The History of the Making of Chinatown Square

Every community needs a place, a heart or an urban room, where people can meet casually without having to text or call first.

The following article is written by Lewis Villegas, Urban Design Specialist, and it has been reproduced with permission (the original post is available on lewisnvillegas – the making and meaning of place). This post is from Lewis’ point of view as he shares details about the work that went into the creation of Chinatown Square (now Chinatown Memorial Plaza).

Remembrance Day on Chinatown Square

The opportunity to make a square in Vancouver’s Chinatown came in the 1990s when my good friend David Mah was chair at CHAPAC (Chinatown Historic Area Planning Advisory Committee).

David and I had met in college and studied art, building technology and architecture together. Almost a decade later the opportunity emerged to do something with what was then known as the ‘Keefer Triangle’. David said he needed a ‘planner’ for his design team. He would be the architect and another friend the landscape architect. I had completed enough revitalization projects by 1990, that I assured him I could ‘pass for a planner’. Of course we both knew what was really needed: design of the public realm to support much higher levels of social mixing. A place for people rather than cars. Although, of course, cars could be welcomed too.

2003 Chinatown Square showing proposed Pagoda and Museum and Archive building.

David and I felt that Chinatown was missing the all important physical Heart. Although the community’s heart was still alive and strong, there was no public place, no ‘urban room’, to stand as the symbol of this particularly important neighborhood in our city. Thus, from the moment he mentioned ‘Keefer Triangle’, I envisioned a square. And that became our design challenge: figuratively, conceptually, in every way except in actual fact, we would ‘add a leg to the triangle’ and build a square. A people place. 30 years later it is nothing short of remarkable how a very few public gestures have achieved so much.

2002 Pony Rides at a Community Fair Held on Chinatown Square (Photo: J Karakas).

The first time I went to look at the site I realized that the four trees that Joe Wai had planted in front of the gate leading into the Chinese Park lined up with the street trees further up Keefer. Thus, the design for the square was more or less ‘already in place’: all we had to do was connect the four trees in front of the park gate with the street trees along both sides of Keefer. All that was required was to plant a double row of trees extending right through the square, plugging into a design that was already existing in place. We would add a continuous ground plane, paving stones, pedestrian lamps and bollards. However, what we relied on most to make this site into a square is what I call the ‘Donut Principle’ in urbanism: 

We know it’s a donut because it has a hole in the middle—everything else is just pastry. 

Neighborhoods organize themselves in like manner. Provide a space—a hole—in the center and the community will organize itself around it. Buildings will sprout up; the people will come and fill the space with their many activities; and with the passing of time the place will seep into the local consciousness.

Meeting the People in the Neighborhood

Of course, in order to design a place for the community one had to meet the community, listen to their stories… and ‘ask stupid questions’ confident that the answers will be seeped in the story of place. At that time Horace Lee was still attending daily at the gas station he had built with his brother, the Lee Brothers Garage, on Keefer right next to the triangle. I met often with Horace and we had many discussions. He told me that originally the back of the buildings on the south side of Pender fronted on False Creek. In those days everyone owned a boat and they would go out and fish. Salmon was plentiful. Photographs on the walls of his office showed their catch being smoked. He also had photos of the Chinese Canadian battalion that had fought in WWII.

I was particularly interested in knowing how Horace, as a merchant, felt about me putting a square in front of his business. Somewhere during those discussions the idea was born to run a lane through the square where cars could drive. In the tradition of Gastown and Granville Island, bollards would separate vehicles from pedestrians. David came up with this amazing design for the bollards that recalled the ones in Piazza del Campo in Siena. But the City would have none of it. The lane would allow a right turn on Columbia so that cars could go to Pender Street for shopping. When we presented the concept of the square with a vehicular lane along one side to the Chinatown Merchants, they loved it. I felt the 11.5-foot wide lane would add a measure of urbanism to the space. Horace was okay with it too. It was a particularly pleasing day when I was able to relay to him that the city planners had given their word that the Lee Brothers Garage would be granted access directly from the lane.

On-site with City Staff

Of course, even if this project had been initiated at CHAPAC, an advisory committee to Council, staff would have to approve the final design. In order to sell the planning department on the idea of building a square in Chinatown, I suggested we mock up the double row of trees using 4-foot tall traffic cones. Thus, on a rainy morning David and I met a pick up truck from engineering on site, and set out about a dozen pairs of tall orange cones on a 20-foot grid all over Keefer Triangle. Naturally, we were careful to align the double row of cones with the street trees on Keefer, and the four trees at the gate to the park. When the planners arrived minutes after the cones were up, I soon realized it was going to be one of those ‘unique days’… As staff stepped out of the van, one by one, and looked up at the cones we had laid out, we could see the expression in their faces changing. It was ‘instant recognition’ for them that the scheme would work, and instant realization for us that the concept would be approved. From that day on Chinatown was going to have a square—albeit a square with just three legs.

Later that year, when we presented the concept plan for Chinatown Square at Council in Committee, we also presented a ‘future plan’ that showed the Keefer Triangle site extending all the way to the lane running between Pender and Keefer streets. Some 25 years later, with the 105 Keefer site under review, the time is right to complete Chinatown Square as a proper public site. A site with four sides.

Joe Wai c 1980 with model for the Chinese Garden (top) and Chinese Park (bottom) Photo: Twitter

A Conversation with Joe Wai

By the time CHAPAC was tasked with forming a design team to do something at Keefer triangle, Joe Wai had already completed three projects in Chinatown: the China Gate, the Chinatown Parkade, and the Chinese Garden and Park. These were Expo ’86 projects. A decade later he designed the Chinese Cultural Center Museum and Archive (1998).

I had met Joe in 1980 when I joined a group that was preparing an entry for the design competition for Edmonton City Hall. Since we could both draw really well, we became fast friends. I stayed in touch with Joe while I attended architecture school. So it was only natural to call him up and set a meeting so that David and I might talk about ‘Keefer Triangle’ with him. Indeed, we felt that the area had already become a kind of a unique cultural site. Almost like a Renaissance town centre with Duomo, campanile, baptistry and piazza. We remarked how, following the classical tradition, we felt that his CCC museum and archives building needed a proportionally sized urban space or piazza out front that would enable people to see the building properly. We only had the commission to design the triangle, however the intention should be made clear that the site should extend north in the future to make a proper square in front of the museum.

Joe loved the idea. From the moment we mentioned it he was sold on the concept. Of course, all of us realized that we were talking about a very small first step, to be completed in later phase. The first step would be to design the south section of that future square. Our triangle would front on the gate to the Chinese park. A square fronting the museum would come later, won on the strength of the how well the first phase was embraced by the community.

A Conversation with Friday Night Market

The Night Market was already operating by the early 1990s, so David and I met with the organizers to ask them to consider relocating to our site. We described the concept of a square on Keefer Triangle, and suggested that the design would anticipate locations for market stalls, provide power for market merchants, etc. Unfortunately, at that time they were not interested. The Night Market did relocate to Chinatown Square some years later, spending the better part of a decade on the site before finally ceasing operations in 2014. My hope is that a Phase II design for Chinatown Square will recognize the value of hosting a farmer’s market. The new design might extend the use of bollards with electrical outlets for market stalls, as well as provide space for food trucks. 

The Square is built

Without much fanfare, using very inexpensive materials—colored stamped concrete, granite sets, concrete bollards and Chinese Tulip trees—the square was built. I was on site the day it opened to the public. The first thing that caught my eye was a man on a wheelchair. He took to the vehicular lane on the square and zoomed at top speed on his chair for its full length. That was the other ‘unique moment’. It was a sign that the community would embrace the space and make it their own. There were plenty of other signs that Chinatown Square was embraced by the community.

Competition for a monument on the square

In 2000 the community organized a competition for a memorial monument to be erected on the square. A splendid pair of bronze statues, commemorating the Chinese Canadians who built the Transcontinental, and fought in World War II, was unveiled in 2003. The word came to me that city staff were upset by the winning entry containing figurative sculpture. From their perspective it wasn’t modern enough. Yet, from that date forth, every year on Remembrance Day, the square enjoys a steady stream of visitors, many of them proudly wearing military dress. 

The Pagoda

Perhaps the earliest sign that the square was a success in the eyes of the community came when a donor turned up in Joe Wai’s office with an ivory pagoda 4-feet tall—and a check for $1.5 million to build a pagoda fronting the square. At the base would be a tea room. Joe drew up the plans and presented them to the City. Reviewing the plans, the City Hall called for an elevator and a double set of exit stairs. These demands sunk the project and turned the donation away.

Night Market Moves In

It was about this time that the Night Market moved into Chinatown Square. Yet, to my dismay, the the stalls were set up with extension chords running all over the ground. The city was not switching on the plugs that we had installed on the bollards. 

Lunar New Year’s Parade

Every year Chinatown celebrates Lunar New Year with a parade. The VIP Reviewing Stand is set up along the south wall of the Chinese Garden in a forgotten location. The opportunity exists to set up the reviewing stand on the square, enabling the various entries in the parade to perform one last number  on the square for the VIPs before disbanding. Simply the opportunity of bringing together all the Chinese Dragons in one place would make moving the reviewing stand worthwhile. 

   *      *     *    *

Community Protests Building a Tower on the site of Chinatown Memorial Square (Photo: Twitter)

Joe and I often talked about the fact that urban squares can take generations to build. That some of the best ones were built over a century-and-a-half. Yet, my conviction has never faltered that the first and most important act had been already achieved: the claiming of the site. From there it will be up to the community, with our staunch support, to fight to build a place made from the ether. Made out of thin air and trees.

By preserving a small square of land located in the heart of the neighbourhood a community can claim its history and shape its future.

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