A greatly admired Vancouver architect and community leader has passed away at the age of 76.
Joe Wai leapt to public prominence in the late 1960s when he and other activists, including Shirley Chan and storefront lawyer and future premier Mike Harcourt, campaigned against a freeway that would have destroyed much of Chinatown and Gastown.
Wai's death came just over three months after another celebrated Vancouver architect, Bing Thom, passed away.
As an architect, Wai is perhaps best known for the work he did with landscape architect Don Vaughan in designing the Dr. Sun-Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden.
Wai also designed the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum-Archives, Heritage Alley-Han Dynasty Bell, the Chinatown Plaza Parkade, the Chinese Freemasons Building restoration, and Chinatown Millennium Gate on West Pender Street, which welcomes people to Chinatown.
For this work and other projects, he was awarded a lifetime achievement award last year by the Architectural Institute of B.C.
"It is a devastating loss," wrote UBC historian Henry Yu on his blog. "Just days ago, he had been at the Open House at the Chinese Cultural Centre for the Rezoning Proposal for 105 Keefer, a passionate and vocal activist for Chinatown, saying what needed to be said, and standing up for what he believed was right, even though his health has been a challenge over the last few years. Joe has been an inspiration for me in almost every thing that I do as a historian and as a community volunteer."
Yu, principal of St. John's College, declared that he would not be working at UBC had it not been for Wai's advocacy for the history of Chinese Canadians while he served on the UBC board of governors.
"It was that outspoken prompt that led to the creation of a relevant position, the hiring of me and other colleagues who focused on Asian Canadian and Asian migration issues, and as a consequence also the creation of programs that brought hundreds of UBC students over the last decade into meaningful engagements with local Chinese Canadian, Japanese Canadian, South Asian Canadian, and other Asian Canadian communities," Yu stated. "Few people realize how crucial a role Joe Wai played as a catalyst in sparking the creation of these new programs."
Wai's brother Hayne is a former president of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of B.C. and is also a passionate advocate for preserving the history of Chinese Canadians' stories.
"Changes come sometimes only with persistent and impassioned struggle, and oftentimes a hard won gain is subsequently lost," Yu noted in his post about Wai. "For those whose youthful energy can wane, discouraged by how difficult entrenched hierarchies could be, Joe was a figure of inspiration but also of consolation, a sage whose wisdom had been hard earned through both victories and disappointments. I remember many of those times, when after a particular discussion or meeting, I felt stunned by the barely veiled cynicism that had shaped a decision. Moments like those threaten to sap the energy it often takes to stand up for what you believe, and like rust, over time break the strength of conviction with the corrosion of cynicism. I have myself been reminded by Joe's own example to not lose hope. His humanity itself was a bulwark against becoming a hopeless cynic."
Wai is survived by his wife Lynn and his son Jonathan.