The History of the Making of Chinatown Square

Every community needs a place, a heart or an urban room, where people can meet casually without having to text or call first.

Left to Right: Daniel Lee and Roy Mah, both WWII veterans with Paul Tsui, Remembrance Day on Chinatown Square. Chinese Cultural Centre Museum (1986), Joe Wai architect, visible in the background. Memorial Sculpture (2003) is by Arthur Shy Red Cheng.

The opportunity to make a square in Vancouver’s Chinatown came in the 1990s when my good friend David Mah was chair at CHAPAC (Chinatown Historic Area Planning Advisory Committee).

David and I had met in college and studied art, building technology and architecture together. Almost a decade later the opportunity emerged to do something with what was then known as the ‘Keefer Triangle’. David said he needed a ‘planner’ for his design team. He would be the architect and another friend the landscape architect. I had completed enough revitalization projects by 1990, that I assured him I could ‘pass for a planner’. Of course we both knew what was really needed: design of the public realm to support much higher levels of social mixing. A place for people rather than cars. Although, of course, cars could be welcomed too. 

2003 Pagoda
2003 Chinatown Square showing proposed Pagoda and Museum and Archive building.


David and I felt that Chinatown was missing the all important physical Heart. Although the community’s heart was still alive and strong, there was no public place, no ‘urban room’, to stand as the symbol of this particularly important neighborhood in our city. Thus, from the moment he mentioned ‘Keefer Triangle’—I envisioned a square. And that became our design challenge: figuratively, conceptually, in every way except in actual fact, we would ‘add a leg to the triangle’ and build a square. A people place. 30 years later it is nothing short of remarkable how a very few public gestures have achieved so much.

2002 CHSQ joaquin
2002 Pony Rides at a Community Fair Held on Chinatown Square (Photo: J Karakas).


The first time I went to look at the site I realized that the four trees that Joe Wai had planted in front of the Chinese Park gate lined up with the street trees further up Keefer. Thus, the design for the square was more or less ‘already in place’: all we had to do was connect the four trees at the park gate with the street trees on Keefer. All that was required was to plant a double row of trees extending right through the square, plugging-in or extending a design that was already existing in place. We would add a continuous ground plane, paving stones, pedestrian lamps and bollards. However, what we were relying on for its ultimate success was what I call the ‘Donut Principle’ in urbanism: 

We know it’s a donut because it has a hole in the middle—everything else is just pastry. 

Neighborhoods organize themselves in like manner. Put a square in the middle of a neighborhood and turn it into a place—everything else is just sprawl. Provide a space—a hole—in the center and the community will organize itself around it: Buildings will sprout up; the people will come and fill it with activity. Then, as the years pass, the place will seep into the local consciousness.

Meeting the People in the Neighborhood

Of course, in order to design a place for the community one had to meet the community, listen to their stories… and ‘ask stupid questions’. I have the greatest confidence that all local responses will be steeped in the story of place. At that time Horace Lee became my champion of place. He was still attending daily to the gas station he had built with his brother, the Lee Brothers Garage. In one of those fateful moments, Keefer Street had been diverted to the left and the Keefer Triangle had been created right in front of his gas station. Access to his place of business had been compromised. Horace and I met often and we had many discussions. He told me that originally the back of the buildings on the south side of Pender fronted on False Creek. In those days everyone owned a boat and many would go out fishing for the day. Salmon was plentiful. Black and white photographs on the walls of his office commemorated the best catches, showing the salmon being smoked. He also had photos of the Chinese Canadian battalion that had fought in WWII. 

I was particularly interested in knowing how Horace, as a merchant, felt about me putting a square in front of his business. Somewhere during those discussions the idea was born to run a lane through the square where cars could drive. The lane would allow a right turn on Columbia so that cars could go to Pender Street for shopping. It would also allow vehicular access to the Lee Brothers Garage. In the tradition of Gastown and Granville Island, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, bollards would separate vehicles from pedestrians. David came up with an amazing design for the bollards recalling Piazza del Campo in Siena. But the City would have nothing to do with ‘fancy’ bollards. The presentation of the concept of a square with a vehicular lane running along one side was very well received by the Chinatown Merchants. They loved it. I felt the 11.5-foot wide lane would add a measure of urbanism to the space. Horace was okay with it too. It was a particularly happy day when I was able to relay to him that the city planners had given their word that the Lee Brothers Garage would be granted vehicle access directly from that lane. 

On-site with City Staff

Even if this project was initiated at CHAPAC, an advisory committee to Council, it would be up to staff to approve the final design. In order to sell the planning department on the idea of building a square in Chinatown, I suggested we mock up the double row of trees using 4-foot tall traffic cones. Thus, on a rainy morning David and I met a pick up truck from Engineering on site, and set out about a dozen pairs of tall orange cones on a 20-foot grid all over Keefer Triangle. Naturally, we were careful to align the double row of cones with the street trees on Keefer, and the four trees at the gate to the park. The planners arrived within minutes of the cones being set up. It soon became apparent it was going to be a ‘Banner Day’… As staff stepped out of their van, one by one, and looked up at the cones, we could see their facial expressions changing. It was ‘instant recognition’ from them that the scheme would work, and instant verification for us that the concept would be approved. From that day on Chinatown was going to have a square—albeit a square with just three legs.

Later that year, when we presented the concept plan for Chinatown Square at Council in Committee, we also presented a ‘future plan’. It showed the Keefer Triangle site extending north to the lane located between Pender and Keefer streets. Some 25 years later, with the 105 Keefer site under review, the time is right to complete Chinatown Square as a proper public site… A square with four sides.


Joe Wai Chinese Garden model
Joe Wai c 1980 with model for the Chinese Garden (top) and Chinese Park (bottom) Photo: Twitter

A Conversation with Joe Wai

By the time CHAPAC was tasked with forming a design team to create something at Keefer triangle, Joe Wai had already completed three urbanist projects in Chinatown: the China Gate, the Chinatown Parkade, and the Chinese Garden and Park. These were all Expo ’86 projects. A decade later he would add the Chinese Cultural Center Museum and Archive building (1998).

I had met Joe in 1980 when I joined a group that was preparing an entry for the design competition for Edmonton City Hall. Since we could both draw really well, we became fast friends. I stayed in touch with Joe while I attended architecture school. So it was only natural to call him up to arrange a meeting with David and I. We wanted to share our ideas about ‘Keefer Triangle’ and get his feedback. Indeed, we felt that the area had already become a kind of a unique cultural site. Mimicking a Renaissance town centre with Duomo, campanile, baptistry and piazza. We remarked how, following the classical tradition, the square or piazza was missing. Yet, we felt that the museum and archives building needed just such an urban space or piazza fronting to convey the importance of place . A proportionally sized ‘urban room’  would complete the setting, enabling people to see the building properly. David and I only had a commission to design the triangle, however, we felt the intention should be made clear right from the start that in the future the site should extend north to make a proper square for the museum.

Joe loved the idea. From the moment we mentioned it he was sold on the concept. Of course, all of us realized that we were discussing a very small first step, with the final creation of a square left as a civic act to be completed as a future phase. The first step would design the triangle as the south section of a future square. Our triangle would front on the gate to the Chinese park. Then, a square fronting the museum would come later, as a second step, won in part on the strength of the how well the first phase was embraced by the community.

A Conversation with Friday Night Market

The Night Market was already operating by the 1990s, so David and I met with the organizers to ask them to consider relocating to our site. We described how our design for the square on Keefer Triangle, would anticipate locations for market stalls, provide power for market merchants, etc. Unfortunately, at that time, they were not interested. The Night Market did relocate to Chinatown Square some years later, spending the better part of a decade on the site before finally ceasing operations in 2014. My hope is that a Phase II design for Chinatown Square, extending it north to front the museum, will recognize the value of hosting a farmer’s market. The new design might extend the use of bollards with electrical outlets for market stalls, as well as provide space for food trucks. 

The Square is built

Without much fanfare, using very inexpensive materials—colored stamped concrete, granite sets, concrete bollards and Chinese Tulip trees—the square was built. I was on site the day it opened to the public. The first thing that caught my eye was a man on a wheelchair. He took to the vehicular lane on the square and zoomed for its full length at top speed on his chair. He looked like a sprinter. It was the first sign I witnessed that the community would embrace the space and make it their own. Plenty of other signs followed, showing how Chinatown Square had caught the imagination of the community.

Competition for a monument on the square

In 2000 the community organized a competition for a memorial monument to be erected on the square. A splendid pair of bronze statues, commemorating the Chinese Canadians who built the Transcontinental, and fought in World War II, was unveiled in 2003. The word came to me that city staff were upset by the winning entry containing figurative sculpture. From their perspective it wasn’t modern enough. Yet, from that date forth, every year on Remembrance Day, the square enjoys a steady stream of visitors, many of them proudly wearing military dress. 

The Pagoda

Another unexpected sign that the square was a success in the community came when a donor turned up in Joe Wai’s office with an ivory pagoda 4-feet tall—and a check for  $1.5 million to pay for the building. At the base would be a tea room. Joe drew up the plans and presented them to the City. In their review, City Hall called for an elevator and a double set of exit stairs to be added to the pagoda. These demands sunk the project sending the donor away.

the Night Market Moves In

It was about this time that the Night Market moved into Chinatown Square. Yet, to my dismay, the the stalls were set up with extension chords running all over the ground. The city was not switching on the plugs that we had installed on the bollards for the express purpose of hosting an outdoor market. 

Lunar New Year’s Parade

Every year Chinatown celebrates Lunar New Year with a parade. The VIP Reviewing Stand is set up along the south wall of the Chinese Garden in a forgotten location on Keefer, a half block west of Chinatown Square. Of course, the opportunity is there to set up the reviewing stand on the square. This would enable the various entries in the parade to perform for the VIPs one last time before disbanding. Quite simply the opportunity of bringing together all the Chinese Dragons in one place, for a final group dance, makes moving the reviewing stand a worthwhile endeavour. 

   *      *      *     *

2018 Beedie is Greedy
2018 Community Protests Building a Tower on the site of Chinatown Memorial Square (Photo: Twitter)


Joe and I often talked about the fact that urban squares often build over generations. Some of the best ones have taken over a century-and-a-half to complete. Yet, my conviction has never faltered that the first and most important act has been already achieved: the claiming of the ground. From there it will be up to the community, with our staunch support, to fight to build a place made from the ether. Made out of thin air and trees and bollards and community spirit.

By preserving a small square of land located in the heart of the neighbourhood a community can claim its history and shape its future.


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