229 1/2 Main Street
7×7 in, 18×18 cm
, 64 Pages
Essay by Lori Bamber
A personal story of architectural renewal in Vancouver’s oldest downtown area. This book of photographs and artwork includes an essay by Lori Bamber who met and interviewed Eric Siu.
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229 1/2 Main Street | Essay by Lori Bamber
Where do the bones of a family stop, and the bones of a building begin?
It’s easy to say at the skin, of course, but if we ask our memories, the answer is always more complex.
These are the kinds of questions that Eric Siu and his two siblings pondered when deciding what to do with 229 Main Street, the building their grandfather bought in the mid-1950s. Built in 1907, it was even by mid-century considered ancient in this still-wild country, populated by newcomers that celebrated the newly hewn. With a home upstairs and a storefront below, it was a giant leap toward wealth and belonging for a man who came with nothing.
Eric’s dad and aunt recall that a Chinese tailor used to live behind the storefront below, along with his wife and kids. At some point, there were a few “Lo Wah Kew” living downstairs, elderly Chinese Canadian men living alone as bachelors.
The practical decision for the Siu siblings was to sell. Chinatown is the epicentre of the most recent gentrification battles, with Vancouver’s out-of-control housing prices driving property assessments. Empty storefronts – along with those in the West End and even in prosperous neighbourhoods like Dunbar – provide depressing hints that only chains and big box stores can survive in a city that is also a resort.
Yet the walls of the rooms upstairs held the aroma of their grandmother’s wok; those walls shaped the echoes of the laughter over family meals. For decades, until a few years ago, their aunt lived quietly and humbly, in the upstairs apartment, washing her laundry in the bathtub because the outdated electrical wiring and plumbing made installation of laundry machines impossible.
For the Siu family, 229 Main is not just a building, not even just a piece of the Earth that has held their family for three generations. Its wooden frame forms their roots in Canada, the country they have helped shape even as it helped shape them.
Keep it, then. Renew it. “We will figure it out somehow.”
Trained in architecture and design, Eric had an inkling of the challenges ahead. Ordinances have changed dramatically since the building was constructed. From start to finish, the economics of the project would be on a razor’s edge.
The irony is bittersweet: Chinese immigrants like Eric’s grandfather fought their way to Canada to find poisonous discrimination and limited opportunities. And many Vancouverites now attribute the city’s metastasized real estate market valuations to money flow from Mainland China’s new tycoons, tycoons who some believe have reduced Vancouver’s developers and BC’s government to large-scale money launderers. All such theories are too simple, of course, like the idea of ghosts or the memory of being treated as less-than.
What we know for sure is that Grandfather Siu worked in BC’s forestry industry for more than 40 years. Five days a week, he packed cedar shingles for shipping, when cedar-shake roofing was a popular building practice in Vancouver. With those repetitive movements, the strength of his back, the muscles of his arms and legs, the tendons of his fingers, he built a life for his family in Canada.
“I found some of his old pay stubs,” says Eric. “That’s what he did, all day, for all of those years. Can you imagine?”
Grandfather is gone now. But the building, his most tangible material legacy, remains. In many ways, this is the quintessential immigrant story. A man arrives with nothing, his very limited means exhausted on the journey. He saves enough money to sponsor his wife over to Canada, and together they wear out their bodies to build a life for those they leave behind, children they launch into a successful middle-class Canadian life. Their grandchildren all graduate from university with advanced degrees and become respected professionals.
With each generation, the number of choices available increases exponentially, and yet somehow, so does the responsibility: how do we bring honour to our families when so much has been given to us?
Eric, a designer, his sister, a dietitian, and his brother, a food scientist, aim to create an eatery behind the old street-level storefront. The menu will reference childhood dishes they cherished growing up in Vancouver, a space where Cantonese flavours can continue to shine, just as when their grandparents lived there. A space that might spill the scents of stir-fry ginger, scallions and star anise into the upper apartments, soon to be three small dwelling units that will once again welcome the Siu family.
A cautious person would point to the risk, and perhaps ask if it was respectful to so many decades of work to put so much on the line. Another might suggest that the only way to honour the risks taken by the grandparents is to risk just as much, to risk it all. So it has been since rice and pigs were domesticated in China around 7,500 BC. Perhaps long before.
The photographic documentation and mixed media works by Shirley Wiebe capture all of these tensions: of what it means to live; to be part of a family, a society, a place.
These images illustrate a phase we all must survive at some point, the tearing down that happens before the renewal, the point at which we remove all that is extraneous and unsustainable, leaving only the ragged bones, the foundation, the gifts we have been given on which all things are built.
When I interviewed Eric for this essay and asked him what he would like to see change in Chinatown, what Vancouver as a city could do to make it easier to build on the past instead of sacrificing it to the new, he wondered if it couldn’t be just a little easier. Did the city have to make it quite so hard for anyone but the largest developers? And in his question is another that I see in this art too, here, and echoing through the ages.
Why don’t we learn? Why must we always make it so hard for each other?
Lori Bamber is a Vancouver writer, ghostwriter, editor and writing coach. Her work has been published by Prentice Hall, McMillan Canada, Chatelaine, BC Business, Alberta Venture, the Globe and Mail and Report on Business.
Video of 229 1/2 Main Street Project
This video resulted from online collaboration between Vancouver artist Shirley Wiebe and Quebec artist Rory Mahony, and features third-generation building owner Eric Siu.
Originally scheduled as an event for Vancouver’s Capture Photography Festival 2020, the video was created during and in response to cross country cancellation of art shows and events due to the worldwide public health crisis.
All involved, writer Lori Bamber, narrator Eric Siu, musician Emil Barth, Rory Mahony and myself, visual artist Shirley Wiebe, made our contributions during the stay at home lockdown.