Historic Calgary community is at a revitalization crossroads
Terry Wong — treasurer and chair member of Chinatown’s Business Revitalization Zone — is standing just outside Silver Dragon Restaurant, facing the busy street as hungry members of Calgary’s corporate world rush towards the plethora of restaurants the area is known for.
It’s the first day of the Chinese New Year of the Monkey and the lunch hour hustle is complemented by the haunting sounds of an erhu —a single-stringed traditional Chinese musical instrument — being played by a man across the street.
Wong, and an additional 150 members of Calgary’s Chinese community, rang in the New Year early on the morning of Feb. 8 outside City Hall, where they gathered to rally against proposed bylaw changes that would result in a land use amendment to an area between Second Avenue S.W. and Third Avenue S.W.
The resulting changes would enable developer Manu Chugh Architects Ltd. to build a skyscraper on the parcel of land. The firm represents landowner El Condor Lands Inc. Real estate mogul Nicholas Hon — of Hon Developments — is the primary shareholder.
Communication is key
As Wong and I walk up stairs into Silver Dragon for our interview, he says that while the Chinese community is not opposed to revitalization in Chinatown, the majority of the community was unaware of the proposed bylaw changes until Oct. 2015. A passerby in the area happened to see a flyer on the street announcing the changes.
“This is not a protest,” says Wong. “What we are doing is trying to raise the awareness of City Council that Chinatown is taking responsibility for its health and growth. In doing so, it is important for Chinatown to be informed.”
Manu Chugh, principal architect at Manu Chugh Architect Ltd., says that his firm connected with a few community interest groups in 2014 to explain what the project entailed.
“And now some people are saying that [the people we met with] were not the right people,” says Chugh. “In a small [community] with so many interest groups, it was difficult.”
He adds that his company did not know whom to contact and that until the Chinatown Business Revitalization Zone was formed last fall, there was not a “joint front” among the community’s interest groups.
“To some extent they can call it a failure on our part. I will not admit to the failure,” Chugh adds, emphasizing that his firm did reach out to the community.
The proposed development is a structure comparable in size to The Bow building on Sixth Avenue S.E. The plan outlines a three-story commercial podium covering the entire city block, with three additional towers built on top of the podium.
The three towers will be of varying heights, with the tower closest to the Sien Lok Park reaching 19 stories, and the remaining two structures reaching 27 and 24 stories respectively.
No other building in Chinatown exceeds two-stories and the current Area Redevelopment Plan height restriction is 150-feet.
“You have to question, would you build something like that in Heritage Park?” says Wong. “No. Why would you do that in Chinatown?”
Chugh says his firm recognizes Chinatown is special, but progress cannot be avoided.
“Yes, Chinatown is a historical site. There is no question about that,” says Chugh. “But the proximity to downtown has to be taken into consideration.”
Wong stresses the importance of working collaboratively with developers and the community to ensure that the new building will be consistent with Chinatown’s existing architecture and, as a mix of residential and commercial space, that it functions to nurture the community’s culture.
Chugh says that when the project gets to the development stage, his firm intends to maintain Chinatown’s character. Some of the building’s inspiration is being drawn from architecture in Xintiandi and the Huangpu District in Shanghai.
Project put on pause
It may be some time until the skyscraper reaches the development stage, as the Chinese community’s rally was successful. Councilor Druh Farrell tabled the motion to give the community and developers more time to communicate about constructing the new building.
Farrell says that the next step will be deciding how to move the project forward.
“It’s different than what is outlined in the Area Redevelopment Plan, however the plan doesn’t reflect today’s real estate economics,” she says.
No community left behind
Chinatown, established 106 years ago, is one of Calgary’s most historic communities. Yet, Wong and Farrell agree that a 30-year-old Area Redevelopment Plan, the 2013 flood devastation and a decrease in residential population have caused the community’s vibrancy to fade.
The crumbling sidewalks, empty lots and vacant businesses are a clear sign that the area requires redevelopment — but how that redevelopment occurs could either save or sacrifice Chinatown’s rich culture.
Indeed, Farrell says that while communities surrounding Chinatown such as East Village and Eau Claire have revitalized and bounced back from the 2013 flood, little has been done to develop Chinatown.
“That is why it is important that we look at the relevance of the current Area Redevelopment Plan and amend it to reflect today’s needs,” says Farrell.
“But more importantly,” she adds, “How do we ensure that every development contributes to the culture?”
Wong says that another important part of the equation is considering members of the Chinese community who immigrated to Calgary in the ’20s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
“They have invested a lot into building the culture and the community,” he says. “That passion for community and family is what we need to protect.”
Times have changed
One individual who immigrated to Calgary in the early 1970’s is Tony Wong, the current vice president of the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre.
Tony says that he can still vividly recall what Chinatown was like when he first moved to the city.
“It was a swampy area, low-lying with houses that were built almost 100 years ago,” he says. “I felt sad when I saw them because I thought: look at Calgary. Downtown was very nice, clean and modern, and you stepped into Chinatown and it was dirty and rundown.”
An influx of immigrants, primarily from Hong Kong, during the ’70s helped the area catch up to speed with the rest of the city. At the time, Chinatown was a cultural hub for newly arrived Chinese — providing them jobs, homes and community.
Contrarily, Tony says that now, Asian immigrants no longer need to stay in Chinatown to adapt to life in Calgary.
“They live in the suburbs, they speak English and they have a relatively higher income,” he says. “So that is changing.”
Tony adds that when people stay away from Chinatown, the businesses suffer. As a result, there is an increase in empty residential and commercial space.
“To me,” he adds, “that is a crisis. If this goes on, we won’t have a Chinatown 20 or 30 years from now.”
The Feb. rally at City Hall is not the first time the Chinese community has banded together to preserve their culture.
“The early ’80s is the first time we went against the developers,” says Tony. “All the reasons we were opposed then is the same as why we are doing it today.”
Over three decades ago, developers bought two city blocks where the Chinese Cultural Centre currently resides. After procuring the real estate, the two landowners at the time — Cadillac Fairview and Superior Oil — were convinced by the Chinese community to donate a portion of the land and contribute to a financial sum totaling roughly $125,000 in order for the centre to be built.
Tony stresses that, like in the 1980’s, the Chinese community is not anti-development. Rather, they want to ensure that development in Chinatown is “in an orderly fashion and that it will not negatively impact the community.”
Terry Wong says that many Chinese people, especially during the 20th century, undertook significant journeys and made many sacrifices to come to Calgary in order to build a better life.
“And now — for the descendants of their families — to lose that would be a crime,” he says.
Ryan Tam is a first generation Canadian whose grandfather immigrated to Canada in the ’60s. Eight years later, Tam’s grandfather opened Silver Dragon Restaurant and applied to bring his wife and two daughters over to Calgary.
To this day, Tam’s 80-year-old grandfather arrives at the restaurant at 8:30 a.m. to man one of the wok stations in the kitchen. And — despite taking a small break to play mahjong or take a nap — he doesn’t leave the business until 11:30 p.m.
Likewise — although Tam’s aunt Annette Fung now runs Silver Dragon — his grandmother also commits the majority of her day to the establishment, serving tea and mingling with the tables.
Tam started working at his mother’s business, Silver Dragon Banff, when he was 14-years-old. After moving to the University of Calgary to complete his degree in operations management, he helped out at the Chinatown restaurant on Sundays.
Tam says during weekends the downtown area is much less busy than in the week, as most people primarily come to the Core to work. He adds that as the city develops, making downtown a central hub would drive traffic to areas like Chinatown.
“I think Calgary is still developing and it lacks a lot of identity in a way,” says Tam, adding that communities such as Chinatown, Japanese Town or Little Italy should be part of every city because they increase multiculturalism.
He adds that Chinatown is a historic community that has been part of Calgary’s cultural fabric for a very long time — and should continue to be an integral part of the city.
“I liken it to the stampede for example,” says Tam. “We are not going to get rid of the stampede right?”
Druh Farrell says that one way to increase Chinatown’s vitality is to increase the amount of people living there.
“We need more customers for the retailers, we need more street life,” she says, adding that since Chinatown is surrounded by office towers, the local economy mostly benefits during the lunch hour.
“We want to go beyond the lunch hour and there is nothing more stable for retailers than having residents nearby. That is the goal,” says Farrell.
Manu Chugh says that his firm’s skyscraper will help revitalize Chinatown, as the building will consist of both commercial and residential space.
“Downtown was dead 15 years ago. There were no people living here,” says Chugh. “Now we have all these apartments coming and downtown is becoming more vibrant. That is what will happen in Chinatown.”
Thinking outside the community
Although having nearby residential spaces would benefit Chinatown’s businesses, Farrell says that these retailers would also have to adapt to the area’s changing demographics.
“We are seeing a change in ethnicity in Chinatown. There are less Cantonese Chinese and more South Asian,” she says. “It’s an interesting change based on immigration, of course.”
Farrell says additional demographics that have potential to bring traffic to Chinatown are the nearby communities of Eau Claire, Crescent Heights and East Village.
“How do you draw the residents from those communities into your neighbourhood to keep the area vital? Those are all questions that we will be asking,” she says.
Tony Wong says in the last 20 years since the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre opened, the community has drawn curious crowds to the area through events like Chinese New Year and Market Collective.
He adds that merging the Chinese community with the non-Chinese community in this way has helped break down cultural barriers.
“I think that is one good message that I would like the non-Chinese community to know,” he says. “That Chinatown is not a closed community. We are open.”
Thumbnail image provided by Sarah Comber
The editor responsible for this article is Jodi Brak, email@example.com