When Mischa Farivar first moved into a century-old Chinese Freemasons building in Chinatown two years ago, he wondered what he’d gotten himself into.
The 23-year old Toronto native and competitive longboarder had signed a lease for a three-bedroom apartment that had cigarette smoke-stained walls and mouldy ceilings. Parts of the flooring had fallen through and when Farivar first saw the place, a dead mouse lay in the middle of the living room.
“For the first few days I remember feeling so confused about what I just did with my life,” said Farivar.
That’s not how he feels now, and after spending $3,000 to make his abode livable, Farivar and three roommates are part of a wave of young newcomers to Chinatown seeking cheap rent and business opportunity. In turn, they bring energy to a community seeking vitality.
A new Chinatown
In a city where wages are not keeping up with the cost of living, young newcomers to Vancouver like Farivar have difficulty finding affordable housing. Farivar wanted to live close to the city centre, and he quickly learned that the Downtown Eastside, where Chinatown is found, was the only place he could afford.
For the past several years, Chinatown has been undergoing a wave of change, with a multitude of new businesses setting up shop in an area previously dominated by Chinese grocery stores and restaurants. Farivar’s skateboard shop, Flatstop Longboards, is one of these new businesses.
He signed the lease for the commercial space on the ground floor of the Chinese Freemasons-owned building on East Pender in June 2012. Before Flatstop, the space was home to a toy store called Lofty Gifts, which had struggled to make ends meet.
The new interest in Chinatown comes largely from a city hall initiative to attract new businesses into the area via rental incentives on commercial spaces. The active storefront program, as it was called, was headed by Randy Clyne, a business consultant, who was asked to find new businesses for the numerous derelict storefronts in Chinatown.
The Chinese Freemasons own several buildings in Chinatown and the organization was one of Clyne’s clients. Clyne quickly found retailers for the storefronts of the Freemason-owned buildings, including Bestie, the popular sausage shop across from Flatstop.
But Clyne saw that there was a need for more than commercial space.
“There’s a pent up demand for live-work places in downtown,” he said. “It comes from people who want inexpensive, non-conforming spaces.”
Clyne knew it would require a change in mentality from the owners of the buildings. For the past couple of decades, much of the residential space in Chinatown has been used as housing for elderly Chinese. But the space is becoming increasingly unsuitable for seniors as the buildings and their occupants grow older.
“So you’re going to need to get a younger, more diverse group of people into these buildings, to support the economic survival of the building. The whole building needs to be leased,” said Clyne.
The Chinese Freemasons needed to find new residents for their building. But Cecil Fung, vice-chair of the Chinese Freemasons building committee, admits the Freemasons were hesitant about renting out the apartments in the Three Arches.
“We were careful because we didn’t want to turn our building into an SRO-type building,” he said.
Clyne was confident that Farivar and his skateboarder friends would be a good match and Farivar’s commercial lease was key in convincing the Freemasons he was trustworthy. The deal happened quickly, according to Fung.
Soon after, Farivar introduced a fellow skater and entrepreneur Graham Buksa to the Freemasons. Buksa owns the longboard manufacturing company Rayne Longboards and was looking for office space. He also needed an affordable place to live. He found both in the Three Arches building.
With the addition of Buksa and his roommates on the third floor, the Rayne office, and Farivar’s two 19-year-old roommates, Flatstop’s one employee and a dozen or more skateboarders go in and out of the building daily.
The Chinese Freemasons building is home to many. A Chinese senior lives in one of the apartments and on the weekends kung fu classes are held for youth. A mahjong club plays at all times of the day, and the Chinese Freemasons have a large meeting hall on the fourth floor, where they hosted their 125th anniversary party last year.
It’s been two years since the skaters moved in. Despite the dramatic demographic differences, the arrangement is working well, according to Fung.
He credits economics for the peaceful coexistence of all groups involved.
“I suppose the overriding factor is that the rent is cheap,” he said. “Really, really cheap.”
He explained: “The one senior who’s living there, he’s been living there for a long time. This is his home and he’s paying very minimal rent. Mischa and his cohort are also paying way below market rent. So everybody feels like they’re getting a good deal. When there’s such heavy overriding economic factor, then, yeah, everybody behaves.”
Mischa and his roommates pay about $250 each for their three bedroom apartment.
When you pay $750 for a three bedroom apartment, you expect it to come with problems.
“Every couple of months, there’s a huge renovation project that happens. Something will have to happen,” Farivar said. He grimaced. “The reason why we redid the kitchen floor was because our sink was leaking and the floor started to rot and smell bad.”
He laughed. “Not long ago, the toilet exploded and I had a small lake in the bathroom. Your bathroom floods and so does your shop. Great!”
Farivar hopes to stay where he is and is renegotiating his commercial lease with the Freemasons. His lease will expire in one year, and the contracts run in three-year increments.
Every day Chinatown gets a little busier and the condos on Keefer and Main Street grow a little taller. Chinatown has its own history, harking back to the days when it was the only place Chinese people could live in Vancouver. Societies like the Chinese Freemasons provided housing for railway workers during the offseason and support for immigrants during the head tax era.
Farivar is well aware of the neighbourhood’s history. “That community had to deal with a lot of bullshit in their lives and now there’s a whole bunch of stupid Caucasian people moving into the neighbourhood, thinking they can sell T-shirts for $100 and sausages for $12,” he said jokingly.
But the skaters have built a comfortable co-existence with the Chinese residents in the Three Arches. “The mahjong club guys are stoked,” said Farivar. “If you’re smoking a cigarette they’ll immediately interact with you.”
Despite language barriers, Farivar described his neighbours in skater style. “They fund their own old folks homes,” he said. “That’s badass.”
For their part, the Chinese Freemasons are modest about the fast approaching future of Chinatown.
“We don’t know what the solution is, but it seems that we’re moving in a positive direction,” said Fung. “We’d love to see this place become vibrant again.”