I wrote about the Wing Sang building in At Home with History. The building is the oldest in Vancouver’s Chinatown and it’s a great story and one I thought worth retelling here.
Then: Yip Sang (1845-1927)
The original building, a two-storey Victorian Italianate structure went up in 1889, back when the population of Vancouver was around 15,000 and extremely hostile towards the Chinese. Yip Sang operated an import/export business, a bank and a travel agency and sold everything from Chinese silks and curios to opium—which was legal until 1908. He added a third storey in 1901, and in 1912, a six-storey building went up across the alley connected by an elevated passageway to include a warehouse, a meeting place, and a floor for each of his three wives and their 23 children.
Henry Yip, son of Kew Mow, number three son of first wife, was born in 1917 on the fourth floor of the building. He was only 10 when his grandfather died, but when I talked to him a couple of years back he told me he remembered Yip Sang as a “Disciplinarian.” “He used to sit beside a potbelly stove next to the doorway at the front of the building smoking his pipe and watching everybody go in and out.” Yip Sang had a strict curfew and would lock out family members not home by 10:00 p.m.
Now: Bob Rennie
Fast forward to 2004, and Bob Rennie, Vancouver’s condo king, paid a million dollars for the building’s battered walls, shaky staircase, and a 100-plus years of history. He bought it sight unseen and didn’t go inside for six months. Before he started pouring in $10 million to turn Yip Sang’s family home into a contemporary art gallery, he took me for a tour of the building. “People think I’m crazy,” he told me. “It will probably bankrupt me.”
Thing is, Rennie is anything but crazy. He’s turned the building into his headquarters, but in a way that’s stayed true to Yip Sang’s memory. He’s left the Chinese school, for instance, complete with blackboards on the wall and the original plank floors. The six-storey building that now houses his art collection is restored with a roof top garden. While it’s his private space you can sign up for one of his free guided tours www.renniecollection.org/contact/index.php
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