Chinatown's survival threatened as many businesses 'falling through the cracks'
VANCOUVER -- Vancouver's historic Chinatown is under threat as many stores stay shuttered during the pandemic.
The owner of Chinese Art Crafts has made the difficult decision to close her store permanently later this year.
Jin Li opened the store when she moved to Canada 15 years ago. She considers her business her second home.
"I cried. I cried lots because this is sort of my home," Li told CTV News Vancouver. “I built this business. When I see people buy my things, I feel happy.”
The pandemic forced her to close for three months. The store had recently reopened, once B.C. started Phase 3 of its restart plan.
But she says her landlord isn't willing to cooperate and apply for the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program; a subsidy which would cover half of the rent, with the tenant paying 25 per cent and the landlord covering the other 25 per cent.
"They ask me for a full month's payment, so I can't afford it," Li says.
Jenny Kwan, the NDP Member of Parliament for Vancouver East, says the subsidy program should be changed.
"I'll tell you the biggest problem is that it is only the landlord who can make the application for the commercial rent subsidy,” Kwan says. “That just simply makes no sense. The federal government should actually allow for the small business themselves to make the application for the commercial rent subsidy.”
Other businesses in Chinatown, including those inside city-owned Chinatown Plaza, also can't apply for the subsidy program because municipal landlords are not eligible.
"A lot of (businesses) are falling through the cracks," says Michael Tan, co-chair of Vancouver Chinatown Legacy Stewardship group.
Tan recently wrote a letter asking the federal government to provide emergency funding to Chinatown.
"The risk of losing many of these businesses that are really unique is they're either legacy businesses, where they've been here for many generations; they're culturally appropriate and really add to the heritage and culture and feel of what makes Chinatown unique," Tan says. "Because they are heavily tourism-based, without a lifeline, they won't be able to survive the pandemic."
Ottawa has extended a lifeline to other businesses: $2 million for the Vancouver Aquarium and $16.7 million in CECRA payments to businesses on Granville Island, where the federal government is the landlord.
"(The federal government) made a special provision for them to access $17 million, so that the small businesses can survive. If the federal government can do that for Granville Island, they need to do the same thing for Chinatown," says Kwan.
But when asked if a similar emergency funding would be provided to Vancouver's Chinatown, a designated National Historic Site, a spokesperson for the Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade pointed to the already-available subsidy programs.
"There's no one-size-fits-all solution for relief," says spokesperson Ryan Nearing. "We are still listening, and Minister Ng will not rest until we have done everything possible to help small businesses."
Chinatown advocates were also in the planning stages of getting the historic neighbourhood a UNESCO designation before the pandemic.
They fear those plans would be wiped out if Chinatown businesses can't survive.
"We wouldn't have a leg to stand on in attempting a bid for UNESCO in the future," says Tan.
With the lack of tourism, Tan worries Chinese Art Crafts is the beginning of a wave of stores closing up in Chinatown.