Archive for the ‘cities’ Category

Settler & pioneer “heritage hipster” styles in the age of Idle No More, Chinatown gentrification, &c.

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014
via Vancouver Sun
Men in British Columbia, 1859, one in a newly discovered collection of early photographs of white settlers and First Nations in B.C. © Vancouver Sun

I am probably as bored of casual hipster-slagging as you are. In fact I may be as fed up with hipster-bashing as I am with the hipster phenomenon itself—in all its varieties. I think what bores me about most critiques of hipsters, though, is not that they predictably fixate on the easy target of a repetitive fashion, but that they are almost always superficial and ahistorical. Annoyance at the tribal codes of hipsters is too often itself just tribal. Either that or it never surpasses “if you’re going to look like a logger, best learn how to use a chainsaw,” not that I don’t have a lot of sympathy with that sentiment. But virtually no one seems to be talking about the fact that certain hipster aesthetics have some pretty troubling historical antecedents which, when juxtaposed with current realities, seem more disturbing with every passing day. In particular, I’m bothered by the fact that here in my own place and time, haunted as it is by its colonial past, I’m seeing men adopt a late 19thC white male, pioneer aesthetic. In short: WTF.

Why are political-historical critiques of this ubiquitous style so absent? Maybe it stems from the fact that if you even tentatively point out problems with hipster codes in a casual conversation, people get really exercised about it. Even some of those employed in cultural studies or related fields will disavow that retro aesthetic references actually mean anything, pop up for any real reason, or have any significant connection to any particular history. Try it. You will likely face defensive, condescending, eye-rolling reactions like “that was then, this is now,” or “anything goes these days,” or “but you don’t realize meaning is fluid!” or  just because I’m wearing a haircut widely called the Nazi Youth doesn’t mean it has anything to do with Hitler; Hitler is dead and so on. If you propose that aesthetics aren’t purely random—if you suggest that aesthetics are in fact the thin end of the wedge of politics—you quickly find yourself in an unpopular minority in the room. I’m serious; try it.

Road to unpopularity or not, I want to talk about how jarring the “heritage hipster” phenomenon feels now that it has become the face of such things as the wave of gentrification hitting Chinatown and neighbouring areas of old Vancouver.

As anyone who has watched the satirical TV sketch show Portlandia knows, the “heritage hipster” style harks back to late 19thC white male North America. Portlandia has it as “the Dream of the 1890s” (see video below). The style’s historical referents are actually a little all over the place, being an amalgam of merchant or pioneer styles from 1850 to 1910, perhaps with some Depression-era 1930s and a little 1940s-50s overlaid on top. However the 1890s (that lesser known decade of catastrophic economic depression) seems to be its magnetic centre.

It’s interesting to note that the era 1850-1930 coincides with one of the largest waves of white European immigration to North America, largely facilitated by the advent of the steamship and availability of more affordable fares while also driven by increasing agricultural unemployment in Europe due to mechanization. In Canada this period was known as the second wave. It was also marked by increasing agitation in Canada against immigration from other parts of the world.

I have wanted to make an observation about the heritage hipster style for at least seven or eight years, but I kept thinking it had to be on its way out—why not just let it quietly fade away along with its homemade pickles, pies, striped canvas aprons, taxidermy and saloon decor involving rusty antique handsaws. Even two years ago I thought I’d missed the boat and that it was too late for even a post-mortem. Now however I see that news of the heritage hipster’s death was premature.

heritage hipster in a gentleman's club chair

heritage hipster

hipsters 1890s

hipster sea captain
Curre
nt fashion collection by Pull & Bear

What I think about when I see you wear this stuff in my neighbourhood

I live in a diverse and historically conflicted part of Vancouver, right at the confluence of Chinatown and an area known as the Downtown Eastside (DTES). It is the oldest part of Vancouver and one of the poorest postal codes in the country. Because it is close to downtown, condo tower developers have recently set their sights on it in what can only be called a land rush, one that our developer-captured City Hall has done nothing to decelerate. In Vancouver’s infamous climate of rampant real estate speculation, this neighbourhood is now experiencing skyrocketing rents, renoviction and demolition which are quickly driving out the neighbourhood’s traditional inhabitants: Chinese and other elders, the urban poor, many First Nations people, low-income workers and the homeless.

Coincidentally—or not—much of this neighbourhood dates precisely from the 1890s. Chinatown was founded in the mid 1880s but only really grew to a noticeable size and population in the following decade. The same is more or less true for the whole Downtown Eastside, since Vancouver was officially founded there in 1886. The Uchida/Ming Sun building on Powell Street, one of Vancouver’s 18 oldest buildings and one we’ve been trying to save for housing, dates from 1889. It was a crucially important building in Nihonmachi (or Japantown) until it was confiscated by the government during the WWII internment of Japanese-Canadians. What I’m getting at is that workers of many different origins lived around these parts, all working in the colonial resource sector including at the Hastings Mill or in the service sector that grew up around it. In short, this neighbourhood was not solely populated by white guys with waxed moustachios who looked as if they’d just exited a barbershop quartet.

In Chinatown, the 1890s and early 1900s were marked by constant conflict with a city government that habitually imposed on it repressive and racist laws: curfews, bans of traditional BBQ (a restaurant and social mainstay), and other regulations that were clearly targeted at a specific cultural group. (And I’m not even getting into the issue of the oppressive federal Head Tax here.) Tensions ran high and anti-Chinese racism, only legitimated by all the racialized regulations, carried with it the threat of intimidation and violence. Finally on September 7, 1907, “members of the white Asiatic Exclusion League marched to Chinatown where they beat up dozens of Chinese, wrecked stores and smashed windows. Order was not restored for several days.” (Read more at Simon Fraser University’s “Vancouver Chinatown 1886-2011.”) That’s what it was like in Chinatown around the turn of the last century.

And the history of Chinatown is only one element here. Vancouver was in the 1890s a new colonial city only several decades old. It was built on land taken not long before from the Coast Salish people—Musqueam, Tseil-Waututh and Squamish—without even so much as a treaty. Today Vancouver still sits on this unceded aboriginal territory. More broadly speaking, Vancouver’s settlement in the late 19th C was part of a systematic Canadian process of clearing the West for the railway and settlement, driving First Nations from their land and way of life using forced removals, deliberate starvation, residential schools and other tactics that are relatively well-known. The photo at the top of this post, the one showing bearded white men in BC in 1859, was taken smack in the middle of this era, as was the photo below (both via Vancouver Sun).

Early BC photos, First Nations man, white man

To be fair, while some of this racist local history is known, many of its most glaring elements are not. When writers Ali Kazimi and Henry Yu gave some historical background at the launch of Kazimi’s book Undesirables (about Vancouver’s Komagata Maru incident of 1914), even an informed local audience was visibly surprised. I question why it is not fully understood that this was an era of overt white supremacism appearing in all levels of government, from local Vancouver city politics to the provincial capital to Prime Ministers John A. Macdonald and William Lyon Mackenzie King. Still, enough is known about Vancouver’s racist history that anyone who lives and works in this neighbourhood, and who doesn’t at least vaguely sense these histories, would seem to be indulging in some degree of studied oblivion.

Now that this heritage hipster aesthetic has clearly entered the mainstream, I think it is fair to start asking a few questions. Even if you could, for yourself, surgically remove the settler aesthetics of that time from their origins, how can you guarantee that others will deem your efforts a success? What fantasy 1890s are you in, exactly? More importantly, what identity are you asserting? Do you care that your getup might have uncomfortable associations for local descendants of our undeniably brutal colonial history? Or that you might be (inadvertently or not) helping to whitewash, mythologize and perpetuate consent for the undemocratic, toxic, resource extraction-based, profoundly colonial economic structure we still live under in Canada in general and BC in particular?

Vancouver, racist policy, 1906

white supremacist quote, William Lyon Mackenzie King
Top, B.C. MP R.G. MacPherson’s remarks about Punjabi immigrants to the province. 1906. Above, future Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s dream of a white Canada, from a 1908 report.

Settlers redux

Before the recent wave of gentrification in Chinatown, the few non-Chinese shopowners in Chinatown made at least some attempt to fit in and honour local history and aesthetics. There weren’t that many of them and they did a good job of bringing some activity to the area in a way that seemed creatively sensitive to context.

But a couple of years ago as buildings in Chinatown and the DTES emptied out in advance of condo developments, and as shopfronts become available either as placeholders or as deliberate window-dressing for future condo locations, hipster joints full of antlers and beards began to appear overnight. There was zero visible attempt to work with the local historic context. Shops with ampersanded anglo names (Jones & Smith? Smith & Wesson? Bear & Buck? I can’t remember) arrived and so did restaurants with turn of the last century butcher shop aesthetics and lots of generic settler/pioneer decor that looked more Brooklyn or Manitoba than Vancouver. Meanwhile, at the very same time, resistance to the social and architectural destruction of Chinatown was growing. (See David Wong on loss of Chinatown culture in La Source.)* I am not suggesting that incoming merchants should have adopted a twee Chinois appropriation aesthetic and everything would have been fine. I am just pointing out that to many of us local residents, all this dressing and decorating like a white 1890s settler in Chinatown, while also giving convenient cover to the incoming condo developers, looked pretty effing audacious.

IdleNoMore1

Idle No More - solidarity

Idle No More - sovereignty

To return to the unceded aboriginal territory issue, during the past few years we have seen in BC and across the country a marked resurgence of actions by First Nations, notably against resource development on traditional lands. Idle No More, a movement initiated by First Nations activist women in December 2012, was a clear sign of a FN population increasingly organized and lawyered against a colonial system which, like the Indian Act of 1876, clearly still persists.

In fact 2014 was a year of reckoning and “reconciliation” not just for First Nations but also in three key non-white communities in Vancouver and B.C. While there has been discussion within all these communities of the problems with ideas of “recognition” and “reconciliation” because those concepts remain embedded in a colonial discourse, the point is that we are currently seeing a racist and colonial history (past as well as recent) brought to the fore. So in addition to the ongoing First Nations Truth and Reconciliation Commission over issues including residential schools as well as a key Supreme Court win for BC First Nation with the Tsilhqot’in victory, this year also saw the 100th year anniversary of Vancouver’s Komagata Maru episode, which included a federal apology; there was a City of Vancouver apology for the WWII internment of Japanese Canadians; and a BC apology to Chinese Canadians for the 1885 Head Tax. All these well-publicized processes—you’d have to be living under a rock to have missed all of them—are concurrent with the accelerated luxury condo development in neighbourhoods associated with these communities. And now into that complicated matrix blithely walks a neatly-coiffed Paul Bunyan.

It is the confluence of all these things in 2014 that has suddenly made the 1890s white male hipster aesthetic so flat-out intolerable. In light of both the history of Chinatown and the DTES and what’s happening here now, the sheer obliviousness of this mode of self expression and boutique chic seems staggering. Context is everything, and in this context, the heritage hipster aesthetic actually looks worse than oblivious: disingenuous at best, aggressive at worst. Its whitewashing nostalgia obscures our own history here. And the defense that it’s ironic doesn’t wash. I don’t detect any real irony in it, but if irony is the intent, who are they performing that irony for, exactly? Each other?

As an aside, I would also add that even without the racial and colonial issues, I’d have a problem with this style for reasons involving its disingenuousness around gender and class. Why does no one talk about this style’s near–100% male adoption? I’ve asked many friends about this and none of them can think of a true female equivalent. Indeed, how could women (white, let alone non-white) adopt an 1890’s style in the same casual way? Somehow I don’t feel like wearing long dresses and not having the vote. For that matter, the heritage hipster is only one of many traditionally masculine styles that are currently being dusted off with way too much enthusiasm and all of which seem nostalgic for some old school, white masculinity or other. Secondly I haven’t dealt with the fact that the heritage hipster is a largely working class style affected by white boys who grew up middle class. This spree of class tourism isn’t justified by the fact that even though their upbringings were middle class their futures may not be. The “slumming” issue has its own complicated history, one I can’t deal with here but that has been well-covered elsewhere. I’ll just ask this: if you are a disenfranchised millennial or Gen Y man, is there no other means of signalling that you are DIY and libertarian than these retrogressive and worker-alibi trappings? But I digress.

chinatown restaurant - gentrification by antler

There are always exceptions that prove the rule, so I should point out that not all critiques of hipsterism are depoliticized. See Bill Deresiewicz’s excellent Generation Sell, which identifies entrepreneurialism as the affect-free heart of the hipster ethic, and I also liked A Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism’ from Jezebel in 2012. Here’s an interesting observation from its comment stream:

“What no one seems to talk about are the racial politics of hipster culture, which is odd since the early hipsters were engaged in a dialogue with amongst other things BeBop and therefore black culture, just as the Skins in the 60’s were addressing ska and Blue Beat and the Punks in the 70’s were influenced by reggae. Hipsterdom today seems like an unapologetic return to unmediated, sartorial proletarian whiteness. Troubling.”

So.

Are our historical aesthetic references innocent or not? It seems to me that fashion is a language or at the very least a mode of cultural expression, and that people make aesthetic choices because consciously or not they chime with their aspirations, fantasies and values. Maybe some would find this juxtaposition of 1890s heritage hipster aesthetic with actual on-the-ground 1890s local history somewhat tenuous. Maybe they think I’m oversensitized to these things having taken too many university history courses. But I just don’t buy it. I just don’t see how  it’s possible to avoid making the connection between this aesthetic and the realities of its not-so-distant origins. Its implications just seem very, very stark. For the sake of argument, though, let’s entertain the idea that culture consists of items that spin meaninglessly in a blender and can be conveniently unmoored from history. In that case, how is one style chosen over any other? Are our choices purely random? Is is just that we like shiny—or plaid—things? Is it merely an accident that people have retained this aesthetic for eight straight years (highly unusual in fashion), and in this place? I find it impossible to believe that this is not a deeply meaningful code, and a code designed to assert a particular type of entitlement (I use that term in the general sense as well as pertaining to land use). If dressing in the style of a white pioneer from the late 19thC means nothing, why defend it so vigorously when challenged, year after year? Methinks the men in suspenders doth protest too much. In short, this is one of the few instances when I agree with the otherwise idiotic New Age maxim that “everything happens for a reason.”

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Farcical as the costume design may be, given the fact that we’re talking about gentrification, land grabs and rapidly widening inequality, farce may be giving way to a second tragedy.

____________________________________________________________________

For your reading pleasure, or not, here is a plethora of links on heritage hipsters and related topics (list will be periodically updated):

The Great Heritage-Hipster Clusterfuck of 2009/10/11 (… it didn’t end in 2011 – Ed.)
The Rise of the Lumbersexual
How Straight World Stole ‘Gay’: The Last Gasp of the ‘Lumbersexual’
Out of the Woods, Here He Comes: The Lumbersexual (Guardian)
Vancouver people dress poorly, by IHateVan
Why do people hate hipsters?
Piss Off You Hipster Git
Will Self: The awful cult of the talentless hipster has taken over
Will Self, keep your cardigan on. Blanket disdain for hipsters is so tired
Is it OK to Hate HipstersBeware of cupcake fascism
The pernicious realities of artwashing
The Heritage Hipster Matrix 2010
The racially fraught history of the American beard
Vancouver Lexicon: The Lumberjoke
Hipster Business Name Generator
Charting the rise of Generation Yawn
I Spent a Night at the Urban Cowboy, Williamsburg’s Hip, New Western-Themed Bed and Breakfast

Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native
Stephen Harper and the Myth of the Crooked Indian

“In other words, he looked entirely typical of the kind of 21st-century hipster conformist who has adopted a wild-man-of-the-woods look even though he works in marketing and only leaves the city to attend music festivals.” (Guardian)
Review of the taxidermy cuisine in Chinatown

I strongly recommend watching this video of a panel of short talks for the launch of Glen Coulthard’s book Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Excellent introduction to First Nations issues, strategies for undoing persistent colonial structures, and a political approach to the land (which also addresses such problems as urban gentrification and land use).

Also see So NOW: On Normcore  for a good discussion of where critique is now & the question of “post-criticality.” Much of that article will stand as a challenge to some of my own arguments and method above.

Acknowledgements: I chatted about this idea for many months with many friends, all of whom were fantastically helpful, but in particular thanks to Elee Kralji-Gardiner, Lisa Prentice, and Riaz Behra.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971, Robert Altman. Shot in Vancouver in 1970, set in 1899

*Re Gentrification: Before my discussion is derailed by the sidestep argument that it’s really artists who are responsible for gentrification, and why blame a few hipsters, let me say this. First, neither is the prime mover of gentrification here. The culprit would be the pairing of Vision Vancouver, the current ruling party in Vancouver, and its developer donors who now effectively own City Hall. But as for the hipsters and artists and the cover they give to developers: while some art galleries have moved into the area, in my view it’s not so easy to say they’re agents of gentrification in the way the posh hipster restaurants are. Centre A and Gallery 221A are part of the Chinese community and have furthermore been highlighting and even opposing rampant luxury development in Chinatown. Last week I went to the best community meeting I’ve ever attended at Centre A, in which diverse members of the community were brought together to talk about how to stop a tower slated to tower over Sun Yat Sen Gardens. And that’s only a tiny part of the community building activities that these art centres have been involved in. While it’s always impossible to avoid artwashing entirely, I see the role of these centres as somewhat distinct from the new restaurant and real estate entrepreneurs.

 

heritage hipster fashion matrix
Via AskAndyAboutClothes

UPDATE: This Guardian article on the “Lumbersexual” theorizes that the lumberjack look is straight white guys borrowing a gay bear style. It also argues that the style is ironic. I think those are two separate issues. I don’t buy that this gear is truly ironic (except in an unintended sense), but I think she’s probably right about the influence of the gay bear look. But the thing is, this is still a form of hypermasculinity regardless of the sexual orientation of the wearer or how over-coiffed the rendition. And the gay bear reference just sits like an extra layer on top of the style’s whitewashing of the settler era, rather than contradicting it. Anyway, I think the article is somewhat guilty of the type of light, de-historicized analysis I reference in my essay. There’s also this similar piece in The Daily Beast PS: Given the gay fashion connection I’m quite amazed that a English writer would fail to mention the Monty Python lumberjack sketch:

“I never wanted to do this job in the first place!
I… I wanted to be…
A LUMBERJACK!
Leaping from tree to tree!
As they float down the mighty rivers of
British Columbia!
I cut down trees, I eat my lunch,
I go to the lava-try.
On Wednesdays I go shoppin’
And have buttered scones for tea.

— Monty Python

Jón Gnarr, Mayor of Reykjavik, on his dream for Iceland

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Reykjavik
Photo of Reykjavik by Gunnar Steinn /
Made by Iceland

Jón Gnarr, mayor of Reykjavik and member of The Sugarcubes, shared Made by Iceland‘s photo on Facebook and wrote this:

My dream

(It’s pretty naive but I just have to get it off my chest)

I think Iceland offers a unique opportunity for the world. It is a small community with only 350.000 inhabitants, highly modern and educated within less than 3 hours flying time to London and 5 hours to New York and endless possibilities, beautiful nature and security for families, good schools and solid infrastructure. And don’t let the name scare you. The weather is not so bad. The average temperature in Reykjavik is actually higher than that in New York!

There are so many ideas that could be tried out here to see if they work, and then be exported around the world and adopted to bigger places for the benefit of mankind.

Iceland is a stable and peaceful nation with a low crime and corruption rate and offers renewable electricity that is about 35% cheaper than in the US. Everybody speaks English, many speak German, French, Spanish, Polish and many other languages.

Human rights in Iceland are among the best in the world, women and LGBT among others. Iceland is the best place in the world to be a woman. Here nobody cares if you are gay and you will not be discriminated against.

In my dream scientists, artists and creatives, entrepreneurs, designers, philanthropist and dreamers will flock to here and join hands to make something special happen. Something that has never happened before.

I dream of a UN Peace University. An international Research center for Arctic studies, climate change and global warming. Research and development of electric cars. Peace conferences and peace talks. Artistic happenings. Natural history museum. An international institution of non violent communication.

I want to make Iceland the Home of Hope for Humanity.

So please come before Sauron and Ronald MacDonald take over the place :)

Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan or DTES LAP

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

DTES LAP

The Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan or DTES LAP is a comprehensive plan for a significant area of downtown/East Vancouver. It goes before City Council this week, where Council seems likely to pass it despite significant opposition.

You can get a copy of the LAP—which released only two weeks before going to Council, despite consisting of 450+ pages—from Publication Studio in Chinatown, who have kindly printed it for public accessibility on a pay-what-you-can basis.

The plan is, in my opinion, a fairly massive giveaway to condo developers by the developer-friendly civic party Vision Vancouver. It conforms to a way of running and envisioning cities that is increasingly being termed neoliberal urbanism. See also this article on this approach.

I am by no means an expert on this very complicated plan and all the issues involved. But based on what I have learned from months of discussions down here in the DTES as well as living down here for 12 years, I find the following takes on the issue compelling (and will be adding more soon).

Advocate/PhD student Melissa Fong’s speech to Council is excellent.

Carnegie Community Action Project letter to Council

Statement by Strathcona Residents Association

Why developers don’t like the DTES LAP by Media Coop (in effect, developers dislike the only parts of the plan I endorse)

Where do working class ethnic enclaves fit into our future cities, in Megaphone Magazine

And the official links:

Staff Report and Plan

http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/report-downtown-eastside-local-area-plan-2014-feb-24.pdf

Social Impact Assessment

http://strathcona-residents.org/files/social-impact-assessment-2014-feb-26.pdf

Corporate Communications presentation for media

http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/executive-summary-dtes-local-area-plan-2014-feb-27.pdf

Lastly here is an interesting comment on the DEOD section of the LAP (please comment if you disagree, or have anything to add):

“Lastly, there has been a good deal of concern over proposed “no-condo zone” in the 10 blocks of the DEOD. In many respects we feel this is a bit of a red herring. The pretense includes 40% market rental and 20% “affordable” housing – with the remaining 40% split between shelter rate and CMHC’s Housing Income allowance (30% income) rate. To put a dollar value on that, a one bedroom at the CMHC rate would be about $950, a one-bedroom at the “affordable” rate would be about $1350. The scheme proposed significant height and density increases and relies on uncommitted federal / provincial money and developer levies. We feel that the “upzoning” being proposed will cause significant land lift and resultant speculation that will negatively impact retail and industrial diversity as well as social sustainability and liveability, and ironically the very “affordable housing” it is proposing to protect. For perspective on the market economics driving purpose built rental, we suggest the Western Investor’s recent “Why New Rentals are Being Built” article provides some context behind the market economics behind schemes like this and Rental 100 in the West End.”

We also need to talk about the City’s rather arbitrary population growth projections which seem to be the justification for allowing developers the density bonuses they seek. Not that density is bad, but how is the idea of density being mobilized and for whose benefit?

Video: the real story of 439 Powell Street, the Ming Sun building

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

439 Powell St - screenshot

This video, Behind the Walls of 439, corrects a great deal of the misinformation generated by the City of Vancouver. Good job by local television students.

Pretty heartbreaking.

“This is the story of the displacement of people with less power.”

Vancouver Airport plans “luxury outlet” mall, bastard child of Disneyland and Bouncy Castle

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

YVRLuxury-Outlet-Centre-Main-Entrance

OMFG. That is all.

Or perhaps you want to read the Storify archive of the Twitter conversation that ensued when I first posted the article where I first learned of this design abomination.

Best Twitter response:   “Where’s Mickey and Goofy?”

 

 

Update on the Ming Sun Building – low-income housing in Vancouver’s boomtown architecture threatened

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Orange Cars Powell, 1973, by Fred Herzog

Orange Cars Powell, 1973, Photo reprinted by kind permission of Equinox Gallery and Fred Herzog. (Contact the gallery if you’re interested in purchasing one of this edition of 20.)

The Ming Sun Building is still standing. So far. Please see the previous post on the building, written in December when its survival seemed even more precarious.

The Restore 439 Powell group posted the above photo today. Thanks to eminent Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog and Andy Sylvester of Equinox Gallery for allowing us to republish it. Fred’s support of this conservation effort has been valuable and most welcome. We were glad to have him visit the site in late December.

The Ming Sun building at 439 Powell Street, one of the 20 oldest buildings in Vancouver, still remains under a demolition order by the City of Vancouver despite being deemed structurally sound by more than one set of structural engineers. One of these engineers actually told me that it’s much more structurally sound than many functioning buildings in the city. One of the reasons it’s in such good shape is that it was meticulously maintained over the years by its various owners. The Ming Sun Benevolent Society has a perfect record regarding inspections and in fact exceeded the City’s requirements decade after decade, including installing sprinklers inside when it was not required to go to the expense of doing so. All of this maintenance was methodically documented, so anything you read in the media about it being ill-kept or derelict is absolutely, patently false. It is very disturbing to hear staff and a councillor continue to spread this misinformation, when they’ve been shown ample evidence to the contrary. This building was a clean, well-lighted place, to lift a phrase from Hemingway, and it provided excellent housing for low-income seniors. Even the appliances were all new.

The situation with the Ming Sun Building, as explained in the previous post, was triggered when the building immediately to the east was hastily demolished by the City after it suddenly (perhaps not so mysteriously) developed structural problems. Subsequent to that demolition, the City arbitrarily deemed the Ming Sun building at 439 Powell to be unsafe as well. Here are only a few of the questions we have about this situation: If as more than one set of structural engineers has confirmed the Ming Sun building is structurally sound, why did the City hastily deem it a hazard and evict all its elderly tenants? Why not bring in engineers to look at it before evicting? Having evicted the elderly, why did the City not find those tenants replacement housing, leaving an organization to attempt to re-house them all in under 10 hours before nightfall? Then, having disallowed the Ming Sun Benevolent Society and its tenants from entering, thus leaving the building open to vandalism, why did the City not secure the building? Not surprisingly, extensive looting of items like copper electrical wire and other recyclable metals ensued, causing major damage to the interior. This was then followed by suspiciously expert sabotage of the sprinkler system during which someone turned the building’s water back on at the main, smashed key sprinkler heads and then left all the pieces on the floor (indicating this wasn’t looters looking for metal to recycle). The building was then flooded overnight, and while this failed to destroy the building, it caused extra heartbreak and damage. Where was the City while all this was going on? Additionally, why was a police investigation into the vandalism called off? There are too many questions that remain unanswered regarding events at the Ming Sun building. I have omitted many here, particularly regarding high-handed actions on the part of the City and some of its staff. And then there’s the neighbour who owns the lots on either side of the Ming Sun building (including the one where his now-demolished building stood) and who has in the past openly stated he would buy the Ming Sun’s lot too. There are other even more concerning facts and questions which I’ll leave for now, but the story cries out for a TV drama.

When the above picture was taken in 1973 by renowned Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog, the Ming Sun Benevolent Society building was light blue and bore a sign saying “Bak-Mei Kung-Fu Association” above one of its two shopfronts. But its history goes back much further, to 1891, and includes a long history in the Japanese community. Many “firsts” in the Vancouver’s Japanese community occurred there, and then enjoyed a similar role in the Chinese community under the Ming Sun Benevolent Society. The building thus acts as a lens for viewing a large chunk of the city’s history. Take a look at the website that our Restore 439 Powell Street group has built for ample evidence of this.

To sum up, the Ming Sun Building was needlessly deemed uninhabitable, the tenants were needlessly evicted, damage was needlessly allowed to happen, and a huge amount of work was needlessly inflicted on the many of us trying to rectify the situation.

The City of Vancouver must pay restitution for everything that happened under its orders and on its watch. It needs to foot the bill for getting the building up and running, just the way it was when City Hall set all of this needless destruction in motion.

Fred Herzog at Ming Sun buiding December 2103
Fred Herzog at 439 Powell, now known as the Ming Sun building

I will post more updates soon. If you have any spare cash, please make a small (or large) donation to our fund, which helps pay for security and other immediate repairs/building protection until we can get the situation sorted out.

I’ll end with an item from the UN Habitat Declaration on Human Settlements, as part of values affirmed by the international coalition of municipalities:

“We shall promote the conservation, rehabilitation and maintenance of buildings, monuments, open spaces, landscapes and settlement patterns of historical, cultural, architectural, natural, religious or spiritual value.”

Other interesting stories on this building that may be of interest:

•  Detailed account of the demolition fiasco from the 439 website

•  A letter on the important, early Japanese history of the building in historic Nihonmachi or Japantown, by a well known activist in Vancouver’s Japanese-Canadian community.

•  Omni TV aired a history of the Ming Sun Benevolent Society, mentioning its role in funding the overthrow of the Qing, the last imperial dynasty in China, and helping Dr Sun Yat-sen in Vancouver.

•  Two very interesting articles in the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong daily with an enormous readership:
Outrage at demolition order for Chinese elders’ Vancouver home – Distraught Chinese tenants of Vancouver benevolent home claim property developer is behind council’s action to evict them
and
Volunteer watchmen guard the legacy of Vancouver’s threatened Ming Sun Society

Ming Sun Building, December 2013, 439 Powell St Vancouver