Saving Ming Sun Benevolent Society building is a big leap forward to a sustainable greenest city – by Winnie Hwo

Saving Ming Sun Benevolent Society Building is a Big Leap Forward to a Sustainable Greenest City.

by Winnie Hwo, Public Engagement Specialist

Ming Sun Building

Ask yourself, what is the ideal picture of a sustainable community?

For me, it would be a place where people from different ages and background share their space and stories daily, care about each other, complete with a landlord who is more interested in facilitating this benevolent society than milking tenants of their last buck or two.

Yes, this kind of community sounds like Utopia. But on Friday last week, through messages that came to me from old acquaintances, new friends and social as well as traditional media, I found myself standing in the back hall of the Vancouver Japanese Language Centre in Strathcona, joining a ‘united nations’ of people and media, in support of saving the Ming Sun Benevolent Society Building on 439 Powell Street in Japantown, a stone’s throw from Chinatown.

Press Conference -December 6, 2013

This is an incredible and in many ways, incredulous picture on as many levels as you can imagine. And one reason is due to the stereotyped-up world we live in.

For starters, since the Second World War, it is well known that the Chinese and Japanese, or at least that is what we are often led to believe, don’t necessarily get along; that Chinese landlords are often blood-suckers who want to juice their tenants to the last drop of blood; that the art community and Chinatown benevolent societies are not necessarily natural partners; that a tiny Chinese-Canadian run benevolent society will never get the attention from local media.

Well, Ming Sun has proved that all of the above stereotypes are wrong.

Why? Because the ideal of a sustainable community, as we now know, has been quietly practiced by the Ming Suns of our city for at least eight decades, complete with a building that just celebrated its 122nd birthday.

The only difference now from decades ago is the people Ming Sun serves today, who are more reflective of the multi-racial and multi-cultural reality of the city than a century ago, when the building was mainly a dormitory for bachelor railway laborers from China.

ming sun building

Ming Sun Interior-December 2013

For those who showed up at Ming Sun last Friday, it was clearly much more than just attending another press event. What transpired was a diverse group of people who care about our communities and the people who build them.

By their collective effort to try to save a fully functional and according to Ming Sun’s engineer, a structurally sound, century-old building that has been housing 10 seniors and 5 artists, including the Instant Coffee Art Collective, who pay much much less than market price in a city that is known for our expensive real estate and less than affordable rent. Isn’t this what sustainability is really about?

As Andy Yan, a member of the David Suzuki Foundation’s climate council who is also a Vancouver urban planner said, ‘“why this building matters for Vancouver is that it is about affordable housing, about affordable studio space, and about working-class Chinese and Japanese-Canadian heritage – it all comes together on this one site.”

For those of us who work hard every day to protect our environment, we know sustainability starts from a small act of love for our fellow citizens regardless of age, race and trade. That it is the love of history and our heritage that powers sustainability.

For sure, a lot more work needs to be done for Ming Sun and a lot more people support is needed. The good news is, the city’s demolition order, which was supposed to come into effect Monday, has been temporarily stayed. A blog site has been set up by supporters of Ming Sun to help give this elderly building a new lease on life.

I hope Ming Sun can stay because this is a shining example of what a sustainable greenest city is all about. We need more Ming Suns, not less.

More facts about Ming Sun:

The Ming Sun Benevolent Society was recognized by the current Mayor of Vancouver, who declared April 24, 2010, “Ming Sun Benevolent Association Day”. The proclamation stated, the Society has “provided shelter and community gathering space, library resources, news and information, translation services, liaison with government officials and vital family support services” for more than 85 years. The building is one of the earliest and one of the last “Boomtown” working class buildings in the Powell Street area and was home to the Uchida family whose daughter, Chitose was the first Japanese Canadian woman to attend UBC.

The back of the building dates to 1891, which probably makes it one of the 20 oldest structures in Vancouver. The Uchida family added the front section in 1902, which makes it one of the last remnants of Vancouver’s historic Japantown. Archivist Linda Reid of the Nikkei National Museum said the building has significant heritage value. The Uchida family was one of the first Japanese families to come to Canada, and a Japanese hospital was once in the building.

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