Saturday, December 7, 2019
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students


Jim Yee is the president of the Yee Fung Toy Society, where members meet daily to play mahjong.

Chinatown’s rickety heritage reaches for lifeline

City grants are propping up heritage buildings in Vancouver’s Chinatown, helping non-profit groups carry out essential repairs. The heritage buildings…

By Christopher Cheung , in City , on October 29, 2014 Tags: , , , ,

Jim Yee is the president of the Yee Fung Toy Society, where members meet daily to play mahjong.
Jim Yee is the president of the Yee Fung Toy Society, where members meet daily to play mahjong.

City grants are propping up heritage buildings in Vancouver’s Chinatown, helping non-profit groups carry out essential repairs.

The heritage buildings are owned by family societies who are hoping the aid from Vancouver will pave the way for provincial and federal government funds.

Most societies are using the city money for much needed mechanical and electrical work.

“The city obviously realizes that if nothing’s done, Chinatown’s not going to be around in any kind of fashion,” said President Jim Yee of the Yee Fung Toy Society of Vancouver.

“Other cities [have lost] their Chinatowns physically, culturally, socially, and economically.”

Land rich, cash poor

Rent at the Yee Fung Toy Society's SROs is about $400 a month.
Rent at the Yee Fung Toy Society’s SROs is about $400 a month.

The financial assistance help is appreciated because the societies who own the buildings are not wealthy. But the land itself is valuable. Their only revenue comes from occasional donations and rent collected from their buildings’ single residence occupancy units.

Fred Mah, chair of the Chinatown Society Heritage Buildings Association and neighbourhood advocate of over 40 years, has worked with the societies and the city to help outline the grant program.

“Our forefathers went through real hardship in order to get the buildings,” said Mah. “We should remember how difficult it was for people to purchase [them].”

Mah and the Chinatown Society Heritage Buildings Association are preparing additional proposals to the provincial and federal governments. The survival of family societies helped the neighbourhood of Chinatown gain a National Historic Site of Canada designation in 2011.

Mah is hopeful the buildings’ historical and community importance will give them the help they need.

Cultural legacy

Fred Mah hopes the Mah Society Building's facade will be restored.
Fred Mah hopes the Mah Society Building’s facade will be restored.

Until more funding is secured, city councillor Kerry Jang said the grants are a good temporary fix ensure “this place stands”.

Chinese family societies were established in the early 1900s to help immigrants with the same last name adjust to life in Canada but that role today has shifted to providing social hubs.

“Before, it was survival,” said Jang. “Now, it’s a historical one, a way of ensuring one’s roots and culture are maintained.”

Jang is a member of two societies and hopes the buildings will not only be preserved, but help the public understand the stories behind their legacy.

“It’s all displayed on their walls,” said Jang. “The whole history of Canada and Chinese in Canada.”

The city is accepting the first round of applications until Oct. 31 with periodic rounds of funding available over the next three years.