The Hongcouver

Volunteer watchmen guard the legacy of Vancouver’s threatened Ming Sun Society

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 January, 2014, 11:38am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:52am

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, blighted by drug dealing and street prostitution, can be a grim place, even on the brightest of days. So why would someone willingly spend the entire night there, freezing in a parked car in the dead of winter?

A team of hardy volunteers has taken on the task of standing 24-hour watch over a dilapidated-looking structure in the city’s toughest neighbourhood.

The Ming Sun Benevolent Society’s building is at the heart of a row between its elderly Chinese members and city bureaucrats who last year ordered the structure demolished. A temporary stay has been put on the demolition order, but the volunteer watchmen now fear that third parties bent on the building’s destruction will try to torch it, or otherwise render it beyond repair.

“We want to be sure that no one walks up with a can of accelerant and tries something stupid,” said David Wong, a spokesman for the charitable society, which has served impoverished Chinese immigrants for almost a century.

The ongoing struggle over the fate of the building has forged unlikely alliances between the Chinese community, heritage preservationists, and fellow residents of the Downtown Eastside. The society largely blames a would-be developer for their plight, which they say was triggered back in July by the demolition of his neighbouring building. They say the botched process damaged the Ming Sun building, forcing the eviction of its 10 or so impoverished Chinese residents, some aged in their 70s.

Although the demolition order remains in place, the City of Vancouver has now given the society until August to commence a renovation process. The society hopes the former tenants, who paid below-market rent, will eventually return to the home where some had lived for almost 20 years.

But in the meantime, the society’s supporters feel they must guard 439 Powell Street. Their fears are not spurious - the night after the society ran out of money to pay a professional guard back in November, vandals set upon the building and caused major damage. A month later, the building was flooded; the City blamed frozen pipes, but Wong said it was “malicious vandalism”.

We want to be sure that no one walks up with a can of accelerant and tries something stupid
David Wong, spokesman for Ming Sun Benevolent Society

So the volunteers stand watch.

“They don’t do arrests or anything like that, but if they see something out of the ordinary they call the police,” said Wong. “They range from ordinary business people, to guys from the Downtown Eastside, and guys from [the wealthy neighbourhoods of] Dunbar and Kerrisdale. So we’ve had people from across the cultural and economic spectrum.

“There have been a few things. They’ve had to call police on three or four occasions. Sometimes they see people trying to break in, or hop the fence, and they just flash their headlights or lean on the horn.”

Last week, the guards called police when they saw what they thought was an arsonist trying to burn the building down. It turned out to be a scavenger burning the insulation off the building’s copper wiring.

Since the demolition order was highlighted in December, messages of support have poured in to the society from around the world, including Hong Kong. There have also been donations, big and small, to help cover the cost of the renovations.

No matter what happens, the society’s octogenarian members are standing firm, and would rather donate the site to the community than see it fall into the hands of a developer.

“They are not going to sell the building,” said Wong, an architect, whose grandfather was one of the society’s founders in 1925. “They made it clear they are going to make sure that the legacy of good work from the society goes on to the next generation ... They are just so happy about all the community rallying behind them.

“The elders said, ‘David, when we are gone, maybe the next generation is not so interested in keeping the society going, then maybe gift the building to the community, to use as a community hall’. That would be a great gift to the people of Vancouver.”

Anyone wishing to donate to the society can do so via this link.

* The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email or on Twitter, Ian Young @ianjamesyoung70