Driven to preserve Vancouver’s Chinatown

Michael Tan
Posted 2020-12-21

These days Michael S. Tan is spending almost equal amounts of time on his community advocacy work as on his day job as Vice President of Finance for Damon Motors, a local company that manufactures light electric vehicles and motorcycles. The UBC Sauder Bachelor of Commerce (2007) alumnus is directing his energy and business skills into saving Vancouver’s Chinatown, a neighbourhood hit hard by the economic fallout of COVID-19.

Tan grew up in East Vancouver and Surrey and spent his childhood practicing martial arts in Chinatown. As he got older, he began teaching Kung Fu and lion dancing to young people whose families wanted to connect them to their Asian heritage.

“So many people have an association with Chinatown, whether it’s shopping for specialty items or dining in their favourite restaurants or coming down to watch the Chinese New Year Parade,” says Tan who has performed in over 20 annual parades.

Michael Tan in CNY Parade

Michael Tan in a Buddha costume leads the lion dance at the 2020 Chinese New Year Parade.

When Tan entered UBC Sauder, he got involved in campus life by joining clubs like the UBC Kung Fu Association. He still made time for his life in Chinatown, eventually becoming the athletic director of the martial arts school where he taught.

Reflecting on his motivation for community service, Tan says, “I guess I’ve always wanted to be helpful. I wear a lot of different hats because I go wherever there’s a community need.”


When civic duty calls

Michael Tan Walks Through Chinatown

While building a career as a financial professional, Tan began taking on more community responsibility, becoming a director of the Chau Luen Society.

Having grown up shopping, eating and walking among the neighbourhood’s distinctive buildings, Tan was troubled to see signs of decline. One after another, businesses run by local families for generations began to disappear and along with them, the history, traditions, and human interactions that make Chinatown a cultural treasure.

Having gained management experience building the finance teams of tech startups Hootsuite and Unbounce, Tan rounded out his leadership skills by accepting the role of Co-Chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group. Leveraging his community knowledge, he began lobbying governments for more support for Chinatown residents and merchants. 

“When it comes to advocacy work, people can be hyper focused on the pain points being felt within the community, but I try to look at the bigger issues and root causes that need to be addressed. In this respect, I think my UBC Sauder education has given me that rigour in terms of being able to think strategically.”


Advocating for small business and non-profits

When COVID-19 arrived last spring, Tan and his co-chair, Kimberley Wong (UBC ‘19), watched in dismay as more small businesses and non-profits were forced to close their doors permanently. Chinatown’s commercial vacancy rate ballooned to 17 per cent – seven per cent higher than the rest of the city.

Chinatown Store Owner Picking Up Buns

Susanna Ng has operated New Town Bakery at 148 East Pender Street for 40 years. Her business is surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, but she’s worried about her neighbours.

James Zhu operates Tak Hing Loong Trading Co

James Zhu operates Tak Hing Loong Trading Co., a dry goods store at 217 Keefer Street. Business is down due to public health orders restricting socializing, shopping and tourism.

They began lobbying on behalf of Chinatown, calling for property tax reductions, tax credits, and a COVID-19 lifeline, as many merchants could not access the federal rent subsidy program. Earlier this year, $17 million in federal assistance was provided to Granville Island merchants, but no such relief was extended to Chinatown despite its classification as a National Historic Site of Canada.

“Language is always the biggest barrier,” notes Tan. “We’re trying to help merchants decrease their business costs, but they also need help in increasing business revenues, so we’re lobbying for different solutions to encourage people and businesses to come back to Chinatown.”


A growing trend of community activism

Chinatown Aerial

Michael Tan is advocating for actions to support Chinatown merchants like free parking, widened sidewalks to accommodate outdoor shopping, and better bike and transit access – initiatives already in place in other shopping districts throughout the city.

Although the future might seem bleak, Tan, who is now 36, has noticed more young people launching grassroots initiatives, such as a grocery delivery service and social activities for seniors living alone.

“I’m seeing students and people just out of university playing bigger roles in causes that they believe are worthwhile,” says Tan. “So now you’ve got the old guard and a really young demographic that bring a degree of impatience, which is what we need to help push progress.”

There’s no shortage of jobs for volunteers. In addition to creating a sustainable path for local business owners, Tan and others are working toward a goal of having Chinatown designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a move that would help protect the neighborhood’s physical assets and cultural identity.

Shopper in Chinatown

Residents shopping on a winter day for traditional ingredients to make Chinese herbal soup.

But it’s a catch-22 because if businesses and residents continue to leave, the customs and traditions that give Chinatown its rich heritage value will vanish as well. The need has never been more urgent, which is why Tan is spending more time than ever as a volunteer and community representative.

“I’m encouraged by the progress we’re making. I have to be optimistic. But I’m also pragmatic, so if this was a no-win situation I would say, well what’s the point?”

Tan says the easiest way for people to help Chinatown is to come and visit.

“Whether it’s going to the local grocer or bakery, or getting some restaurant takeout, you are supporting small business and the living culture of this community.”