Edmonton’s Chinatown gate under seige
They are colorful symbols of Chinese heritage and culture, a sign to thousands of new immigrants from Asia that they were welcomed in their new environment.
And now the Chinatown gate in Edmonton — a gift from Edmonton’s sister city in China, Harbin —is sparking debate among residents and businesses. The issue comes down to: What to do with it. The choices are: take down and rebuild the gate at a new location or construct a new gate at the new location.
Built by Chinese artisans in 1987, it runs across 102nd Avenue and 97th Street. An expansion of the city’s lightrail transit system threatens the stability of the gate, according to to Walter Trocenko, manager of real estate, housing and economic sustainability for Alberta’s capital city.
“The problem we have is, we don’t know what is going to happen once we start to pull it apart,” Trocenko said. “It‘s a lot like taking down a house – you really don’t know the condition of everything until you get in there. I am concerned that we may not be able to rebuild it 100 percent. Maybe we need to talk to officials in Harbin and see if we can build a new one.”
Where the gate will be located after the light-rail construction is completed will ultimately be decided by Edmonton’s city council.
At a hearing in April held by the city’s executive committee, retired University of Alberta professor and historian Brian Evans explained that the gate was constructed when Edmonton was twinned with Harbin, a city in northeast China, in 1987. It was built near the site of the first Chinese business in the city, which opened its doors 124 years ago.
Chinatown has shifted since its beginning.
With a population of about 60,000, Edmonton’s Chinatown is the third-largest in Canada. The current Chinatown consists of two parts. The gate marks the entrance to the first Chinatown, Chinatown South, established in the late 19th century by Chinese men immigrating to Canada to help build the Canadian Northern Railway.
Chinatown North, is located not too far from its older counterpart and also includes a large Vietnamese presence and blends into the multicultural “Avenue of Nations” located along 107 Ave which runs east-to-west along the northern edge of both Chinatown and Little Italy.
The main strip is located on 97th Street between 105A Ave and 108A Ave, but also includes the blocks 107A Ave and 101 Street that surround the main strip.
“The conditions which saw the establishment of the China gate in 1987 have changed dramatically,” said Evans.
When the gate first went up, a plan to establish Chinatown east of it was put forth but has since failed. Evans said keeping the gate where it is would be drawing attention to that failure but believes it should stay near the area.
Mei Hung is the chairwoman of the Chinese Benevolent Association in Edmonton. Her group wants to put the gate back where the original Chinatown began at 97th and Jasper Avenue.
It lasted until the 1970s when the construction of the Canada Place government building forced many businesses to relocate four to five blocks away into an area that was also being populated by Vietnamese.
The original Chinatown is now a heritage area and contains senior-citizen housing and a multi-cultural center.
Hung and her group believe a rebuilt or new gate at 97th and Jasper will serve as a gateway landmark to both Chinatowns.
“This will not only be a reminder of our history, it can also serve as a foundation for both Chinatowns and help to bridge the gap between the two,” she said. Hung also envisions speciallydesigned streetlights and other landscaping to help give the area a distinct feel and atmosphere.
The problem with moving the gate to 97th and Jasper is that it has a different layout than the gate’s current home.
“The roadway has more lanes and I’m not sure it can be modified to fit the location,” said Trocenko. “I don’t know if we can modify the existing roadway and sidewalks to accommodate it.”
But not everyone wants the gate at the original Chinatown site. A study done by the city showed the majority of non-Chinese businesses near 97th Street oppose the Chinese-themed environment because they feel there aren’t enough Chinese businesses there to justify it.
Hung still believes that locating the gate at the original Chinatown will serve as a rallying point for the community.
“Chinatown was very important for the community. Many years ago it was an area where newcomers could feel at ease while adjusting to living in Canada,” she said. “It was also an area where non Asians could experience our culture, food and music. I think that can happen all over again.”
Because of light-rail construction, the Chinatown Gate at 102nd Avenue and 97th Street in Edmonton will have to be torn down.