Resistance Is Rhizomatic: Towards an Anti-Colonial Praxis Against Gentrification in Chinatown Vancouver



A lot has been already written on the violent forms of gentrification Vancouver is currently experiencing. In this text, however, Céline Chuang frames the struggle for Chinatown’s survival in an anti-colonial framework that involves tribute to and solidarity with the Indigenous’ fight for sovereignty. 

Arriving at the drop-in center brings the familiar scent of sage smoke from the early morning smudge. As we ladle eggs on the breakfast line, an Indigenous coworker tells me she is seeing a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, because it’s the closest thing she can find to the traditional medicine of her culture. It’s a fitting conflux where the Downtown Eastside overlaps Chinatown, and displaced Native folks from across what is called Canada hail greetings to one another as bottle-picking po-pos (Chinese senior women) push carts across potholed streets. The settler colony’s poorest urban postal code refuses categorization and subjugation, and although varying degrees of marginalization can intersect to form fissures — state-enforced scarcity breeds contempt among the injured — bridges and connective tissues too emerge, flexing muscle memory in the ongoing struggle against rampant gentrification.

Postmemory, which Marianne Hirsch defines as being mediated through imaginative creation rather than recollection, roots the struggle of the East Asian diaspora to protect Chinatown(s): exercised out of honor for our adopted ancestors, the working-class elders who labored in fish factories and on railroads, and in a context of solidarity with Indigenous communities against the multiple displacement of gentrification within a settler-colonial state. As Natalie Knight points out, the colonial front lines are everywhere; the city is where urban Indigenous sovereignty struggles manifest, and East Asian solidarity means grounding our work in recognition and alignment. At a public hearing discussing a new condominium at 105 Keefer Street, a patchwork coalition mobilized by outrage denounces the development: urban Native land defenders, neighborhood po-pos who lecture the mayor in Cantonese and Mandarin, a wide swath of us from the East Asian diaspora to whom Chinatown is a sacred space, a fragile ecosystem of intergenerational relationships, cultural nourishment, and invaluable sustenance for the community. Speaker after speaker begins by naming the true owners of the land, the Musqueam, the Squamish, and the Tsleil-Waututh, connecting the dots between colonial theft and the displacement of the poor and racialized who call Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside home. 

105 Keefer remains a touchpoint for community organizing in Chinatown, a moment of convergence that gestures towards an East Asian anticolonial praxis and the robust resistance made possible. If the anti-gentrification movement in Chinatown can be thought of as a body, it is rhizomatic: at once ancient and emergent, a root system of past and future possibilities multiplicitous and intertwined. Locating the anti-gentrification struggle in Vancouver within a larger anticolonial framework embraces an abundance of futures, an affront to the scarcity mindset of late capitalism, and nods to Native and East Asian healing which are similarly grounded in holistic balance and herbal medicine. Nodes of connection and mutual disruption nourish our shared struggle and send up new shoots, even in separation, for survival. 

As the dystopian appetite of settler-colonial capitalism militarizes against Indigenous land defenders and consumes Chinatowns from Vancouver to San Francisco, it is the rootedness of Native relationship with place, and the fierceness of Indigenous matriarchal power, that must enliven our resistance. The fight for Chinatown drinks from a rich wellspring of grassroots activism, tended by warrior women like Harriet Nahanee, Stella August, and Rita Blind who birthed the Women’s Memorial March in the 1990s and marched against the 2010 Olympics. Contemporary interventions to the urban development agenda honor their legacies and rupture, like roots through concrete, the city-state’s modus operandi to contain and control the poor and racialized: Nikkei youth hosting cultural celebrations in the shell of post-internment Japantown, Indigenous Elders tending sacred fires in back allies and bringing bannock to the people. As the Musqueam 2015 exhibition/film c̓əsnaʔəm: The City Before the City illustrates, Vancouver is a young city. Its default state is imposition; beneath its polished glass veneer, subterranean rhizomes of solidarity, care and stewardship flourish, and this is where we draw our strength.

The fight against gentrification in Chinatown, Vancouver is one located at a nexus of contested neighborhoods: the Downtown Eastside, reputed (and surveilled and policed) for its open air drug use and high homeless population, less well known for its fiery advocacy, brash humour and boundless creativity, Railtown, palimpsest of pre-internment Japantown, and the former Hogan’s Alley, at one time the heart of Vancouver’s Black community before it was bisected by the Georgia Viaduct, the city’s only major overpass. Layers of colonial violence and racist urban planning have long attempted the erasure of communities of color, a continued pattern evident in Chinatown as historic affordable businesses providing produce, traditional medicine, and other necessities are eroded to make way for the accoutrements of the white gentry: luxury boutiques, third wave coffee shops, high-end barber shops. Next to the dollar store, New Mitzie’s serves up chop suey cuisine to low-income Chinese and Indigenous residents, and across Hastings Street, Sunrise Market sells discount produce to the masses. In a food desert where most inhabitants live off meager government assistance, cheap Chinese food and market produce constitute accessible supplements to free drop-in meals, an endangered symbiosis. Protecting Chinatown safeguards nutritional access for both Chinese seniors and Indigenous residents, a node of shared survival that roots both anti-gentrification action and food sovereignty. Food is perhaps the most salient image of East Asian-Indigenous commonality; the round tables at Chinese restaurants reflect an ethic of relationship and respect akin to the medicine wheel, and early Chinese restaurants served Indigenous customers when white-owned establishments denied them service, a lineage from which to envision community gardens of choi and plant medicine, feasts presided by songs and drumming, an equitable future for Chinatown. 

On Lunar New Year, I run into Mabel, one of the Native Elders watching the annual tai chi performance at the women’s center. She shows me photographs of herself in a group of other brown-skinned women, smiling around a birthday cake, and tells me about her days in East Vancouver fish factories, elbow-to-elbow with Chinese working-class immigrant women and the sisterhood nurtured across language barriers. Mabel is near her 90s, and only a few years ago walked the Highway of Tears to demand justice for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. When Chinatown business owners denigrate Indigenous drug users, or the realities of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex pit interests of marginalized groups as opposing, I think of her as one of the many ordinary instances of lived solidarity that informs an East Asian anticolonial praxis. Mabel reminds me that what we seek to build already exists; as we recognize common conditions, rooted in relationship, we build capacity for transformation.

Language Sovereignty, Land Sovereignty, Queer transgression ///

After the City denies the 105 Keefer condo development, transphobia surfaces in a core organizing group and after repeated calls for accountability are ignored, the impromptu coalition splinters. Supporters rally around Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice 世代同行會, a community organization built ground-up by largely queer diasporic East Asians, and one of the only two non-profits amidst hundreds in the area who provide multilingual services to seniors. Language access is a key concern for seniors who speak little to no English, which Yarrow is working to implement from its own intergenerational programming to the labyrinthine bureaucracy of city policy. The future of grassroots organizing in Chinatown may be in flux, but queer diasporic East Asians are accustomed to liminality; we understand the priority of harm reduction, how spatial justice cannot be reduced to racialized settlers on stolen land. Our fight must include Indigenous sex workers, trans and Two-Spirit people, in order to be effectively anticolonial. The po-pos know it too — one senior, speaking on a newly-formed city committee liasoning with Chinatown groups, advocates for a permanent Indigenous member. We live on unceded land, she tells the committee in Mandarin. At trans author Kai-Cheng Thom’s I Hope We Choose Love (2017) book launch in Chinatown, Khelsilem Tl’aḵwasiḵ̓an Sxwchálten, a spokesperson for the Squamish nation, offers words of hospitality in Squamish, and tells us about his work to restore the Squamish language through immersion programs with youth. Language rights and revitalization initiatives challenge English as normative, and bud collective action and shared flourishing.

At their trilingual-translated Chinese banquet, Yarrow organizers begin by acknowledging the land and expressing solidarity for the Wet’suwet’en struggle for sovereignty. We eat together a few blocks from the port, where Indigenous organizers will host an extended blockade after the militarized Royal Canadian Mounted Police descend on Unist’ot’en Camp, Wet’suwet’en re-occupied traditional territories. In the following weeks, queer diasporic East Asians mobilize to support interventions, translating signs into Chinese characters, and compiling vocabulary resources to educate immigrant communities. Jane Shi recalls how blockading the railroad tracks that early Chinese laborers built is a transgressive act, an interruption of settler-colonial infrastructure and reclamation of historic solidarity. People’s historian Bill Chu documents stories of reciprocity and collaboration predating Confederation: he Nlaka’pamux extending care to railway workers left to die — an estimated 4,000 Chinese laborers died in the construction of the railroad — and the expulsion of white gold miners, shared meals, and intermarriages in Sto:lo villages after the Gold Rush. We are transgressing, but we are also revising, revisiting, returning.

Laboring to Betray Whiteness //

In Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonialism (2016), Iyko Day articulates how Asians serve the designated role as alien labor within the infrastructure of a settler-colonial state (here, Canada). If, in her words, “mixing alien labor with Indigenous land to expand white property was the basis and objective of settler colonialism,” then we must see the collective labor of us in the diaspora, our fight to protect Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside from the maw of capitalist-colonial gentrification, as subversive responsibility, ancestor-ordained sabotage to the cogs of white supremacy. Whiteness relies on fulfilling designated roles in brutal hierarchy, and when East Asians capitulate to the rhetoric, such as framing racism as solely individual heinous acts and playing the part of the model minority, we enact exactly what whiteness wants; we participate in its poison. Instead, we need to unlearn the myths of meritocracy and good behavior: bite the hand that has fed our parents and grandparents the propaganda upholding what Desmond Cole calls Canada’s “passive aggressive brand of racism” (2020). As Robyn Maynard and Audra Simpson remind us, state discourses of multiculturalism have historically worked to neutralize Indigenous uprising, such as the Red Power movement in the 1960s-1980s, masking strategies of dispossession and perpetuating the invisibility of Black lives in Canada. In the wake of magnified anti-Asian racism during COVID-19, refuting white supremacy’s Faustian bargains becomes integral to our own anticolonial radicalization, combating gentrification, and growing freer futures. We need not look far to unearth augurs of transformation — indeed, the medicine that will sustain us may be right beneath our feet. ■