Remembering Joe Wai: Architect, Activist, and Placemaker

Joe Wai

Very sad news to note yesterday, the passing of Joe Wai.

Many in Strathcona might only know of Joe Wai as the nickname for the ubiquitous stuccoed and bay-windowed duplexes and triplexes throughout the neighbourhood, as the 1970's BC Housing built and Joe Wai designed structures came to be colloquially known. Those then-new structures quite sensitively complimented the Victorian venacular of Strathcona, which at the time was literally falling apart, blighted as a result of deliberate city policies that sought to "renew" Strathcona with bulldozers, housing projects, and highways. Joe, and his photographer brother Hayne were young neighbourhood advocates and activists, who joined forces with the Strathcona Owners and Tenants Association (SPOTA) to fight the expropriation and destruction of Chinatown and Strathcona. Those efforts are the only reason our neighbourhood exists today.

Joe went on to design some of our city's best loved Chinatown places, including the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Gardens, the Chinese Cultural Centre, Skwachàys Healing Lodge, and the Millennium Gate. Along the way he was a driving force behind the preservation of Chinatown and renewing it's many heritage buildings and facades, and he led the campaign to see Chinatown designated as a National Historic Site. One of his as-yet incomplete projects —on he specifically sought and received SRA support for— is the Villa Cathay renewal, which will see improved and expanded seniors' housing for Chinese elders in our community.

Last year at 75, Joe was given an Architectural Institute of B.C. lifetime achievement award. He will be dearly missed even as his legacy lives on.

Read the recent Vancouver Sun story on the occasion of Joe's lifetime achievement award
Nice little piece on the ubiquitous "Joe Wai's" of Strathcona
Joe's obituary in the Sun


I wrote this piece for the local Strathcona Residents' Association newsletter; almost as soon as I'd heard the news, I poured myself a stiff drink and thought about Joe's influence on the city, our neighborhood, and me.

I met Joe and his brother Hayne around the same time. Hayne, an accomplished photographer and historian had a magnificent collection of under appreciated photographs from the SPOTA days; when that grassroots organization rallied to save our Strathcona neighbourhood from the wrecking ball. Joe, of course was already the stuff of legend, and (nick)namesake of the charming style of dense and well designed housing throughout the 'hood including next-door to me, a cheerful triplex where Jim Green was living at that time.

Joe later came to me when I was chair of the Resident's Association with a big renovation proposal, to replace a dated and worn-out seniors housing facility —Villa Cathay on Union Street— with a new modern facility, more amenities, more and better housing, and an 11 story tower. Of course, towers are generally pretty much an anathema to residents associations everywhere; especially when plonked down in the middle of a low rise neighbourhood, and in the context of an overly developer-friendly city government. But the irony was not lost on me —that Joe and many of those very seniors he sought to house had helped to save our neighbourhood in the first place; and that as the specter of big development was threatening to destroy Chinatown and displace it's residents, they would need someplace to go. I'm proud to say that the SRA went on to unanimously support the Villa Cathay rezoning in February 2013.

Of course, those fears for Chinatown and displacement proved to be well-founded, and I had the occasion to talk with Joe many times about how we might protect it, and I watched as Joe in turn inspired a new generation of activists. As I went on to write on my personal Facebook page; I never felt so honoured as when Joe graciously offered me his endorsement for my political endeavours - it's a trust and a legacy that I will carry with me always.