Vancouver’s Chinatown in a Generation Gap Over Ken Sim’s Election as Mayor

VANCOUVER — In Vancouver’s Chinatown, baker Denny Wong is so excited about elected mayor Ken Sim that he’s already thinking about 2026.

He says Sim visited his Hong Kong-style bakery before last week’s election and listened as Wong spoke about the public policy challenges the area faces. Then Sim described his plan to improve security with 100 more police officers.

“It remains a question mark whether he can achieve it or not – I believe he can. I told him, ‘If you meet our expectations, I will vote for you again in four years,'” Wong said in an interview in Mandarin.

Sim launched his bid for mayor a year ago at Floata restaurant in Chinatown, then ended his campaign with a Saturday night victory speech in which he fully embraced his Chinese heritage.

He becomes the first Chinese-Canadian mayor of Vancouver, where more than 28 percent of the population is of Chinese descent, according to the 2016 census.

“The history of this moment has not escaped my attention,” he said in his speech. “But the credit really goes to those on whose shoulders I stand.”

Sim paid tribute to Chinese-Canadian pioneers who preceded him, as well as his parents, who he says immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada in 1967 with just $3,200, hoping to provide their children with a better education and a brighter future. Sim was born and raised in Vancouver.

Wong, who has run his bakery on Keefer Street for more than 20 years, said he was excited on election night at the prospect of Sim changing Chinatown, which struggles with crime, disorder and a lack of security.

But for others nearby, Sim’s victory is viewed very differently, across a generational and political divide.

While some corporate and community figures hailed his victory as an ambitious and historic moment, a younger generation of forward-thinking Chinatown activists view Sim and his law-and-order promises with suspicion.

Rachel Lau, program manager for the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, a nonprofit that supports lower-income seniors in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, said she was “devastated and disappointed” by Sim’s huge win over incumbent Kennedy Stewart.

“I know that the Sino-Canadian community is very excited about the first Sino-Canadian mayor. I just want to point out that just because someone looks like you doesn’t mean they’re actually going to take care of you. That’s the unfortunate truth,” Lau said.

While strolling through Chinatown after Sim’s win, most entrepreneurs approached to talk about him said they were happy with his election, though they declined to comment on the record.

Some just gave a thumbs up. ‘If you ask me about my reaction. This is my attitude,” said a middle-aged woman.

Fred Kwok, president of the China Cultural Center in Chinatown, said Sim’s background made immigrants feel like he was representative of the community. But more importantly, his election platform caught on in the neighborhood, with its promises of more police and a town hall in Chinatown.

“I’ve seen what Chinatown has been through in recent decades, with entrepreneurs waking up to graffiti or smashing their windows and people feeling unsafe walking on the street. I have also personally experienced attacks,” Kwok said in an interview in Mandarin.

“These policies can improve neighborhood safety and boost the confidence of many business owners,” says Kwok. “I believe Sim will be a good mayor.”

Chinese-language newspapers and other media in Vancouver described Sim as the “pride of people of Chinese descent” and the “glory of Hong Kong.”

But Lau of the Yarrow Society said they feared the next four years under Sim would be “challenging.”

“I think we need people with similar values ​​and who have a good understanding of what people need to be supported. It doesn’t matter if this new mayor looks like us,” Lau said.

Lau said Sim’s idea of ​​hiring an additional 100 police officers and another 100 mental health nurses would cut funding from other community organizations. Instead, the neighborhood’s priorities should be housing, access to public toilets and safe drug supplies, and food security.

Lau said there was a generation gap with Chinatown seniors, especially when it came to understanding strategies about safe drug delivery and harm reduction.

“I think culturally there’s the idea that the police are good and the police will help, the police are here to serve the people,” Lau said.

“There is an inflated trust placed in the police to deal with societal problems. But in reality, I think the police arrest, punish or intimidate vulnerable people who need support.”

Vince Tao, a community organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, said he was concerned about the election results because of Sim’s support for the police and real estate development.

“He’s just the guy who got lucky and got the developer’s money this time… and that’s how he fell in,” Tao said.

“And I don’t really see Ken Sim’s town changing drastically. But we are on the road to collapse (as long as we let city developers, real estate interests and police determine the course of any city policy.”

More police isn’t the answer, Tao said.

“Today, every interaction I see between Downtown Eastside and Chinatown is mediated by the police and that’s because the government and all these different nonprofits and people who claim to support Chinatown aren’t trying to build bridges,” he said.

“Basically, we’re trying to build walls between these neighborhoods…the boundaries between Chinatown and Downtown Eastside are always political. And so my fear is that as long as we keep burning bridges, it will only create more tension on the streets. Meanwhile, it distracts from the real problems people need: money, well-being and housing.”

Tao said many seniors in Chinatown were “loving, compassionate people” who needed an education about how harm reduction works and how safe delivery can save lives.

“I’m not ignoring the seniors… When you talk to the seniors, many of them are linguistically isolated and they are also isolated in their living situation and the Chinese language media is quite conservative,” he said.

“We have to build those bridges. And again, I think education is the key and makes sure that Chinese seniors collectively have a voice,” Tao said.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on October 20, 2022.

This story was made possible with financial support from the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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