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

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 December, 2013, 10:42am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 12:23pm

The Ming Sun Benevolent Society building in Vancouver’s Chinatown is not much to look at now, with its exposed timbers and chained windows and doors.

But for elderly Chinese tenants like Zhen Quangzhao, it was home. Zhen, aged in her 70s, and her fellow tenants have been evicted, ordered out by city authorities who want to demolish the structure, which dates back to 1890.

The charitable society, which has provided low-rent housing and other services to impoverished Chinese in the western Canadian city for almost 90 years, is furious.

I’ve lived here since 1995. Pitiful me... now, I have to find another home soon

Members say the tear-down order is a direct result of the botched demolition of a neighbouring building owned by businessman Tom Chow. They say Chow, who also owns the site on the other side of the Ming Sun building, covets their property for redevelopment and has repeatedly tried to buy it.

“I’ve lived here for 18 years, since 1995,” said Zhen in the Taishan dialect, sniffing back sobs as she packed her meagre belongings onto a handcart. “Pitiful me... now, I have to find another home soon.”

Zhen, aged in her 70s was allowed back onto the Ming Sun site on Sunday, December 8 to collect her belongings.

In the face of fierce criticism, the City of Vancouver on Tuesday put a temporary stay on the demolition, which had been scheduled for this week, to give the society time to remove an unstable brick veneer. David Wong, a member of the society, said it wanted the building back as it was before Chow’s building was torn down, a restoration process the society cannot afford.

Wong said events leading to the demolition order could be traced back six months, when Chow, a noodle factory owner, was buying the building next door. But he told city authorities his purchase had somehow suffered structural damage.

As a result, the city demolished Chow’s building overnight on July 24 and in the process the Ming Sun property was rendered unlivable, its utilities shut off and doors cut open. The building, home to a dozen or so tenants, mostly elderly Chinese, was evacuated. “That incident with the building next door triggered a whole sequence of events, that led to today,” said Wong.

The Ming Sun building remained structurally sound, according to Wong, an architect. But the problems escalated when the society ran out of money to pay the security guard at the site.

The next night, in early November, vandals set on the unguarded building. “They tore down the pictures off the wall, the historic photographs, urinated on them all, ransacked the whole place,” Wong said. “They punched holes in the walls, the ceilings. I felt that it was targeted vandalism with no point other than to create damage to the building.”

Copper pipes, plumbing hardware and wiring were torn from walls. Unchecked destruction continued for weeks.

Zhen returned to the gutted building to find that her jewellery and scant life savings of C$200 had been stolen. “She is completely devastated,” said Wong.

The city ordered the demolition of the Ming Sun building on November 15, prompted by an engineer’s report commissioned by Chow which said the brick veneer on the west side was in danger of collapsing onto Chow’s other property. The City said the Ming Sun society supported the demolition, but Wong said that undertaking only came after the society had run out of money and other options.

Wong said Chow had approached members of the society “maybe half a dozen times” since the evictions to try to persuade them to sell to him. “Every time he comes by, he makes a remark to an elder, saying ‘oh your building’s worth less money now’.”

Wong said Chow originally tried to buy the Ming Sun building for C$1.25 million. “The last time he offered about half what he originally offered,” Wong said.

Chow did not return messages to clarify his redevelopment plans, but Vancouver’s Chinatown, home to some of the city’s poorest residents, is in the process of a controversial gentrification process.

Derek Smith, the engineer hired by Chow, said the Ming Sun building’s brick veneer threatened Chow’s property, but he made no assessment of whether the Ming Sun building itself was sound. “I basically said … The veneer could fail and come off the building. Not ‘the building will fail’,” Smith said.

Asked for his opinion of Chow, Wong’s voice quavers with anger. “I cannot use words to describe... I am not happy, that’s all I can say.”

The society has vowed never to sell to Chow. “They would rather gift it to a non-profit foundation than sell it to Tom Chow, even at double what he originally offered [because] the elders … feel that someone is behind all of this.”

Zhen is now living in a relative’s basement. Other residents are in social housing or with family members. One man is still displaced. “They all want to come back. It’s their community. They all look out for each other,” Wong said.

"We [Ming Sun] helped build Vancouver into this diverse and multicultural city... This was where it all started."

The Ming Sun Benevolent Society was founded in 1925 at the height of anti-Chinese racism in Canada, a time when exclusion laws had halted Chinese immigration.

It was originally a clan association for the Wong family of Kaiping (Hoiping) county in Guangdong, but it expanded its charitable mission to provide social services for impoverished Chinese immigrants and other marginalised members of society in what is now one of the most expensive cities in North America.

Until it was evacuated in July, the society’s building on Powell Street in Vancouver’s Chinatown provided eight single-room occupancy units at very low rent of C$150 to C$300 per month. Most tenants were Chinese in their 60s or 70s, but included a single mother. The society also provided low-cost studio space to local artists.

Spokesman David Wong, whose grandfather was one of the group’s founders, said that in addition to cheap housing, the society provided a vital community space and refuge for the needy. It also fed the poor in the city’s Downtown Eastside, a district notorious for drug dealing, prostitution and other social problems.

“These are the most impoverished of our society. People with language difficulties. They come to us for all sorts of reasons,” he said.

The society’s past members include Canada’s first ethnic Chinese judge, British Columbia’s first ethnic Chinese notary public and one of Canada’s first ethnic Chinese doctors. Its contribution to Vancouver was noted in 2010 when the city declared April 24 to be Ming Sun Benevolent Association Day.

“We [Ming Sun] helped build Vancouver into this diverse and multicultural city... This was where it all started,” said Wong.

However, the society is now desperately cash-strapped and unable to afford the C$700,000 renovations required to prevent the impending demolition of its building.

Wong said that Vancouver had focused its attention on the current wave of rich Chinese immigrants. “But Ming Sun wants the people at the other end of the spectrum to get attention too,” he said. “That’s what they’ve done for many years.”

Anyone wanting to help the Ming Sun Benevolent Society can contact Wong via