Packed memorial marks Joe Wai’s legacy in scores of buildings in Chinatown and across Vancouver

Sun Yat Sen Garden in the snow.

Friends, colleagues and family of architect Joe Wai filled the auditorium of the Chinese Cultural Centre this afternoon to celebrate the life a man whose work touched almost every neighbourhood in the city.

The Sun Yat Sen Garden, perhaps Joe Wai’s masterwork, offered free admission today to allow visitors to enjoy the first such garden outside China itself. But as the speakers today made clear — from former Premier Mike Harcourt to Vancouver Native Housing CEO Dave Eddy — Wai’s life work was infused with a commitment to community values.

Wai’s earliest work as an activist centred on the defence of Chinatown and Strathcona from proposed freeway development that threatened to destroy both neighbourhoods. That’s where he met Harcourt and the distinctive “SPOTA houses” — named for the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association — that replaced those demolished in the name of “urban renewal” were Wai’s design.

But then there is the Britannia Community Centre, Mau Dan Co-op in Strathcona, heritage projects in Chinatown  and Skwachays Lodge, the Vancouver Native Housing and hotel at 31 West Pender, among many others, that made Wai and natural for the lifetime achievement award of the Architectural Institute of BC. Eddy made the compelling point that Wai, perhaps more than anyone else, understood the role of the two founding communities — Chinese and First Nations — in the creation of the Downtown Eastside.

Today’s memorial service was a two-hour seminar on Chinatown’s history and the turnout an indication that the debate over the community’s future is by no means over.