Strathcona BIA, Dunefield and Youth Collaborative for Chinatown are creating opportunities for affordable and culturally important businesses by accommodating them in underused not-for-profit buildings in Vancouver’s Strathcona and Chinatown neighbourhoods. Our work is supported and co-funded by the City of Vancouver.
We want to challenge that the decline and displacement of community-serving businesses is inevitable. Our focus is on getting the next generation of entrepreneurs interested and ready to start their own ventures, while making sure that existing family businesses can thrive and reinvent themselves.
With over 50 Chinese society buildings and many more churches, temples, community halls and other not-for-profit properties in Strathcona and Chinatown, there is great potential for securing these spaces for businesses that provide benefit to the community. We repurpose such underused spaces for community-serving retail.
SUPPORTING BUILDING OWNERS
Many not-for-profit landlords are struggling financially and lack the capacity to properly manage, renovate and tenant out their – often aging but favourably located – properties. We help them attract tenants who are a good fit with their culture and values, and can bring financial relief.
OUR JOURNEY WITH KAM WAI 金威點心: A LEGACY CONTINUED
As a pilot for our program, we supported William and Susan Liu, the second-generation owners of Kam Wai Dim Sum, to remain in Vancouver’s Chinatown and build on their parents’ legacy. This is their story:
Kam Wai Dim Sum 金威點心 was founded in Chinatown three decades ago from humble beginnings, expanding once already in 2010 to its current location (249 E Pender Street) at the Kong Chow Society building. Despite being a successful family business, the challenge of succession planning meant its future within a changing Chinatown neighbourhood was by no means guaranteed.
Our team stepped up to answer the question: what intervention could we make to help this important community-serving business grow into its next generation of ownership?
When siblings William and Susan Liu took over the family business in Chinatown, they had to face challenges that other small, local, community-serving businesses are struggling with too. Securing and renovating an affordable space is no easy task, retail tenancy is precarious, and COVID-19 has made everything even more difficult. With their parents retiring, William and Susan had to learn fast, and grow quickly and confidently into their new roles. They had strong community values to continue through the family business.
Watch William share his hopes and worries in his own words: William Liu – The Opera Singer
Food and other kinds of affordability are under pressure in the Downtown Eastside, with existing businesses being replaced by more expensive ones. Kam Wai continues to provide affordable and culturally relevant food, especially for Chinese seniors and other low-income residents of SROs in the area. Affordability runs both ways; Kam Wai’s low prices are made possible through the sustainable lease terms of their non-profit landlord. Affordable retail space is at risk across every Vancouver neighbourhood, which we hope to help address with our program.
Kam Wai serves community through more than just food. In addition to enjoying satisfying meals, customers appreciate the ability to ask advice on how to prepare traditional foods, to speak Chinese with staff and to meet with neighbours. Often they leave notes behind to show how they treasure this shop. Some were worried that renovations would mean higher prices and that they wouldn’t feel welcome anymore. In reality, the renos aim to serve the community more and better, through expanded menu options and eat-in capacity after the pandemic.
Small independent businesses are a major driver of Vancouver’s local economy. Humble mom-and-pop shops often have far more economic impact than what immediately meets the eye. Kam Wai is no different. It sources much of its supplies of meats, vegetables, ingredients and packaging from within a few blocks, and makes use of local production facilities. The traditional, handmade nature of their frozen dim sum means that Kam Wai employs and sustains more workers than your average food retailer.
Successful succession of legacy businesses is key to the upholding of the culture of Chinatown and Strathcona. With son and daughter choosing to build on the accomplishments of mom and dad, Kam Wai continues the culinary heritage of dim sum enjoyed day and night, joong / zhong zi at Dragon Boat Festival, and Chinese New Year foods. Their renovated space allows them to experiment with expanded menu options and food traditions representing the family’s Cantonese, Taiwanese and Chinese-Canadian heritages.
William and Susan were committed to staying in Chinatown as an independent family business, to grow the Kam Wai brand, and to continue serving community. We supported them in their decision-making around visioning, business planning, design, contractor selection, permitting and financing. The renovations are the most visible outcome, but it represents working closely with the Liu family for the past two years to help them imagine a thriving and sustainable future in Chinatown. We believe that through this kind of support, the decline of community-serving businesses can be challenged.
Following the success with Kam Wai Dim Sum and the Kong Chow Society, we hope that more community-serving businesses and non-profit landlords can benefit from our program. In Chinatown, we are poised for our next project with the Chinese Nationalist League at their heritage Kuomintang building where food retail spaces have been vacant for almost a decade. We are also exploring the possibility of a community kitchen in an underused not-for-profit building. Working with the local business community, the City of Vancouver and others, we hope to bring new community-serving uses to these locations.
Photos: Ben Geisberg, Heritage Vancouver / Wilco van Bemmel / Haeccity Studio Architecture / The National Post / Kam Wai Dim Sum
- William Liu – The Opera Singer – Vancouver Sun (Youtube)
- Keep Calm and Wrapping Dim Sum – The Tyee
- Kam Wai Reopening – Vancouver Sun
- A Chinatown Food Sensation – Global News
- On The Coast – CBC Radio
This program is a collaboration between partners who each belief in the importance of community-serving business. Strathcona BIA represents the business community and aims to see its members thrive in a mixed-use, inclusive, resilient and prosperous local economy. Youth Collaborative for Chinatown is a network of youth bringing back the “hot and noisy” atmosphere of Vancouver’s Chinatown and activating its public spaces. The City of Vancouver provides co-funding for the project to foster community economic development in the Downtown Eastside. We also thank Haeccity Studio Architecture for their valuable contributions to make our first pilot project a success.
WANT TO GET INVOLVED?
We want to make this project a true community effort, and reach as many stakeholders as possible.
- Do you want to start or expand a community-serving business in Chinatown or Strathcona, and are in need of affordable space and other support?
- Does your society or not-for-profit have underused commercial space that could accommodate community-serving business?
- Are you interested in learning more and helping the program?
Contact us and learn how you can participate.