Small Business Lessons: How the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation is helping entrepreneurs survive

For our Small Business issue, we asked 14 B.C. businesses how they're surviving in this economy. Here's one of them

No industry or neighbourhood was untouched by the COVID pandemic, and no one can mark themselves completely safe from recession, either (except maybe the billionaires—if you’re reading this, sharing is caring). But certain groups—like the small businesses in Vancouver’s Chinatown—have been exponentially more affected.

According to Carol Lee, co-founder and chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, reduced tourism activity, a lack of resources and straight-up racism have led to heritage businesses struggling. “Some have been forced to shut down or relocate from the neighbourhood they have called home for generations,” she says. Vancouver’s Chinatown has served as a hub for Chinese Canadians since the 1880s, when it was created out of necessity—back then, discrimination forced the community to the margins. Today, it continues to be a challenge.

“There has been an alarming surge in anti-Asian hate sentiment and crimes—they’ve cast a dark shadow of fear and vulnerability on the community,” explains Lee. She and her team at the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation have been working overtime to support small businesses, especially in the last three years. The foundation (and the Chinatown BIA) helped 40 small businesses access government relief funding, often visiting storefronts in person to deliver resources in both English and Traditional Chinese. Through the United Way Lower Mainland—and other community donors—they raised $100,000 in funding and provided 10,000 hot meals to low-income residents at the May Wah Hotel and participants in the Second Mile Society (a nonprofit benefiting low-income seniors).

Lee says that Chinatown’s deep network of community organizations continues to carry the legacy of the resilience, courage and entrepreneurial spirit of the early Chinese Canadians who lived here. “These businesses are the backbone of this community,” says Lee, “and without small businesses, Chinatown will not survive.”

A Little Help from Their Friends

What does support look like? Here’s how the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation did it.

KK Boutique, 154 E Pender St.

For this clothing store, the VCF upgraded business branding, made over the brick-and mortar biz (think painting the interior and decking out the storefront with display plinths and flower boxes) and helped with PR, earning the boutique a spot on the Vancouver Sun’s front page.

Forum Appliances, 245 E Pender St.

The VCF secured a Canada Digital Adoption Program grant—that’s $15,000 to go toward enhancing digital infrastructure—for this Chinatown appliance store (and they provided consultation on recruitment and retention strategies, too). Now the store has a shiny new e-commerce site and is reporting an increased revenue stream and lower turnover rate.

Bamboo Village, 135 E Pender St.

To grow this 40-year-old houseware and plant store’s online presence, the VCF developed visual merchandising strategies and earned the shop a $7,500 grant to use on their website. You can now find their one-of-a-kind antiques on Instagram, too.

Centre A, 268 Keefer St.

This gallery is also known as the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. The VCF donated website audits, an expanded online programming platform and e-commerce resources, resulting in enhanced cybersecurity and online programming, a revamped digital presence and more revenue streams.

Ochi Fashion, 121 E Pender St.

Ceiling repairs, carpet upgrades and new window displays were all checked off this traditional Chinese clothing store’s list thanks to the VCF.