Those cards will no longer be coming. To me or to any of the large number of people who respected and revered Joe.
Just hours ago, I heard the terrible news of Joe Wai's passing. It is a devastating loss. Just days ago, he had been at the Open House at the Chinese Cultural Centre for the Rezoning Proposal for 105 Keefer, a passionate and vocal activist for Chinatown, saying what needed to be said, and standing up for what he believed was right, even though his health has been a challenge over the last few years. Joe has been an inspiration for me in almost every thing that I do as a historian and as a community volunteer. I cannot count how many meetings I have had the privilege of being at with him, and I can hear clearly in my mind at this very moment the sound of his voice, persuasively articulating what needed to be done or explaining with clarity the history of why things had become the way they were. Although his professional life was as an architect, and in particular as a defining presence in heritage architecture, his most profound effect for me and I am sure for many others has been in his longstanding involvement in the civic life of Vancouver. He was a giant presence in any conversation, but not because he was loud or boisterous, but because of the compelling content of what he would say. Joe Wai the active citizen and community volunteer has profoundly shaped this city, as much as his iconic architectural designs have given shape to Vancouver's Chinatown and Strathcona neighbourhoods. He cared about the issues, but he also cared about the people who came together to argue, and cajole, and sometimes shout at each other about what was best for their community. Often, in such contexts, his was a whisper compared to the heated voices of passionate debate. But his words nevertheless had an impact beyond any angry shout because of the gravity and clarity of what he said rather than the volume at which he spoke.
I would not be working at UBC, in the job I have, if it was not for Joe Wai speaking out while a member of the Board of Governors, asking why in a city such as Vancouver with its population and location, there was so little teaching and engagement of students with the long Chinese Canadian history that had shaped not only his beloved Chinatown, but the city (and UBC) in general. It was that outspoken prompt that led to the creation of a relevant position, the hiring of me and other colleagues who focused on Asian Canadian and Asian migration issues, and as a consequence also the creation of programs that brought hundreds of UBC students over the last decade into meaningful engagements with local Chinese Canadian, Japanese Canadian, South Asian Canadian, and other Asian Canadian communities. Few people realize how crucial a role Joe Wai played as a catalyst in sparking the creation of these new programs.
In a similar way, Joe's voice has helped shape many other initiatives and civic projects over his long fruitful life. His significant impact, often as quiet and low-key as his baritone voice, has been monumental.
When I came home to Vancouver to work at UBC, leaving a job at UCLA, one of the biggest reasons I did so was because of the encouragement and inspiration of Joe Wai. In a café now long gone, sitting for a meal with Andy Yan and Joe's brother Hayne, any trepidations that I had about making this huge change in my life were allayed by the reassurance that Joe Wai would be a supportive ally. He never let me down, or any of the countless students who have gone out from UBC over the last decade in the passionate and engaged manner envisioned by Joe. Some of them were as lucky as I was to meet and learn from Joe himself, in particular those who were interested in Chinatown and its struggles over the last decade not to lose its significance as a special and unique part of our city's heritage. Those who knew him can count themselves lucky to have had him as a kind and supportive mentor, generous with his time and advice, but also candid about the challenges of an active and engaged life.
Changes come sometimes only with persistent and impassioned struggle, and oftentimes a hard won gain is subsequently lost. For those whose youthful energy can wane, discouraged by how difficult entrenched hierarchies could be, Joe was a figure of inspiration but also of consolation, a sage whose wisdom had been hard earned through both victories and disappointments. I remember many of those times, when after a particular discussion or meeting, I felt stunned by the barely veiled cynicism that had shaped a decision. Moments like those threaten to sap the energy it often takes to stand up for what you believe, and like rust, over time break the strength of conviction with the corrosion of cynicism. I have myself been reminded by Joe's own example to not lose hope. His humanity itself was a bulwark against becoming a hopeless cynic. Walking to the car with him after a discussion had ended and hearing him chuckle about a head scratching moment was like a tonic, a reminder that laughing off our human foibles rather than demonizing others allowed one to continue to search for a humane compromise.
My heartfelt condolences to the Wai family, whose loss today and in the days to come far outweigh that of those like me who have had the privilege of benefitting from Joe's generousity.
Joe Wai was a great architect, a great citizen of this city, and a gentleman whose grace and dignity will continue to be an inspiration to many...
Below is an article in the Vancouver Province in November after Joe received a lifetime achievement award from the Architectural Institute of BC. I'm glad that Joe was able to experience that meaningful symbol of what his lifetime of work has meant to us all. At this moment, it is perhaps also appropriate to share an excerpt from a letter in support of the well-deserved honour.
August 21, 2016
For the consideration of the AIBC
I am writing this letter to give my strongest support and enthusiastic encouragement for recognizing the lifetime achievement of Joe Wai. Although I have had the personal honour of knowing Joe for over a dozen years, this letter is written from my perspective as a scholar and historian in consideration of the signature impact that Joe Wai has had as an architect on the history of Vancouver. I can think of no other architect in the history of the province who has become as synonymous with the history of Chinese Canadians and in particular the Chinese in Vancouver. His work in heritage conservation in Strathcona, at a time when it was under threat of destruction, and his formative work in creating some of the most iconic architecture in Chinatown over the last four decades, has cemented his place in our province’s history. Indeed, when I think of the most symbolic spaces built in Chinatown in the last half century, they are Joe Wai’s designs: the Chinatown Millennium Gate, the Sun Yat-sen Classical Garden, the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum and Archives, and the Chinatown Parkade and Plaza. Chinatown has had a rich history, dating back to even before the founding of Vancouver itself, and the heritage clan association buildings that line Pender Street are iconic historically; however, in terms of contemporary Chinatown, it is Joe’s designs that come to mind when one closes one’s eyes and thinks of what is distinctive and memorable.
I would also add that Joe’s knowledge of the dynamic nature of overseas Chinese architecture, including the eclectic blend of European and Chinese styles that marked Guangzhou and Hong Kong, has shaped the aesthetic of his designs, and in consequence our contemporary visual grammar for Chinatown, and because of Chinatown’s significant place on the city, that of Vancouver itself. He understood with insightful clarity that historical Chinese migrants were enthusiastic in blending together the best that they found in their migrations, and therefore tended to create hybrid forms that defied classification. His fluency in that hybrid language allowed him to create a contemporary dialect that spoke both to history in a respectful manner and addressed present day practical needs with aesthetic clarity. When I give historical walking tours to my UBC students and to international colleagues who are visiting Vancouver, I find myself explaining the broader history of Chinatown’s history by translating the vernacular language of Chinese Canadian architecture that Joe has mastered. His designs, in a word, have given us the visual language for both understanding and articulating the signature place of Chinese Canadian history in Vancouver and British Columbia, and how it fits within a global set of linkages...
Just as Chinese Canadians helped shape our province’s history, and were and continue to be a crucial foundation to the building of our shared society, Joe Wai’s life work has shaped our collective history...
Dr. Henry Yu
Associate Professor, Department of History, UBC, and
Principal, St. John’s College, UBC