provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Monday, November 6, 2017

Development Permit for 105 Keefer voted down

In a historic decision for Vancouver and its historic Chinatown, the City of Vancouver's Development Permit Board voted against the proposed development at 105 Keefer. Director of Planning Gil Kelley cast the deciding vote. It was a courageous decision, going against the recommendations of his own staff. Community organizers and advocates from across the city cheered the decision, and perhaps it marks a turning point in Vancouver's history, coming on the heels of a historical apology for the City of Vancouver's history of anti-Chinese legislation and discriminatory practices.
(you can follow the Development Permit Board hearings and decision at:

For those who are unclear on what led to this decision, and what was at stake, I will share copies of two letters written to the Development Permit Board, and in particular to the Director of Planning Gil Kelley, that place the decision within a historical context, and perhaps illuminate why this was the right decision.

This first letter is from Kelly Kwong, President of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada, Pacific Unit No. 280, representing Chinese Canadian veterans.

The second letter, also generously shared with me, is from Col. Howe Lee, who along with his colleagues at the Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society and Pacific Unit 280 helped build the Memorial to Chinese Canadian Veterans and Chinese Canadian Railroad Workers that the 105 Keefer development proposal would have overshadowed. For anyone who thinks that this divisive issue was just about development politics, I hope that reading these two letters helps make clear that 105 Keefer created such passion, especially among youth, because of the larger issues of history, heritage, and the identity of the City of Vancouver that its approval would have meant.

To the Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver

I write to you as a concerned citizen, as a retired school teacher, and as a veteran of the Canadian military who has devoted much of his life to the service of this country. For the last few decades, much of that service has been to the development of Vancouver’s Chinatown as a historical site and a place of meaning and memory that properly honours the important history and contributions of Chinese Canadians to this city, to our province, and to our nation. I was one of the group of Chinese Canadian military veterans and community volunteers who proposed and built the Memorial to Chinese Canadian Veterans and Chinese Canadian Railroad Workers that will be so adversely affected by the proposed building at 105 Keefer. I also serve the City of Vancouver as a member of the Historical Discrimination Against Chinese people’s Advisory Committee, a group that is urging the City of Vancouver to conserve and better manage Vancouver’s Chinatown as a way to acknowledge and honour the long history of anti-Chinese racism and the struggles of its Chinese Canadian residents against discrimination. Chinatown has long been the site of memory and meaning for all Vancouverites to learn about and respect this history of struggle and sacrifice, and one of its most iconic sites is the Memorial to Chinese Canadian Veterans and Chinese Canadian Railroad Workers.

I want to let you know what the memorial represents. When Canada went to war against its enemies a little over three quarters of a century ago, Chinese Canadians like me could not vote. We could not swim in the Crystal Pool, the only public pool in the city. There were areas of town in which we could not live. There were jobs that we were not allowed to have. If we simply wanted to go to the movie theatre to see the latest Hollywood release, we were shunted off to the balcony out of sight of the other patrons. For the first half of Vancouver’s history as a city, if we were in an accident and taken to the emergency ward at Vancouver General Hospital, we would be segregated from other patients, and despite our injuries we would need to be taken to the basement rather than the same emergency room as others.

Despite this, and out of a conviction to prove that they did not deserve this terrible treatment, many Chinese Canadian men and women volunteered to serve Canada. Most were turned away, out of the fear by authorities that in contributing to our nation as soldiers, our military service might lead to a request for justice and equal treatment that would be difficult to deny. This was in spite of many Chinese Canadians having fought and died in the First World War.

I want to tell you a story about one young man, Quon Louie, one of the sons of H.Y. Louie. Quon’s father had worked his way up from a young labourer transporting fresh vegetables on horseback from Chinese farms to the tables of Vancouverites, by the end of his life the head of a company that distributed fresh produce and other products all over the city. H.Y. Louie Co. now is the owner of the iconic London Drugs and IGA supermarkets found throughout western Canada. At the time, Quon was one of the most gifted of H.Y. Louie’s sons, a star athlete in high school and at UBC. He was a born leader, and great things were expected of him. When he volunteered for military service, the recruiting agents were not the only people opposed to him signing up. Many in the Chinese Canadian community would have argued that the potential loss of such a talented young man would be ruinous for the community. Quon Louie volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942 and became a bombardier, serving bravely and with courage. He died when his bomber was shot down over Germany in January 1945. His loss affected his family as well as the whole community, who could ill afford losing even a single member of its younger generation because immigration exclusion in 1923 had deprived the community of the ability to bring wives over to form families. There were only a handful of Chinese Canadian families able to raise a child, and so the loss of even one child, in particular one as talented and full of potential to be a leader such as Quon Louie, was devastating.

We have never forgotten about the ultimate sacrifice of men such as Flight Officer Quon Louie, who gave his life in the service of his country, because we remember each November 11 in Remembrance Day services their bravery, their idealism, their commitment to lay all of themselves on the line in the service of other. We hold those ceremonies each year at the Memorial Square that sits next to the proposed building at 105 Keefer.

I wanted to tell you the story of Quon Louie so that you can understand why veterans such as myself care so much about this issue. I know that you are relatively new to Vancouver, and perhaps do not yet know the story of how Chinese Canadians were treated for over half of our City’s history. Quon Louie was a product of that world, and yet despite the racism and discrimination he and other Chinese Canadians faced, he nevertheless volunteered to serve our country in its time of need. That is who we remember with our memorial. That is who we dishonour and disrespect if the company wanting to build an oversized monstrousity right next to our beloved memorial to our Chinese Canadian veterans cannot show the simple courtesy of even asking us what we think and how they might lessen the damaging effect to this important place of honour and memory.

I will say little about why the proposed building is too large, too massive, and inappropriate for that location. Others will make the technical arguments that justify your decision to refuse a Development Permit. I simply urge you as a Chinese Canadian veteran who has given so much of my time and devotion to the honouring of the memory of men and women such as Quon Louie, to do the right thing.

The context is important for the decisions we make in life. I hope that you will now understand the context of the decision that Quon Louie and so many of his generation made. It was the most momentous decision of his life, and showed his leadership in ways that highlight even more clearly what a loss it was that we were deprived of his leadership and the countless other important decisions he would have made on our behalf. Perhaps he could have become the first Chinese Canadian voted Mayor of this City. We will never know because of the decision he made to put himself in danger so that others would not have to. I urge you to honour the brave decision he made by having the courage and the conviction to do what you believe is right. Those of us who are able to enjoy our lives now in liberty and comfort owe it to their willingness to sacrifice theirs.

Perhaps there will be questioning of your decision by some, even legal challenges by those upset at its effects upon them. But I hope that you will have the courage to make a decision that is in the best interests of the city and community that you serve, and that you will be inspired in some measure to be brave in the face of consequences so less threatening than the anti-aircraft fire and destruction that Flight Officer Quon Louie and his fellow crew faced over Germany. It is because of their sacrifice and what they were willing to face that you have the power and responsibility as a civil servant of this great city to make this decision. You have been invested with the duty and obligation as a decision-maker on this issue. I hope that you will use that power wisely and with due consideration of the great consequences of the choice you make.

Col. Howe Lee

No comments:

Post a Comment