Photo: Canadian Press
BIA’s Chinatown director, Wen Wong, poses for a photo in Chinatown in Edmonton, Alta., on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. The downtown area of Chinatown has seen an increase in violent crime. CANADA PRESS / Jason Franson
97 Hot Pot Restaurant in Edmonton’s Chinatown used to be bustling on the weekends, with some customers waiting in line and craving slow-cooked vegetables, lamb and beef.
But that’s not the case lately.
Manager Vincent Lau said the killing of two workers from nearby shops last month and years of social chaos in the century-old downtown neighborhood had frightened many regulars.
“Business has died down significantly in the last few weeks,” said Lau, who lives a 15-minute walk from the restaurant.
“Chinatown has been here for a long time, so it’s sad to see it. Being able to have a safer area will welcome more guests and more residents to this part of the city.”
Wen Wong, executive director of the Chinatown and Area Business Association, said the district in the McCauley neighborhood has deteriorated over the past 20 years.
The decline worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the community’s oldest bakery was burned to the ground and several cases of arson and other vandalism followed.
Edmonton Police said there had been an increasing trend of violence, chaos and property crime in areas including Chinatown, downtown and the transit system.
Wong said years ago, many of Chinatown’s businesses stayed open late to serve busy customers. Many close now at 6pm and, during the day, operate with doors locked so customers have to knock to enter.
“We surveyed our members and almost 100 percent said Chinatown was very dangerous, especially at night,” Wong said, adding that he did not walk outside at night.
Lau said the killings of Ban Phuc Hoang and Hung Trang a few blocks away from his restaurant had made it difficult to attract customers. Hoang was working inside his electronics store when he was attacked. Trang was found dead outside the auto repair shop where he worked.
Lau said some of his older male workers had regularly escorted the maids to their cars after shifts “because we were afraid of what might happen.”
Wong said addiction and mental health problems had worsened and more people had been in the area to access the nearest social service centre.
Volunteers collect as many as 300 needles a month in the community, which is only a few blocks from Edmonton’s safe drug consumption site, he said.
“I don’t understand why and how these safe injection sites and centers are all placed near Chinatown,” Wong said.
“We have a lot of homeless people coming in and they don’t want to leave,” Lau added.
“We had to call the police, which sometimes took up to an hour. At that time, they had wreaked havoc.”
Wong said he counted 150 businesses operating at the start of the pandemic and today there are around 120.
The children of many business owners tell their parents they don’t want to continue running their family shop because of how difficult it is, he says.
“We have less and less Chinese owners, because they are getting older. It’s difficult for the Chinese community.”
Lau and Wong agree that two solutions will help Chinatown become the colorful, tourist-friendly and vibrant neighborhood it used to be: more security and fewer social service centers in the area.
Mayor Amarjeet Sohi announced plans last week to tackle crime. This includes $1 million to revitalize Chinatown, grants for businesses to improve their safety, more public restrooms in the city center and help for owners to do the cleaning.
In the longer term, the city plans to urge the province to stop releasing mental health patients and those released from provincial correctional facilities onto the streets. This, after questions were raised about why the man charged with murdering Hoang and Trang was dropped off in Edmonton by the RCMP when bail conditions stated he could only be in town for an addiction treatment program.
The city also wants to decentralize social services that are now concentrated near Chinatown for five years.
Edmonton Police said it was also working out a strategy to improve community safety along with more officers in the city centre.
Wong said 12 security guards by car, bicycle and on foot had patrolled the area from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week since the funds were issued. This will cover their costs for up to six months.
He wasn’t sure about what would happen after that.
“We hope we will see a big change for the better.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on 18 June 2022.
This story was produced with financial assistance from Meta and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.