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Yokohama Chinatown, proud of its 140-year history as a symbol of the city since the early days of the port’s opening, is gearing up for a makeover that it hopes will draw tourists back to its streets.

A group of restaurant and shop owners in Chinatown has been working to make the narrow streets barrier-free and more visitor-friendly, hoping to keep pedestrian traffic up amid the economic slump and as the elderly population swells.

Work will begin this year on refurbishing the main street, which is about 9 meters wide and runs about 300 meters between the ornamental gates of Choyomon in the east and Zenrinmon to the west, according to Tadayasu Abe, managing trustee of the Yokohama Chinatown Development Association.

A key feature of the makeover is a yearlong project to lower the sidewalks on each side of the main street to 5 cm from 15 cm.

The sidewalks were originally built relatively high to protect shops from flooding by rain back in the days when the area lacked an effective drainage system.

Their current height, about the same as a 500 ml bottle, is inconvenient for the elderly and people with disabilities and poses a hidden danger to other visitors.

A tourist rickshaw operator on the main street said he has seen many people twist their ankles by falling off the sidewalk, unaware of the sudden drop. Injuries are especially common on weekends and holidays, when the narrow streets overflow with crowds, he said.

“We want to create an environment where the elderly and wheelchair users can also visit Chinatown with ease,” Abe said, referring to the rapidly graying population.

The association also plans to make Chinatown look more pleasant by increasing the greenery in the area, renovating the Chinese-style lamp posts, and taking down power lines and burying them underground.

“Putting the cables underground will not only make the streets look nicer, it will also help prevent fires and disasters,” Abe said.

In May, hanging cables obstructed firemen who were trying to douse a huge fire that damaged Manchinro, a famous Chinese restaurant in the area.

Residents meanwhile fear the effects falling utility poles and cables may have in an earthquake.

Removing the utility poles will also free up space on the narrow sidewalks, giving visitors more room to move.

The total cost of the renovation has not been tallied as many of the projects are still in their planning stages, according to Yokohama’s Economic Affairs Bureau.

For works that qualify for subsidies, the city government, Kanagawa Prefectural Government and central government have each agreed to cover a quarter of the costs. The remaining quarter and other costs for projects not covered by the subsidies will be borne by the association.

Yokohama will subsidize up to 150 million yen, the bureau said.

Restaurant and shop owners in Chinatown said business has declined amid the deteriorating economy. Chinatown, which has about 3,000 residents, draws around 18 million visitors each year.

“Chinatown already has most of its ‘hardware’ in place,” Abe said. “The important thing from now is to focus on the ‘software’ — the strategy of how to attract more visitors.”

In preparation for the spring 2004 opening of Motomachi-Chinatown Station on the new Minato Mirai 21 subway line, the association has started rebuilding the Choyomon gate, which marks the east entrance of Chinatown and is closest to the new station.

“The new gate, to be officially opened on Chinese New Year’s Day on Feb. 1, will become the biggest gate and the new landmark of Chinatown,” Abe said.

In December, the association will establish an information center next to the gate, offering visitors an opportunity to experience Chinese culture.

“We want visitors to be able to experience firsthand various kinds of Chinese traditional arts, including Tai Chi and calligraphy, so that Chinatown is no longer just a place for dining and shopping,” Abe said.

In the past, such occasions in Chinatown came during special events organized during festivals such as the Chinese New Year’s celebrations.

“The center is a pretty good idea,” said Lu Xing Xiong, 63. “From a long-term perspective, the most important thing is mutual understanding between Japanese and Chinese, and doing so through cultural exchange is perhaps the best way.”

Lu, who was born and raised in Chinatown and runs Banraiken, a Chinese restaurant at the southern end of the strip, believes the new subway line, a 4.1-km extension that will link Chinatown to Yokohama Station and the Tokyu Toyoko Line, will bring a surge of visitors.

“The new station will be a great benefit,” Lu said. “We will then have the JR (Ishikawacho) station near the west boundary and a subway station near the east gate.

“This is probably the first time in Japan that ‘Chinatown’ has been used as a station name,” he said. “As in the name of the subway line, we are looking forward positively to ‘mirai’ (the future), in a world of globalization in the 21st century.”

Visitors looking for evidence of such globalization need go no further than the new east gate, where a Starbucks coffee shop greets visitors before they even have a chance to enter any of the more than 500 stores and restaurants selling “moon cake” pastries and Chinese steamed buns.

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