What does it mean to have Starbucks in the heart of Chinatown
“A Starbucks in Chinatown? Really?” was our reaction when we first heard this from Katie. The new Starbucks sits at the intersection of Keefer and Main in the heart of Chinatown. The tall condo above with a coat of fresh paint and shiny glass windows is strikingly different from just across the street, with shops that have discoloured awnings and uneven, cracked sidewalks. Inside the coffee shop is your usual Starbucks atmosphere: the warm yellow lights, baristas with green aprons, and coffee aroma. There are many food options convenient for on the go, including muffins, sandwiches, and cheese and fruit platters.
We ordered some coffee and food. Starbucks coffee always seems to have a burnt taste in their coffee, despite being a coffee shop, and our visit was no exception. The food was also mediocre compared to the myriad of cafés in Vancouver. But Starbucks is still a popular destination for students and white-collar workers to grab coffee for studying, taking a break, or hanging out. One reason for its popularity is their atmosphere. Starbucks strives to create “a third place between work and home” (1). A place with soft lights and comfy chairs, their successful marketing strategy made them into an international iconic brand. Now, almost every corner has a Starbucks, not just in Canada or the US, but all around the world. Wherever you are on the planet, people can expect the familiar walking into the coffee shop.
Starbucks in the heart of Chinatown brings something familiar to the unfamiliar. Chinatown has a large ethnic Chinese population and is known to have a distinct, vibrant culture but seen as undesirable and unsafe. It is known to be in “Canada’s poorest postal code” (2), and for the middle and upper class of Vancouver, Chinatown seems too foreign. By bringing Starbucks- a place that is now almost too generic and “too popular to be cool” (3) – to Chinatown, it acts as a bridge that connects to the outside. With Starbucks, it’s as if Chinatown immediately becomes accessible .But for whom does it become accessible? Who are the customers that Starbucks serves and what lifestyles are catered for these shops?
“Exclusionary displacement… refers to the sense of isolation that people feel when their family and friends have been displaced. Their social network may be eroded, although they can remain in place. It also refers to the sense of isolation people feel from the influx of high end restaurants, and boutiques, that they can’t afford.” (4)
As Chinatown becomes familiar to the outside, it simultaneously becomes unfamiliar to the people already there. Chinatown has a lower income for a median household and a larger population of elderly residents than Vancouver (5). So we wondered about the demographics of the Starbucks in Chinatown. “There’s usually Chinese seniors who talk out loud, young professional workers, “yuppies”, homeless people, queer people, and rich people”, a customer in Starbucks said. And if Starbucks is a way to “demonstrate their status- both social class and more subjective characteristics, such as being modern, international or fashionable” (6), what does it say about who they want and don’t want in Chinatown? Shops reflect the consumers of the place, and Chinatown’s shops are quickly being replaced to draw young people from middle and upper class. Besides Starbucks, there are countless new and hip coffee shops, boutiques, pubs, and bike shops along the streets, which also do not serve the interests of the people living in Chinatown. It is not the elderly or low-income families that are shopping at boutiques or browsing the Internet on their laptops at cafés.
Along the streets of Chinatown, there are large cranes and busy construction workers. Many of the old shops still remaining are closed with newspapers plastered on the wall. Demolishing buildings doesn’t simply just remove the buildings, but along with it, the stories, culture, people, and communities. Without the people, the stories in Chinatown quickly become a part of the past. It seems that “people are starting to consider this place a museum, not a real place where real people live” (7). Under the newly built Starbucks are stories that have been buried and forgotten. What was there before Starbucks opened? And even before that?
The loss of communities and cultures seems irreversible. And people have different perspectives of the changes happening; some are embracing the change. Bob Rennie, a real estate marketer, likes the “contemporary building in heritage… they complement each other [and creates] balance” (7). And many of the newer buildings in Chinatown attempts to create this balance, including Starbucks. In the café, there is a red dragon on a blackboard hanging on the wall- the only thing that detours from the Starbucks we all know. Perhaps the dragon is an attempt to celebrate the unique culture of Chinatown. Perhaps it is to convey that the old and new could coexist. But in an attempt to keep the culture while ‘revitalizing’, how is Chinatown reduced down to a red dragon?
Initially, Chinatown was established to provide “social, emotional and material support and at times, protection from racial hostility” for the Chinese immigrants (8). But the function of Chinatown shifted in the 1930’s as “Chinese associations made efforts to promote Chinatown as a culturally exotic tourist attraction that offered Oriental cuisine, Chinese artifacts, and folkloric festivities to the public” (8). So commodification of Chinatown is not a new phenomenon; the shift in the 1930’s was beneficial for the businesses in Chinatown. And now, Chinatown attracts young professionals and artists seeking for affordability and rustic authentic features and is quickly becoming the hip location with the right balance of cheap authentic food and new high-end shops. This current shift is beneficial to larger real estate markets and investors. Commodification of Chinatown is, and has always been, profitable. And consequently, the history and culture is simplified into a trend, a background, an object. The vibrant culture is disappearing, and it seems that “Chinatown will be gone… half of it is the Westerner’s world” (7).
And no one is saying that communities remain static; they do change, buildings get worn down, they get replaced, and people move. But anyone can see the frighteningly rapid changes that are transforming Chinatown day by day. “Without the red lamps, it would look like any other city,” Christina said. And no matter the intent, whether the changes are called ‘revitalization’ or ‘preservation’, the people who are the most vulnerable are ultimately being displaced. So what will it look like next year? How many more pubs and cafes will come up until Chinatown becomes unrecognizable?
Written by Cathy Lee
Photography by Christina Lee
Photo Captioning by Katie Fung
1) Starbucks Coffee Canada. Retrieved from http://www.starbucks.ca/about-us/our-heritage
2) Skelton, C. (2010). Is Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside really “Canada’s poorest postal code”?. The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2010/02/10/is-vancouvers-downtown-eastside-really-canadas-poorest-postal-code/
3) Lutz, A. (2015). Starbucks is desperately tring to shed its ‘basic b—-’ image. Business Insider. http://www.businessinsider.com/starbucks-is-trying-to-stay-premium-2015-3
4) Sutton, S. (2014, Nov. 1). What we don’t understand about gentrification. TEDxNewYork. Retreived from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqogaDX48nI
5) PT&E Committee Agenda (2012). Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan and Economic Revitalization Strategy. City of Vancouver. http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/report-chinatown-neighbourhood-plan-economic-revitalization-strategy.pdf
6) Maguire, J. S. (2014) Starbucks symbol of class status in China, research reveals. University of Leicester. http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/press-releases/2014/january/starbucks-symbol-of-class-status-in-china-research-reveals
7) Christensen, D. (Producer), & Kwan, J. (Director). (2013). Everything Will Be (Motion picture). Canada: National Film Board of Canada.
8) Li, P. S. & Li, E. X. (2011). Vancouver Chinatown in Translation. Journal of Chinese Overseas, 7, 7-23.