The flow of life in Vancouver’s Strathcona
A Conversation with Shirley Chan
by Renee Mok
Shirley Chan is a storyteller. She is the daughter of Mary Lee Chan, a community activist who created the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association (SPOTA) in 1968 that successfully challenged urban renewal in Vancouver. Shirley, like her mother, is an outspoken leader and active member of the community. As a third generation Canadian, her family history flows back to the beginning of Vancouver where they helped shape the city it is today. I recently sat down with Shirley Chan to talk about growing up in Strathcona and her family’s history in Vancouver.
Shirley’s great-grandfather came to Canada for the gold rush. When he didn’t strike gold, he worked on the railways. He brought over his son, who married and started a family in Vancouver. Shirley’s grandfather struggled to find work and sent his family back to China. He was determined to stay in Vancouver and worked hard, sending what money he made back to his family. Eventually he started a successful import-export business, the Kuo Seun Company, in Chinatown.
Shirley was inspired by her mother and recounted stories of her strong work ethic, perseverance, and leadership. As a child, Mary worked on the family’s farm; one time, her father asked her to weed the gardens. The tenacious little girl couldn’t tell the difference between plants and picked all the family’s sprouts as well. Her father was furious and her mother had to calm him down. Shirley’s mother had “inherited her father’s temper”; consequently this temper fired her passion for justice in her community.
Mary was one of the few educated girls in her village in China and upon graduating she became a schoolteacher. During World War II, Mary sacrificed her time and energy to support her community. She collected valuables from the villagers in baskets balanced on the ends of a pole and traded them in town for food rations. She diligently carried the goods to her neighbours despite the hump she developed on her back that became a permanent reminder of the weight she carried.
Mary was a strong and independent woman. When her father demanded that she marry his business partner she refused. She wanted to marry for love, which she accomplished when she married Walter Chan. Together they decided to move back to Canada. Mary had Canadian citizenship and immigrated to Vancouver 6 months pregnant, unaccompanied by her husband. She immediately began working in canneries and garment factories in Gastown to save money for Walter’s trip to Canada. He arrived in 1949 and the family moved to Strathcona.
Shirley, who lived in Strathcona from 1949 to 1986, fondly remembers it as a great neighbourhood to grow up in. The Chan family was well known in Chinatown. Walter Chan wrote for the local newspaper, was treasurer of the Chan Family Association and ran the family store. Mary Lee Chan was a natural leader in the community, admired and respected by many. She was a “one person social services” who welcomed Chinese immigrants into her home and assisted them in securing jobs, homes and citizenship. She even taught women how to use her sewing machine so they could work in “rag factories. Shirley smiled, recalling how at Christmastime, presents spread out from the tree across the room. “They were all for her… from people thanking her for things like ‘finding me a wife.’”
Walter and Mary raised their children near Chinatown because they wanted them to retain their cultural heritage and language. Mary woke up an hour earlier than her family to make them breakfast, so that Walter could teach their children Chinese while they ate. Shirley’s parents were involved in the Chinese community and had many friends in the neighbourhood. When people first arrived in Canada they would often stay at the Chan’s house and most of their houseguests spoke Cantonese. Therefore, many of Shirley’s friends were Chinese and shared the same traditions.
Shirley shared memories of growing up in Strathcona. “It wasn’t like it is today; our parents didn’t drive us everywhere. We had a lot of freedom.” The children played in the streets, alleyways and empty lots around their neighbourhood. Everyone walked through the neighbourhood and visited at the street corners and parks on their way to where they were going. It was a safe place, where everyone was friendly and looked out for one another. “Once when I was 3 years old, a neighbour forgot to pick me up from daycare, so I tried to find my own way home and got lost. A man in a truck saw me crying by the side of the road … He told me to get in the truck and he brought me to my father. He was the truck driver who delivered 10 pound bags of rice to the store.”
Shirley recalled when there was water at Pender Street. She never swam there, but she remembered being near the water. She called to mind the industrial area around False Creek and fishermen on the docks. She used to walk along the Georgia Viaduct with her friends and look down on the boats. They would often play on the bridge and throw pebbles off the edge. “It was a walking bridge,” she said, “not like the grand freeway proposed by the city.”
The Great Freeway Debate
In 1959, the City of Vancouver proposed an urban renewal program that planned on leveling Strathcona for new developments and building an “east-west freeway to link the viaduct with the Trans-Canada Highway” (Gutstein, 158). According to John Atkin, the author of Strathcona: Vancouver’s First Neighbourhood, “residents initially cooperated with city officials, thinking that the neighbourhood would receive long-needed civic improvements” (74). However, the City deemed the neighbourhood irreparable and plans for redevelopment commenced despite the fact that only “17 percent of homeowners wanted to move or desired new accommodations.” The City “rejected building permits…froze property values and began actively discouraging home improvements” (75). The first two phases of urban renewal displaced over 3000 people, half of which were Chinese. The Chan family relocated to 600 Block and Keefer Street after their home was destroyed for the new McLean Park.
Many Strathcona residents were immigrants uncertain of their rights and afraid to confront City Hall. When the City announced Phase 3 of the project, which included the new freeway and the displacement of another 3000 people, the citizens had had enough. 1n 1968, Mary Lee Chan helped found the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants’ Association and became a leader in the movement against urban renewal. Mary began by going door-to-door informing her neighbours about urban renewal and gathering funding and support. Walter Chan wrote articles for the newspaper describing the injustice of urban renewal. He wrote about properties being bought under value and their owners not being able to afford rent, as well as elderly citizens being forced into retirement homes and separated from their families. He raised awareness about the cause and garnered support from interconnected communities like Chinatown and Gastown whose economies were dependent on the residents of Strathcona.
SPOTA’s lobbying campaign fought for the rights of residents to stay in Strathcona, to be paid fair exchange values for their homes and for local people and businesses to be given priority in Strathcona (Gutstein 159). They gained the support of the federal Minister of Housing, Paul Hellyer, who put a hold on Phase 3. SPOTA then began fundraising campaigns to rehabilitate Strathcona. They countered the City’s argument for a freeway by showing how it “would wipe out Carrall Street, their businesses and much of the area’s history” (Atkin 78). In 1969, SPOTA protested the opening of the new Georgia Viaduct – the initial and only development of the freeway project. By this time, Shirley had become an important SPOTA representative and worked with legal advisors to safely and legally protest the city’s plans and protect her neighbourhood.
In 1973, Art Bishop became mayor and officially changed legislature to include resident approval in redevelopment plans. SPOTA worked with the government to create a rehabilitation plan for their neighbourhood. “It was the first time that a citizen organization had equal power with government to take part in planning decision making” (Gutstein 161). The freeway into the city was cancelled and SPOTA saved Vancouver’s original neighbourhood.
Vancouver’s waterways and the flow of change
Mary Lee Chan and SPOTA helped influence the shape of Vancouver. Strathcona is Vancouver’s oldest residential neighbourhood sitting between the Burrard Inlet and False Creek it is a gateway to the city with a history swayed by water. Strathcona was home to different cultural groups who arrived in Vancouver on ships and built their lives in Strathcona. Its residents were working class citizens employed in mills, fisheries and factories on the coast.
In the 1950s there was a boom in redevelopment and automobile production where many cities built freeways into their downtown cores. Vancouver’s urban renewal plan would have benefitted developers and the city ports, but it would also have sliced up Strathcona and Vancouver’s waterfront would be a freeway gridlocked with traffic. Vancouver’s unique framework and mix of historical and modern architecture today can be credited to concerned citizens like Mary Lee Chan who fought for the rights of residents and the history of their communities.
The Chan family is an example of the flow of stories from one generation to the next. Shirley’s family came to Canada to start a new life and through hard work and determination they made a home in Vancouver. They valued their Chinese heritage and being a part of a community. Mary Lee Chan was an educated woman who took on a leadership role in order to save her community. Shirley followed in her mother’s footsteps. She became the executive director of SPOTA and pursued a career in politics. She was the Chief of Staff under Mayor Mike Harcourt, went on to become the Manager of Non-Market Housing for the City and served on many influential coalitions and boards. Mary Lee Chan continued her work in the neighbourhood by helping build the Mau Dan Co-op and the Strathcona Community Centre; she remained a resident of Strathcona until her passing in 2002.
Shirley described Strathcona as a “safe and thriving community,” but she also noted how the neighbourhood had changed. The first generations of Chinese immigrants aged and their families moved out of Strathcona. The water in Chinatown was reclaimed and new roads were developed into the city. There was more traffic and the streets once “brightly lit with neon signs” and busy with business had gone through a decline. Today, gentrification of the city is displacing Chinatown and Strathcona. According to Vancouver Economic, modern developments are “bringing an influx of new residents to the area, demanding westernized shops and services to complement the existing mix of traditional Chinese fare” (7). Throughout this current of change, Strathcona has remained a vibrant and flourishing neighbourhood with a unique sense of community and residents who take pride in where they live.
Atkin, John. Strathcona: Vancouver’s First Neighbourhood. Vancouver/Toronto:
Whitecap Book Ltd, 1994. Print.
“Chinatown Neighbourhood Profile.” vancouvereconomic.com. Vancouver Economic Development, 2006. Web.
Gutstein, Donald. Vancouver Ltd. Toronto: Lorimer, 1975. Print.