British Columbia

Architect and community visionary Joe Wai dead at 76

Friends and family are remembering Wai as a tenacious leader and the man who shaped Vancouver's Chinatown into what it is today.

Wai was one of the pioneers of Vancouver's Chinatown and the architect behind the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden

Joe Wai, pictured here in 2011 at the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden in Vancouver (CBC)

Renowned architect and community activist Joe Wai has died from complications related to an aneurysm. His family confirmed he passed away Wednesday evening at Vancouver General hospital.

Friends and family are remembering Wai as a tenacious leader, community visionary and the man who shaped  Vancouver's Chinatown into what it is today.

Fighting the freeway and building a community

Wai was born in Hong Kong in December of 1940. He came to Canada in 1952 and would later train as an architect at UBC.

In 1968, Wai became active in the community of Strathcona, joining a group called SPOTA (Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association). It formed in response to the demolition of several neighbourhood blocks as part of an urban renewal project.

Vancouver's Strathcona neighbourhood in 1968. Four blocks were demolished for a housing project. (YouTube)

At the time, swaths of land were being expropriated to make way for the construction of a massive freeway through the community.

SPOTA rallied to take a stand against the demolition and successfully fought the construction of the freeway.

Shirley Chan worked alongside Wai during the 1960s, in the early days of SPOTA.

"Joe believed in what was right and was true to what would be authentic. If he had to, he took battle with authorities — whatever levels of power may be — in order to create what he thought was right," said Chan.

Wai didn't stop there: he designed housing to build on empty lots, also known as the "Joe Wai special": tall narrow homes with pitched roofs made to fit within smaller spaces in Strathcona.

"The Joe Wai special was a design that ensured community's needs would be met."

Chan said Wai's gentle yet fierce personality made him a strong advocate for the neighbourhood and community.

"He was a very determined and tenacious person. He never took no for an answer, especially if he knew something needed to be done. He would see it from beginning to end, no matter what the obstacles."

Just days before he died, Wai was at an open house at the Chinese Cultural Centre for a rezoning proposal, his oxygen tank in tow.

"You have to hand it to him [for that]. I really admire the man. It is so sad to lose him," said Chan.

Keeping the soul of Chinatown alive

Former Premier Mike Harcourt worked as lawyer with SPOTA in its early days, fighting against the freeway construction.

Joe Wai in a1987 CBC interview about the design of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical garden in Vancouver.

"It was a game changer in terms of Vancouver going from being another city that made tragic mistake of building a freeway through it, particularly along that magnificent waterfront," said Harcourt.

But he added, Wai's legacy goes beyond that.

"Equally important is the really constructive and creative role he played in trying to revitalize Chinatown and keep the soul of Chinatown over the many decades."

Wai was one of the architects behind Vancouver's Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical garden, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year.

He also worked on the Chinese Cultural Centre, the famous gate that marks the entrance to Vancouver's Chinatown and on other social housing projects for seniors.

A photograph of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical garden being built in Vancouver. Construction took place from 1986 to 1987. (CBC)

Wai is credited for preserving the heritage of neighbourhoods such as Gastown and Chinatown.

"Joe has continued to play a hugely important role for the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown and throughout the city to make Vancouver one of the most livable cities in the world," said Harcourt.

Two months before he died, Wai received the prestigious Architectural Institute of B.C. Lifetime Achievement award. 

He was 76 years old.

Wai is survived by his wife Lynn and his son Jonathan.

The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden in 2011 when it celebrated its 25th anniversary. (CBC)