Update on the Ming Sun Building – low-income housing in Vancouver’s boomtown architecture threatened

Orange Cars Powell, 1973, by Fred Herzog

Orange Cars Powell, 1973, Photo reprinted by kind permission of Equinox Gallery and Fred Herzog. (Contact the gallery if you’re interested in purchasing one of this edition of 20.)

The Ming Sun Building is still standing. So far. Please see the previous post on the building, written in December when its survival seemed even more precarious.

The Restore 439 Powell group posted the above photo today. Thanks to eminent Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog and Andy Sylvester of Equinox Gallery for allowing us to republish it. Fred’s support of this conservation effort has been valuable and most welcome. We were glad to have him visit the site in late December.

The Ming Sun building at 439 Powell Street, one of the 20 oldest buildings in Vancouver, still remains under a demolition order by the City of Vancouver despite being deemed structurally sound by more than one set of structural engineers. One of these engineers actually told me that it’s much more structurally sound than many functioning buildings in the city. One of the reasons it’s in such good shape is that it was meticulously maintained over the years by its various owners. The Ming Sun Benevolent Society has a perfect record regarding inspections and in fact exceeded the City’s requirements decade after decade, including installing sprinklers inside when it was not required to go to the expense of doing so. All of this maintenance was methodically documented, so anything you read in the media about it being ill-kept or derelict is absolutely, patently false. It is very disturbing to hear staff and a councillor continue to spread this misinformation, when they’ve been shown ample evidence to the contrary. This building was a clean, well-lighted place, to lift a phrase from Hemingway, and it provided excellent housing for low-income seniors. Even the appliances were all new.

The situation with the Ming Sun Building, as explained in the previous post, was triggered when the building immediately to the east was hastily demolished by the City after it suddenly (perhaps not so mysteriously) developed structural problems. Subsequent to that demolition, the City arbitrarily deemed the Ming Sun building at 439 Powell to be unsafe as well. Here are only a few of the questions we have about this situation: If as more than one set of structural engineers has confirmed the Ming Sun building is structurally sound, why did the City hastily deem it a hazard and evict all its elderly tenants? Why not bring in engineers to look at it before evicting? Having evicted the elderly, why did the City not find those tenants replacement housing, leaving an organization to attempt to re-house them all in under 10 hours before nightfall? Then, having disallowed the Ming Sun Benevolent Society and its tenants from entering, thus leaving the building open to vandalism, why did the City not secure the building? Not surprisingly, extensive looting of items like copper electrical wire and other recyclable metals ensued, causing major damage to the interior. This was then followed by suspiciously expert sabotage of the sprinkler system during which someone turned the building’s water back on at the main, smashed key sprinkler heads and then left all the pieces on the floor (indicating this wasn’t looters looking for metal to recycle). The building was then flooded overnight, and while this failed to destroy the building, it caused extra heartbreak and damage. Where was the City while all this was going on? Additionally, why was a police investigation into the vandalism called off? There are too many questions that remain unanswered regarding events at the Ming Sun building. I have omitted many here, particularly regarding high-handed actions on the part of the City and some of its staff. And then there’s the neighbour who owns the lots on either side of the Ming Sun building (including the one where his now-demolished building stood) and who has in the past openly stated he would buy the Ming Sun’s lot too. There are other even more concerning facts and questions which I’ll leave for now, but the story cries out for a TV drama.

When the above picture was taken in 1973 by renowned Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog, the Ming Sun Benevolent Society building was light blue and bore a sign saying “Bak-Mei Kung-Fu Association” above one of its two shopfronts. But its history goes back much further, to 1891, and includes a long history in the Japanese community. Many “firsts” in the Vancouver’s Japanese community occurred there, and then enjoyed a similar role in the Chinese community under the Ming Sun Benevolent Society. The building thus acts as a lens for viewing a large chunk of the city’s history. Take a look at the website that our Restore 439 Powell Street group has built for ample evidence of this.

To sum up, the Ming Sun Building was needlessly deemed uninhabitable, the tenants were needlessly evicted, damage was needlessly allowed to happen, and a huge amount of work was needlessly inflicted on the many of us trying to rectify the situation.

The City of Vancouver must pay restitution for everything that happened under its orders and on its watch. It needs to foot the bill for getting the building up and running, just the way it was when City Hall set all of this needless destruction in motion.

Fred Herzog at Ming Sun buiding December 2103
Fred Herzog at 439 Powell, now known as the Ming Sun building

I will post more updates soon. If you have any spare cash, please make a small (or large) donation to our fund, which helps pay for security and other immediate repairs/building protection until we can get the situation sorted out.

I’ll end with an item from the UN Habitat Declaration on Human Settlements, as part of values affirmed by the international coalition of municipalities:

“We shall promote the conservation, rehabilitation and maintenance of buildings, monuments, open spaces, landscapes and settlement patterns of historical, cultural, architectural, natural, religious or spiritual value.”

Other interesting stories on this building that may be of interest:

•  Detailed account of the demolition fiasco from the 439 website

•  A letter on the important, early Japanese history of the building in historic Nihonmachi or Japantown, by a well known activist in Vancouver’s Japanese-Canadian community.

•  Omni TV aired a history of the Ming Sun Benevolent Society, mentioning its role in funding the overthrow of the Qing, the last imperial dynasty in China, and helping Dr Sun Yat-sen in Vancouver.

•  Two very interesting articles in the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong daily with an enormous readership:
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
and
Volunteer watchmen guard the legacy of Vancouver’s threatened Ming Sun Society

Ming Sun Building, December 2013, 439 Powell St Vancouver

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