The May Wah hotel in Chinatown opened its doors in 1913 to provide safe lodging for low-income workers at a time when Vancouver was experiencing a shortage of affordable accommodation as the downtown core expanded.
Over a century later, the single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotel largely plays the same role—except its occupants have aged along with the four-storey brick building, paying the same low rents they have for decades at a time of obscene precarity in Vancouver’s affordable housing supply.
“We aren’t able to walk well anymore, but we play mahjong with each other every day and this is a good life,” said 80-year-old Mok Foo-kung, a former delivery driver who has lived in May Wah for the last thirty years.
Around half of the building’s 94 residents are seniors, mostly immigrants hailing from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, while the other half are people of all ages and cultural backgrounds. Some tenants have mental or physical disabilities.
Mok and his neighbours consider themselves lucky. They pay less than $500 a month for their studios, an anomaly amid the city’s housing pressures and an alarming $139 surge in the average rent for an SRO to $687, according to a recent study.
Vancouver is ground zero for the housing crisis in Canada’s growing cities. May Wah is an exception in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood. The average median household income in Vancouver is $65,327, a far cry from the annual household income of $163,000 that buyers actually need to afford a home, according to benchmark prices.
Meanwhile, the average rental price for a one-bedroom apartment has recently jumped to $2100—only Torontonians pay more rent in the country, but salaries in Toronto also tend to be better.
Historic Chinatowns around the world are fighting to exist, and Vancouver, despite its large population of ethnically Chinese people, is no exception.
May Wah residents narrowly escaped “renoviction” when, two years ago, at the height of gentrification tensions in Chinatown, the building went up for sale for the first time in decades. Many feared that a private developer would swoop in and force people out with renovation followed by much higher rents.
Instead, the charitable Vancouver Chinatown Foundation stepped in to purchase the building from the Shon Yee Benevolent Association, promising to take responsibility for seismic upgrades as well as other safety-related repairs and improvements. Several street-level businesses, including one of the oldest travel agencies in the city, Wankow Tour & Travel, were also preserved.
In May Wah’s narrow hallways with alcoves for shared kitchens and bathrooms, Mok likes to say “ zou san” (good morning) to the hotel’s younger tenants, many of whom had relocated here from more expensive SROs in the Downtown Eastside.
“I am using this app to learn Chinese, but I usually just use body language to communicate with the Chinese grannies and grandpas,” said Jeremy Fleming, a warehouse worker who has lived in a sunny upper-level room in May Wah for five years.
“Some of them say, ‘Hi Jeremy’ … It’s like having roommates,” said the former Alberta resident, who considers his current digs an upgrade from the squalid, “threatening environment” in the previous Vancouver SRO he lived in. The 42-year-old spends weekends playing his guitar, tending to his tropical fish and having beers with friends.
Wan Lai-jan, who was born in 1928 in Bao’an county in China, is mostly deaf now but takes care to dress and do her hair everyday like a movie star straight from an atmospheric Wong Kar-wai movie. She grins when her friends pay her a compliment on her fashionable looks, and takes a drag from her cigarette while studying her mahjong tiles.
Along with the city’s move last year to vote down a proposal for a high-end condo development on Keefer Street in Chinatown, the survival of May Wah has given local community advocates some hope.
“In a city that used to be more blatantly racist—with policies that targeted and disenfranchised non-whites, inclusive of Jews, Italians and Irish—Chinatown was the original sanctuary that provided economic opportunity, social housing and social safety for those who were not welcome in other parts of the city,” Kevin Huang, executive director of the Hua Foundation, told VICE Canada.
Huang said it was “great” to see the Chinatown Foundation step in to save the May Wah and keep it operating as SRO housing, but he says the government can do more to work with non-profits to explore what culturally appropriate needs can be addressed for the low-income community in Chinatown.
This can include anything from “culturally-specific elder care to harm reduction to funding programs that would further the sense of community for those in the neighbourhood,” he said.
In a show of commitment to the cause, city council voted last week to target allocating 100 percent of units in a proposed building in the Downtown Eastside at rates that pensioners and people on welfare would be able to afford.
But it is unclear whether more spaces like May Wah could open in Chinatown to serve the ageing population and low-income residents. Pressure continues to mount around the city. Even in more affluent neighbourhoods of Vancouver, like in the West End, tenants are fighting for the right to pay the same rents after the owner of their ageing building has completed renovations.
Carol Lee, chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, told VICE Canada that the goal was to “preserve the very iconic heritage building in Chinatown with an important history and also to preserve housing for Chinese seniors and low-income residents.”
“People have been living here for a while. And as people are ageing, it gets harder to find housing elsewhere in Vancouver,” she said, adding that the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation hopes to add programming similar to what you might find in a senior home—services like visiting nurses, educational sessions and social activities.
“I think these are the people who have had some history and time in Chinatown and we want to make sure they have the opportunity to stay in the neighborhood and provide a link to the past.”
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