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Municipal Politics

Gratitude for Joe Wai, Architect and Lover of Civic Life

A Vancouver visionary, and one of my personal heroes, passed away this week.

Henry Yu 14 Jan

Henry Yu is the director of the Initiative for Student Teaching and Research in Chinese Canadian Studies at the University of British Columbia. He is Principal, St. John’s College, UBC. This tribute first appeared on his blog.

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Joe Wai, through his architecture and volunteer work, has helped preserve and shape Chinatown for over 40 years. Photo: Brian Howell.

[Editor’s note: On Jan. 10, Vancouver architect Joe Wai was at an open house for a highly controversial rezoning proposal in Chinatown, a neighbourhood he had spent most of his life advocating for. Only a day later, Wai died at the age of 76 from complications related to an aneurysm.

Wai was responsible for designing many local landmarks – Chinatown’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and the Millennium Gate among them – but he was also known for his activism. “Events just sort of chose you. I remember really being quite puzzled that I had become an activist as opposed to an architect,” he told the Vancouver Sun last year. Wai was part of the Strathcona Owners and Tenants Association, which in 1973 successfully stopped a proposed freeway into Vancouver’s downtown that would have left much of the neighbourhood destroyed.

The resilient Wai was also known for his humbleness. Here’s UBC historian Henry Yu’s reflection on a community giant who 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 is 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 in knowing 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 Wai.

Recently, I heard the terrible news of Joe’s passing on Wednesday night. 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 Street. He was there as a passionate and vocal activist for Vancouver’s Chinatown, saying what needed to be said and standing up for what he believed was right, even though his health has been a challenge the last few years.

Joe has been an inspiration for me in almost everything that I do as a historian and 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 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.

In his professional life he was an architect and, in particular, he was a defining presence in heritage architecture. But his most profound effect on me, and I am sure on many others, has been in his longstanding involvement in the civic life of Vancouver. He was a giant presence in any conversation, not because he was loud or boisterous, but because of the compelling things he had to 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.

I would not be working at the University of British Columbia 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 about the long Chinese Canadian history that had shaped not only his beloved Chinatown but also 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 fears 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, nor did he let down any of the countless students who have attended UBC over the last decade. 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 Joe 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 times when after a particular discussion or meeting I felt stunned by the barely veiled cynicism that had shaped a decision. Moments like those can threaten to sap the energy it 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 was a bulwark against hopeless cynicism. 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.

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.  [Tyee]

Read more: Municipal Politics

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