A brief history of the Chinatown Memorial Square and why you should help imagine its redesign

A brief history of the Chinatown Memorial Square and why you should help imagine its redesign

The City of Vancouver is publicly conducting the Chinatown Memorial Square Redesign Survey until June 9, 2021. Do you have thoughts and ideas for how the space should look, and who it should serve? Complete the survey and have your say.

Photo by Christina Lee.

If you find yourself coming into Chinatown from the Southwest corner at the intersection of Keefer and Columbia heading towards Main, you’ll surely pass the Chinatown Memorial Square on your left. If not for the Chinatown Memorial Monument that towers over it, the space can seem unremarkable, especially in its sparseness during the pandemic. Yet as unassuming as it may seem, the Square is of critical importance to many Chinatown stories of unity, triumphs, and intergenerational encounters. 

Directly across the street from the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Garden, the Chinatown Memorial Square is safeguarded by the Chinatown Memorial Monument. The inscribed centre column of the monument is flanked by two bronze-cast figures. On the left is a Chinese railway worker with a shovel thrown over his shoulder, mid stride into Chinatown. This statue represents the unknown number of men who lost their lives while building the Canadian Pacific Railway for a country that, once the project was completed, bent over backwards to extirpate them using laws and policies written in racism. On the right is a Chinese Canadian World War II soldier, standing at attention, as he holds Chinatown steadfast in his line of gaze. This figure represents the over 600 men who put their lives on the line during WWII to prove they were Canadian enough, despite being denied the vote. 

As an homage to Chinese Canadian contributions to World War II, the Monument has been the site of Remembrance Day Ceremonies since it was unveiled in 2003. Additionally, in 2018, when the City of Vancouver delivered its apology to the Chinese community for the discrimination caused and perpetuated by previous city councils, many attendees had watched it unfold from the Chinatown Memorial Square, where the apology was broadcast live on large video screens. This moment in history had transformed the Chinatown Memorial Square into a place of healing for many in the community, for whom historical and ongoing discrimination has woven itself into layers of intergenerational trauma.

In more recent history, the Chinatown Memorial Square served as the site of citizen activism, where community organizers, youth and seniors alike, helped to stave off gentrification by stopping the redevelopment at the adjacent 105 Keefer. With an initial proposal for a 12-storey condo tower made up of 100% market housing, the luxury condo proposed by developer Beedie Holdings Ltd would have contributed to the further gentrification of the neighbourhood, which would in turn displace the seniors and other low-income communities that currently call Chinatown home. The overwhelming opposition from Chinatown youths, seniors, neighbours, and community groups at the 2017 public hearings persuaded the City of Vancouver to reject the redevelopment and its multiple revisions. Chinatown Memorial Plaza, then, represents the collective triumph we can achieve when we come together as a community to fight for the housing rights of our most vulnerable. You can read the transcripts to the speeches delivered to the Development Permit Board here.

Chinatown Memorial Square means so much more to our community than as a backdrop for long overdue apologies and once-a-year ceremonies that remind us of the human cost of nation-building stories. Since 2015, the Chinatown Memorial Square has been the site of the Hot and Noisy Chinatown Mahjong Social event series, which strengthens the bond between people and place through social activities like mahjong and karaoke. These bi-weekly hot and noisy (a literal translation of the Chinese expression “熱鬧/热闹”, which contextually means lively) social gatherings that happen in summer months are especially memorable to Chinatown seniors, for whom it is an opportunity to socialize with folks of all ages, and to share cultural encounters with youths (to read more about these encounters, check out Mrs. Kong Li’s interview in Chinatown Stories Volume 3). 

The Chinatown Memorial Square is also the site for the Vancouver Chinatown Festival, which welcomes more than 50,000 visitors every year. Usually hosted in early August, the Chinatown Festival features lion dance, kung fu competitions, food trucks with offerings from diverse cultures, its own festival shuttle bus service, and is topped off with a Chinatown movie night. 

The Chinatown Memorial Square is significant to Chinatown and the city’s broader Chinese communities in so many ways. Whether you come across it as a place for respectful contemplation or where life-long friendships are forged across cultures and generations, the Square is a cornerstone to the community that deserves a culturally and contextually appropriate makeover. 

The City of Vancouver is currently conducting a survey for the Chinatown Memorial Square redesign, which is available in both English and Traditional Chinese. Fill it out before June 9, 2021 to have your say in how we can reimagine this culturally and historically irreplaceable space together.