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‘We need to support our Chinatowns’: Urgent calls for feds to revitalize hard-hit areas

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TORONTO —
Community leaders from six Canadian cities are calling for federal support to increase security and promote tourism in order to help revitalize hard-hit Chinatowns across the country.

Advocates say the spike in racist incidents and economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a toll on Chinese and Asian communities — Chinatowns in particular, according to researchers who suggest it’s strongly driven by xenophobia and racist stereotypes about the coronavirus.

So organizers say addressing this has to be a national priority.

“We need to support our Chinatowns. We need to support our workers [and] our small businesses in the community,” Justin Kong, executive director of Chinese Canadian National Council – Toronto Chapter, told CTV’s Your Morning on Thursday. He called for “an approach that centres local communities and marginalized people who live in our neighbourhoods.”

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Kong and his group are among community leaders from Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver who are banding together in an effort being spearheaded by the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations.

During a virtual conference last month, they called for funding to expand affordable housing, increase security, beautify parts of cities’ Chinatowns, enact plans to preserve heritage sites, and ultimately promote tourism to these areas.

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“We need to create some cultural attraction in Chinatown,” Tonny Louie, the chair of the non-profit Chinatown Business Improvement Area Toronto, told CTV’s Your Morning in the same interview.

“I think we should look at the overall feel that someone comes to Chinatown, how they enjoy Chinatown,” he said, also noting, “problems stem from a long history of racism that was embedded for the longest time, [and it’s] only the pandemic that has brought out more incidents.”

Early during the pandemic, businesses in Chinatowns across Canada and the U.S. reported a drop in activity. But evidence suggests this trend has continued into 2021.

President of Women of Colour Community Leadership Initiative Jennifer Chen, who helped initiate this push for federal funds, says restaurants and small businesses have been struggling.

“Sadly, we have seen more and more empty lots and lack of community-based planning,” she told CTV News Winnipeg last week. “Also, businesses and the residents in Chinatown continue to deal with the increase of anti-Asian racism during COVID.”

So Louie explained federal funding to different cities will help to drive more people back to these areas and, in turn, help drive business. “We should try to improve our relationships through understanding.”

When looking at Chinatowns worldwide, economist Paul Ong from the University of California, Los Angeles suggested to Reuters that merchants’ difficulties have only been made worse by decades of outdated businesses practices, such as cash-only transactions and not having an online presence, and being less adept at securing government aid.

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Organizers suggest efforts should also increase helping people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic through programs such as job re-training.

INCREASED SECURITY IS PARAMOUNT

Chinatowns in Canada and the U.S. have historically been by-products of social and government instituted racism, forcing those who couldn’t safely settle or live in other neighbourhoods to form enclaves.

And organizers explained those living in Chinatowns are likely fearing they’ll become targets for racists and bigoted attacks.

Advocacy group Chinese Canadian National Council – Toronto Chapter recently released damning evidence showing there have been 1,150 incidents of anti-Asian racism in Canada throughout the pandemic.

Many of the incidents involve people verbally harassing, physically attacking, spitting at or coughing on Asian-Canadians.

And Kong said this increase in hate and violence has led to “our communities are feeling very scared.” But while he said security was “definitely an important area of work,” Kong cautioned that policing isn’t a be-all solution.

“Just like how we can’t police our way out of homelessness or poverty, we need structural intervention to make our communities feel safer,” he said. “We can best do that when we invest in our communities, when we support positive economic development that is fair and equitable for different racialized groups that we know have been hit really hard in this pandemic.”

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Louie agreed, saying these latest efforts are long overdue and could help tackle persistent issues Chinatowns from the past 40 years.

Organizers have not yet specified how much this national revitalization plan would cost, but advocates say they’ll be determining those details as they speak with federal officials.

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