:lo people have names for burial grounds where Chinese railway workers died, pre-Head Tax and pre-Confederation. There are histories of mutual exchange, intermarriages, even of fighting off white gold miners. Thanks to historians like Bill Chu, marginal histories are being uncovered, shared, re-learned. The practices of grief have ensured a shared memory, which, like Chinatown’s food, nourishes our shared struggle.

Natalie Knight asks, “What if we were to consider the city as a site of Indigenous land stewardship?” To consider the urban frontline against gentrification as one aligned with land defense struggles across Turtle Island is to learn from the Indigenous Elders and matriarchs who have long resisted erasure and extraction, who have kept its sacred fire. People like Teresa, Ronnie, and Rita, who has led the Women’s Memorial March with medicine since its inception. Or sister Elders like Po-po Sue, who at almost ninety was a lively participant in marches with the Downtown Eastside Power of Women Group, who would putter down Hastings Street with her walker wishing everyone hello with her incandescent smile.

When white supremacy pits communities of colour against each other—especially, leveraging East Asian immigrants as the model minority to prop up anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism—I want us to remember that none of us are separate, that the scarcity of space is a colonial myth, an impossible formula. Instead, I want us to be a body of water, led by sacred keepers since time immemorial, force through fluidity, an ocean of tears, mass and magic and movement that can topple any man-made barrier.

Early into my Vancouver summers, I was volunteering with a youth writing mentorship program in Strathcona, which neighbours Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside. We would walk to the neighbourhood school to pick up kids and bring them over to the program office, where they would read books, draw comics, wreak havoc, and eat snacks. One day, the program staff seemed subdued. “Chip Wilson bought up the block,” another volunteer tells me. “The rent doubled. They’re not sure if they can stay here.”

I look across the street at Ray-Cam Cooperative Centre, born from the grassroots activism of the Militant Mothers of Raymur, and think of the pedestrian overpass tucked a few blocks in from Hastings Street, which the City only built after the Mothers staged a sit-in on the railway tracks. The Mothers were concerned about their children getting to school safely. They endured fines, even jail, to see their kids’ right to education and safe passage fulfilled. Now, a jackass billionaire Columbusses in to install luxury furniture stores and high-end clothing boutiques in the place of free childcare and literacy programs. It’s not only an insult to the Mothers’ memory but an act of violent, purposeful forgetting. If you forget the Mothers, you can forget the children, forget the very lifeblood of the neighbourhood under threat by rising rent and eroding services. Plant a flag—or, in the case of Strathcona, new neighbourhood banners advertising “Most Walkable Street 2021”—as if residents have not been walking for decades.

I want us to be a body of water, led by sacred keepers since time immemorial, force through fluidity, an ocean of tears, mass and magic and movement that can topple any man-made barrier.

In The Violence of Organized Forgetting, Henry Giroux writes about the state’s “weaponized refusal to acknowledge the violence of the past,” which, beyond the cultural and historic amnesia he ascribes to an American context, also articulates the erasure that gentrification attempts: not only of marginal people and communities, but of memory itself. This forgetting is not an individual or inexorable process, but a targeted mechanism of settler-colonialism and capitalist development, all under the guiding hand of neoliberalism, which treats housing as a commodity rather than a human right. In the Downtown Eastside and other urban centres, gentrification disproportionately uproots Indigenous people in a double displacement, colonization on repeat. Forgetting wipes the slate: terra nullius.

In Strathcona, the Vancouver Mural Festival has been especially aggressive with its pro-development propaganda. Huge new murals cover entire walls and spill into alleyways behind the new pizzeria, where survival sex workers pace the block for customers. One of these murals is emblazoned on the same building where the youth organization lost their tenancy. It reads, in bright pink and orange: TOGETHER.

But not everyone forgets. One day across the pedestrian overpass, I notice that someone has re-written “LONG LIVE THE MOTHERS” in scrawled sharpie across the concrete. No matter how many times the phrase is removed or written over, it keeps coming back.

How many ways can a colonizer plant a flag? Three blocks from Main and Hastings, the corner cafe builds a summer patio. On the wide swath of sidewalk formerly used by street vendors, literal barriers are erected to segregate the desired from the undesired. More recently, I’ve spotted new Gastown banners, creeping in from the west and north, hemming in the Downtown Eastside block by block. One of them hangs directly outside the former Gallery Gachet, which displayed the artwork of many Downtown Eastside artists fighting stigmas against mental health, poverty and addiction. Gallery Gachet too was displaced by rising rent: more than a year later, the six-foot-wide FOR SALE sign is riddled in graffiti, the building dark and empty. Its steps still serve as a stoop for locals, where they won’t be harassed by the increasing security of the nearby streetwear boutique.

Every year on Valentine’s Day, the tables turn for a moment. The tides change. Matriarchs and Elders lead the Women’s Memorial March through the Downtown Eastside, a relentless and steady river, attending to grief, taking up space. Thousands join the annual march, which started as a small group of Indigenous women holding ceremony for the Missing and Murdered before they had an acronym, more than twenty years ago. With the Elders at the forefront, we walk accompanied by drums and the Women’s Warrior Song, voices and sage-smoke rising to the sky. We walk into Gastown, past boutiques and salons and luxury apartments. The eagles arrive; they spiral overhead in blessing as the Elders scatter roses and prayers for the lost. It reminds me that grief as ceremony and resistance and survival is an Indigenous lesson, and I have much to learn. I’m memorizing solidarity in every tear and footfall, every drumbeat pulse of love and rage shifting the sidewalk. Like beloved late poet and Downtown Eastside saint Bud Osborn wrote: love as in our public grieving and, over and over, raise shit.

Rita not only leads the March each year; she brings prayer and medicine to each new memorial, fresh tears and tenderness to each death. To me, Rita embodies radical softness, fathoms of love. She prays in Cree for healing, talks about overthrowing the government in the next breath. She brings those around her up to scratch, including me, other workers in the Downtown Eastside, and, as she tells me, her old landlord. “I used to tell him, how can you charge me rent when you stole our land? I made him cry sometimes, but he’s learned.” Rita places her arm against mine, kisses my cheek. “You’re a brownie too,” she says, eyes crinkling as she looks at our skin side by side. “Their era is over, they just don’t know it yet.”

I want to believe her. I let softness and anger turn to fire in my belly, fuel me like rice and green onion and the memories of all my ancestors. When I walk by the pristine window displays I clench my fists. I wonder how strong the glass is, picture it meeting an object at high velocity, hairline cracks spreading out like blood, shattering. I walk so fast the barbershops, salons, coffee shops, storefronts blur together into one long fragile smear of light. Like water, wearing down stone.