The arts scene moves into Chinatown

Art galleries and creative spaces have been steadily setting up shop in Chinatown, but with new businesses entering the neighbourhood, some are wondering whether it will affect the community’s culture, history, and economic value.

The Central Art Garage, a conceptual art gallery located at Somerset Street West and Lebreton Street North, opened in 2013 in a renovated auto repair shop.

When co-owner of the gallery Danny Hussey moved in four year ago, he said the arts scene hadn’t yet formed in Chinatown.

“When we moved in here, there wasn’t very much,” Hussey said. “Over time, I think people start to gravitate to a certain space.”

Neighbourhoods such as Westboro and Hintonburg are pricing themselves out of the market for many artists, he said.

Chinatown alternatively, is a draw with its less expensive rent and is now attracting a creative community, Hussey said.

“It seems like once something becomes a foothold, it paves the way for other spaces,” he added.

The history of North American Chinatowns dates back to the late 1800s, according to the Collections Canada website. The term Chinatown was created as a negative term for an undesirable area inhabited by those of “an inferior race.”

Located on one or two streets, these neighbourhoods were also some of the only areas where Chinese newcomers and immigrants could rent or buy property. Chinatowns therefore became safe places for Chinese people to live, shop, and socialize.

Ottawa’s Chinatown, before it was given that name, was known as the Somerset Heights area and had a history of being a working class community of Irish and Italian immigrants. Following former Mayor Marion Dewar’s Project 4000 initiative in 1979, Vietnamese refugees also came to live and work in the area. Korean, South Asian, and Thai businesses also inhabit the area.

Despite Chinatown’s growth, Hussey said he believes the Somerset Street backbone of Chinatown will continue to retain its character, with artsy places establishing themselves on the side streets and commercial spots closer to residential areas.

Creative agency Jackpine moved into Chinatown in 2013. CEO Liam Mooney said he has seen more artsy enterprises opening up since then but said he doesn’t believe it has had a detrimental impact on the traditional retail community.

“I don’t think it’s reached a point where people need to be really concerned, but you can see that maybe it could become more challenging for people with less means to live in the neighbourhood,” Mooney said.

But, Mooney said there is a good model for Ottawa in Toronto, where the Old Chinatown is able to thrive alongside the Kensington area and its creative community.

In cities like Vancouver, the development of condos and young professionals moving into Chinatown is pushing rents higher for seniors and low-income residents and challenging the traditional community culture.

Last month, community groups rejoiced in the rejection of a 12-storey condo proposal in a historic corner of Vancouver’s Chinatown.

The area’s gentrification sprouts from the trendy creative institutions that take up shop, said Beverly Ho, community organizer with the Chinatown Concern Group, a Vancouver-based organization that works to protect the area’s heritage and community.

“Usually the first wave of gentrification is artists. They come in and the services and businesses they need follow,” she said.

But this is not an issue limited to Vancouver’s Chinatown, she said.

“I know it is an epidemic across North America—a lot of Chinatowns are being affected,” Ho said, adding that the Chinatown Concern Group is planning to speak with community members in Toronto who may be facing similar issues.

Newcomers bring in business but also make rents go up and change the demographics of the neighbourhood, Ho said.   

“A lot of people think we’re opposed to development or non-Chinese coming in, but that’s not the problem,” Ho said. “It’s not the issue that they have a presence, it’s that they are replacing the working class community.”

Creative businesses make the area dynamic and bring in new clientele into the area, said Shirley Fang, executive co-ordinator of the Chinatown Business Improvement Area (BIA) located in Ottawa.

“[It] makes this area more active,” she said. “The people who come to Chinatown bring something new to the area. We welcome the new things that come.”

Coffee shop and live music venue Bar Robo opened in 2016 and is one of the businesses that has encouraged new clientele to visit Chinatown, she said.  

“Every day they have different events during the night and lots of people come to the area,” Fang said.

“Now we call it Chinatown, but actually we live in multicultural country. So we can’t say this area we only have Chinese or Asian people,” Fang said.

One way that Mooney said he retains the neighbourhood’s heritage inside the Jackpine office is with the old signs of nearby restaurants and shops that he repurposed and has framed on the agency’s walls. Some of these include an old sign from Ben Ben Restaurant located on 697 Somerset St. West and Wa Kiu Foods Inc., formerly at 713 Somerset St. West.

During a workspace launch event on March 24 at the agency, an attendee jokingly asked a staff member if the company offered acupuncture as a service, referring to a large red sign on one of Jackpine’s walls. The employee replied that the signs were simply décor.

“For me it’s about keeping artifacts that remind us of the heritage and the struggle of the people who came before us,” Mooney said.

“Aesthetically they’re very interesting to look at and very enjoyable,” he added.

But, according to Ho, many non-East Asian businesses use cultural motifs in their décor such as dragons, lion heads, Chinese characters, and neon signs in the Vancouver Chinatown as well.

“A lot of the times when this happens in Vancouver it can be kinda disrespectful and pretentious,” she said. “It’s kind of a weird gesture, erring on the side of cultural appropriation.”

The use of these symbols makes Ho feel uneasy, she added.  

“I find it kind of a corny signifier of gentrification, it’s being co-opted,” Ho said. “They don’t really understand it yet it may be aesthetic looking. Kinda like when people get shitty Chinese tattoos.”

Photos by Matt Czapalay