These days, it’s Chinaburbia

Fort Richmond has inherited the King Street mantle

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For all intents and purposes, Winnipeg's Chinatown can now be found along a stretch of Pembina Highway, between the Perimeter and Bishop Grandin Boulevard.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/01/2011 (4333 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For all intents and purposes, Winnipeg’s Chinatown can now be found along a stretch of Pembina Highway, between the Perimeter and Bishop Grandin Boulevard.

Roughly a quarter of Winnipeg’s 12,700-strong Chinese-Canadian community, or 3,375 people, live in a cluster of neighbourhoods in south Fort Garry, near the University of Manitoba.

Chinatown itself, once the centre of Chinese-Canadian life in Winnipeg, is home to only 415 ethnic Chinese and only 600 residents in total. Over the past 50 years, people, buildings and businesses have disappeared from the once-vibrant neighbourhood due to a bittersweet combination of improved civil rights, out-migration and economic success on one hand — and neglect, demolition and arson on the other.

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Kum Koon Garden on King Street is a successful Chinatown institution.

“Chinatown is just a street. There’s only a few buildings there,” said Ziyang Lin, a restaurant manager who immigrated from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou nine years ago and is one of the few people who actually live in Chinatown.

Lin co-manages two Dim Sum Garden locations, one on Rupert Street in Chinatown and one on Pembina Highway in what’s now the de facto centre of the city’s Chinese community.

On Thursday night, every customer in his Pembina Highway location was Chinese. Dim Sum Garden’s Chinatown location is kept alive by a loyal Filipino-Canadian clientele, said Lin, who worked at Chinatown institution Kum Koon Garden before he branched out on his own.

Chinatown still has successful properties, such as Kum Koon, the Sun Wah grocery and the Dynasty Building, built in 1987 by the Chinatown Development Corp.

But surface parking lots, vacant buildings and a dearth of population illustrate a trend evident in almost every North American city: the post-war flight of Chinese immigrants and their descendents to the suburbs and resulting emptying-out of Chinatowns.

The ethnic enclaves originally formed out of necessity. At the turn of the 20th century, Chinese immigrants in both Canada and the U.S. were denied jobs, access to land ownership and freedom of movement.

“Chinatown was created because of discrimination. We had to look after each other and fend for ourselves,” said Dr. Joseph Du, a respected community leader and president of the Chinatown Development Corp.

Limits to Chinese immigration during the Depression and the Second World War suppressed the growth of Chinatowns in both Canada and the U.S.

But starting in the 1960s, changes to immigration policies allowed waves of skilled professionals to come to Canada and people with existing family to emigrate to the U.S., said Peter Kwong, an Asian-American studies professor at New York City’s Hunter College and the author of The New Chinatown.

Waves of newcomers soon repopulated historic Chinatowns. In larger cities such as New York, Toronto and San Francisco, Chinatowns expanded in the 1970s and 1980s. But increasingly expensive property values forced less affluent immigrants to move out of the neighbourhood — while wealthier Chinese immigrants and their descendents joined every other successful ethnic group in a flight to large properties in the suburbs, Kwong notes.

Richmond Hill, Ont., Richmond, B.C., and Orange County, Calif., are all examples of places where the suburban Chinese communities now dwarf the still-thriving historic Chinatowns in Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles, respectively.

“In an ironic way, the new immigrants have built these dispersed Chinatowns,” Kwong said.

Part of this growth was further propelled by the flight of wealthy Hong Kong residents to North America in the late 1990s, before the coastal city reverted to Chinese rule. But mid-continental centres such as St. Louis and Winnipeg didn’t benefit as much from the newer waves of Chinese immigration.

Winnipeg’s Chinese community received an infusion of new blood in the form of ethnic Chinese who fled Vietnam in the 1970s and began arriving in Manitoba in 1979, Du noted. But visiting students from China increasingly chose to settle near the University of Manitoba and often chose to remain in the immediate vicinity after they graduated.

“If anything, Fort Garry and Fort Richmond is Chinatown,” said Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, whose Point Douglas ward includes Chinatown proper, a neighbourhood he hopes will revive with the help of Chinese investment.

“There’s a lot of money in Hong Kong. It would be chump change for some of these investors to come in and buy a few buildings,” said Pagtakhan, who lives in the nearby Centennial neighbourhood. Du agrees, noting Chinese immigrants have made significant investments in Fort Garry.

But downtown development agency CentreVenture has had little luck procuring Chinese investment in Chinatown. The agency is focusing instead on working with homegrown investors such as the Chinatown Development Corp., which hopes to build a 48-unit residential building at the corner of Princess Street and Logan Avenue. CentreVenture will donate the land, development director Loretta Martin said.

The Chinatown Development Corp. also remains in the discussions to purchase the historic Coronation Block, better-known as the Shanghai restaurant building, which once served as a temporary city hall. In December, city council granted the organization permission to demolish the block, once it files development plans for a new Asian seniors residence.

This angered Heritage Winnipeg and other historical-building advocates who complain too few of Chinatown’s historic structures have survived the emptying-out of the neighbourhood.

If the Coronation Block is demolished, only one other heritage structure will remain in Chinatown at 221 Rupert Ave. A handful of other Chinatown buildings await a heritage assessment.

The city is in the process of putting together a planning framework for the wider warehouse district, including the Exchange District National Historic Site.

Chinatown was left out of the historic site because it developed as an enclave in 1910 — too late to meet strict federal criteria for the Exchange, city historical buildings officer Jennifer Hansell said.

Quietly, other city officials and politicians grumble Chinatown property owners aren’t doing enough to maintain their buildings and wish the community would reinvest in the neighbourhood. Du countered the Chinatown Development Corp. has its plate full with its residential projects.

“We need more residents, more people,” Du said. “If we don’t do anything in Chinatown, we’ll be dead.”

Winnipeg Free Press John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press Ziyang Lin, owner of Dim Sum Garden, serves Raymond Lai and May Lee at his restaurant on Pembina Highway Friday.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Once the epicentre of Winnipeg’s Chinese community, downtown’s historic Chinatown is now home to only three per cent of the city’s Chinese-Canadian population. The end of segregation and increased immigration in the 1960s allowed the community to disperse into every neighbourhood of the city. The largest concentration of Chinese-Canadians in Winnipeg is now located in the southern portion of Fort Garry. Slightly more than a quarter of the community resides in neighbourhoods near the University of Manitoba. The following Chinese-Canadian population data are based on Statistics Canada’s 2006 sub-census:

 

12,660

Chinese-Canadians in Winnipeg overall

 

415

In Chinatown

 

1,375

In all inner-city neighbourhoods

 

1,300

In Fort Richmond

 

1,055

In Richmond West

 

3,375

In all south Fort Garry neighbourhoods

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