provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Joe Wai's Passing--Losing A Community Giant Whose Designs and Personal Influence Shaped Vancouver

Every New Year, I look forward to a beautiful hand drawn card in the mail from Joe Wai. The style of his sketches are unmistakable--of buildings, courtyards, of intimate cityscapes--captured in spare line drawings and always accompanied by a personal handwritten message in the same unique penmanship. Opening the envelope at this time every year has always been an honour for me, an annual ritual that filled me with pride to know that I had warranted such gracious attention and respect from one of my personal heroes.

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

Joe Wai: Chinatown's architectural advocate

Vancouver architect Joe Wai is receiving a lifetime achievement award for his work, which includes the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Gardens, where he is pictured Friday, November 18, 2016.
Vancouver architect Joe Wai is receiving a lifetime achievement award for his work, which includes the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Gardens, where he is pictured Friday, November 18, 2016.PHOTO BY JASON PAYNE
Some say architect Joe Wai's political sensibilities must have been sparked when his grandparents' Strathcona house was expropriated by the federal government in the late 1950s for urban renewal.
Wai himself demurs.
It wasn't until his late 20s some 10 years later, Wai said, that he joined the Strathcona Owners and Tenants Association (SPOTA) to fight further expropriation for public housing and a freeway that would go right through Chinatown. But the connection is hard to ignore. Afterall, Wai would spend the next five decades championing quality social housing, building healthy communities and preserving Chinatown and Strathcona's historic and neighbourhood characters.
"Events just sort of chose you," Wai said with characteristic humbleness. "I remember really being quite puzzled that I had become an activist as opposed to an architect."
"A number of us helped, me being a young architect, Mike Harcourt being a young lawyer, Darlene Marzari being a young social worker and Margaret Mitchell, also a social worker," Wai said.
The feisty community group fought to preserve a 60-year-old neighbourhood filled with 1910 and 1920 wood buildings with steep pitched roofs and front porches where neighbours would watch the world go by. Instead of mowing down these buildings for "characterless, concrete little boxes that wouldn't have any identity," Wai said, the group advocated rehabilitating old housing, streets and infrastructure.
The campaign worked, and in 1973, the federal government introduced national neighbourhood improvement programs based on the Strathcona experience.
"It was a very inspiring time where change was possible," said Wai who promptly designed 51 practical, inexpensive, infill homes that fit aesthetically into the neighbourhood and were soon nicknamed "Joe Wai Specials," a joking reference to Vancouver's infamous "Vancouver Specials," a boxy house design that maximized easy-to-build square footage.
A community is an "organic thing," said Wai who'd worked in London and seen how rich a city can be when allowed to grow with multiple neighbourhood personalities. "If you shove it around and push commodities of any kind, it loses character."
Wai, whose UBC architecture instructors included Arthur Erickson, went on to design some of Chinatown's most iconic structures, from the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden to Chinatown's Millennium Gate, the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum-Archives and Chinatown Plaza Parkade. He was a founding vice-chairman of the Chinese Cultural Centre, and led a successful campaign for Chinatown's designation as a National Historic Site in 2011.
"He's a very quietly stubborn guy. He never lets go," former B.C. premier Harcourt said in an interview. Wai has "patiently and consistently for decades" grappled with the challenge of revitalizing Chinatown without losing its soul, Harcourt said.
He restored the Chinese Freemason Building, originally built in 1907, preserving a building style unique to Vancouver and San Francisco's Chinatowns. These tall, vertically focused buildings combine Victorian gingerbread architecture with large balconies, high ground floors and window ventilation suitable for tropical climates, Wai said.
Wai, 75, recently received an Architectural Institute of B.C. lifetime achievement award.
Wai has a "complex identity," said SFU professor emeritus Jan Walls, who has worked with Wai in community groups over the years. "He's wrestling with the demands of market sustainability against the desire to sustain cultural values which are important but really hard to demonstrate statistically."
Wai does not seek to freeze Chinatown in its past, but advocates development and renovations that acknowledge the area's history and character. "At least be respectful of what that character is and reinterpret it in a way that is an evolution. I'm not suggesting you go back, because you can't go back," Wai said.
Projects such as Wai's Native Housing Society's Skwachàys Healing Lodge and Gallery "have become landmarks in great design, livability and operation," said Nathan Edelson, former City of Vancouver senior planner. "He takes on impossible projects that have clear cultural significance in an incredibly inclusive way." His current projects include a major renovation of the Villa Cathay Care Home in Strathcona.
Wai is "one of the very few people in Vancouver who is respected and trusted by both the old Chinatown establishment leadership and by people in City Hall," Walls said.
When Wai immigrated to Vancouver from Hong Kong as a child in 1952, he initially lived with his grandparents in Strathcona. Wai was not only born in the year of the dragon, but in the year of the golden dragon. In Chinese cosmology, a dragon is the embodiment of dynamic activity, Walls said.
"He is a conundrum - a modest dragon," Walls said.
Some more links (added January 13, 2017):

Wai was one of the pioneers of Vancouver's Chinatown and the architect behind the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden

Extended interview with Joe Wai


  1. Very sad news, I feel incredibly honoured to have benefited from his wisdom and friendship -- we still call them "Joe Wais" here in Strathcona - PF

  2. OH no... Joe my mentor, was the man who inspired me to become an architect. We just honoured him with a lifetime achievement award from the Architectural Institute. The photos from that wonderful evening are still in my camera. Bless you Joe. We will all miss you so very much...

  3. Lovely comments, Henry. I first met Joe in 1987 or so and worked in his office a bit back then, but have maintained ties (less than I wish given I've been out of Canada since 1992. He was a genuinely wonderful person on every imaginable level. And every December, his card would arrive and up on the shelf it went...this December included. RIP Joe and sincere condolences to all family & friends.

  4. A great loss indeed.

    PK TAM

  5. I am heart broken with the news. It is a huge loss for Vancouver. Liders like Joe will be always remembered. I regret not having finished the plan to invite him to have an exhibition of his work at his beloved Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden this year. My sincere condolences to all his family.
    Leticia S.
    Arts and Exhibitions
    Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden