"The Chinatown I remember": Vancouver business owner wants to see neighbourhood thrive

Jan 26 2023, 9:26 pm

Over the last few years, most Vancouver residents have heard stories about the problems facing Chinatown, but one business owner is choosing to remain optimistic.

Earlier this month, we wrote about a council meeting at Vancouver City Hall, where passionate residents spoke their minds about Chinatown’s issues.

One of the speakers was Ryan Diaz, who runs Diaz Combat Sports in Chinatown on Pender Street. During his speech, he broke into tears, and Daily Hive caught up with him to figure out why and the changes he hoped to see made to make Chinatown a safer and more inviting neighbourhood.

Diaz was born and raised in East Vancouver, so he knows the city and the neighbourhood well. He has seen Chinatown and the nearby Downtown Eastside evolve over the years. He grew up in the basement suite of a Vancouver Special in Mount Pleasant with his family. They weren’t necessarily well-off.

“We didn’t have much growing up,” said Diaz.

“I always talk about my mom. She taught me what hard work means. And that’s why I got really emotional at council because I started remembering the hell we went through.”

The hell Diaz went through was opening a business before COVID-19 began its reign of terror. Diaz says he received a lot of criticism from people for attempting to open a business during that tumultuous time. During COVID, the bills piled up without any income. That’s when Diaz’s mom was forced to put the house up for sale.

When Diaz recently raised concerns about crime and safety in the neighbourhood, he read some comments online in reaction, saying he should’ve known about the problems going into Chinatown.

But as Diaz states, “this is not the Chinatown I remember.”

Diaz recalls a time when there was free parking in Chinatown and free admission to places like the Classical Chinese Garden. He and his family would visit the Newtown Bakery, a well-known legacy establishment that recently raised concerns about the neighbourhood’s safety.

When Diaz moved to the area six years ago, he says, “It was bad, but it wasn’t this bad.”

“With that said, I don’t want to scare people because, honestly, in the last few months, it’s starting to get better.”

Diaz painted an interesting picture with an analogy about the issues in Chinatown — “It’s like driving a car.”

He says you don’t think you’ll get into a car accident every day, but you still try your best to be aware of the dangers.

“Yeah, we have a little bit of a bumpy road, and there’s a lot of erratic drivers, and you gotta be safe.”

The Downtown Eastside’s impact on Chinatown

It isn’t possible to talk about the situation in Chinatown without talking about the Downtown Eastside. Many of the neighbourhood’s problems likely stem from mental health and substance abuse issues in the Downtown Eastside. This is something that business owners in Gastown and downtown Vancouver have also experienced.

In the last year or two, we’ve reported on several stories about random stranger attacks in the area. But, unfortunately, that isn’t a reality exclusive to Chinatown, and we’ve seen it in other parts of Vancouver.

For business owners like Diaz, the reality of crime also comes with a financial burden. Fixing randomly broken windows isn’t cheap for a business owner trying to pay the bills. We’ve heard from other business owners about similar fates.

The City of Vancouver recently pledged $2 million to improve the situation in Chinatown, a move that Diaz applauds. But, like others, he feels the Downtown Eastside needs to be addressed more thoroughly.

Even something as simple as making the neighbourhood brighter at night with more lights would go a long way, according to Diaz. He also thinks offering free parking would help welcome people to the area. In addition, Diaz would like to see more cultural events and festivals come to the area, like the recent LunarFest, which drew huge crowds.

Diaz says that his crew at Diaz Combat Sports has had to help neighbouring businesses with rampant theft by chasing after thieves on numerous occasions.

While others have either left the neighbourhood or expressed sentiments suggesting they would, that isn’t an idea that has even crossed Diaz’s mind. Instead, he wants to stay in Chinatown and be part of the community that helps restore it to its former glory.

Last year, Diaz put together a commercial about Chinatown and Diaz Combat Sports:

In the end, Diaz wants the fear-mongering by the public and media to stop, and he wants the public to know that while the situation isn’t perfect, it isn’t a reason to avoid the neighbourhood.

He also wants you to know that the coconut buns at New Town Bakery are fricking amazing.

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