>>  Women of Distinction 2010

Vancouver-born Shirley Chan  wanted to be a teacher, as her parents were before leaving China.   In a roundabout way she did, as chair of the University of B.C.'s board of governors. She also did her share of lecturing as five-year chief of staff to Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt -- likely benefiting from a favourite recreation of snorkelling with sharks in Belize. She'd known lawyer Harcourt from the early 1970s, when she was executive director of the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants' Association. That outfit provided a political leg-up to Harcourt and fellow future city councillor and NDP MLA Darlene Marzari, and helped prevent a proposed freeway infringing on that residential district.

In 2007, Chan was named CEO of the Building Opportunities with Business Inner-City Society (BOB). That non-profit economic-development agency -- is located in second-floor Pender Street premises formerly occupied by a law firm and, before that, the Bamboo Terrace restaurant.

Rather than bring gold coin beef to the table, though, it directs investment coin up to $50,000 to business operators whose activities will better the economic climate in a zone stretching from Oppenheimer to Victory Square and Gastown to Mount Pleasant.

This especially applies to those creating and retaining jobs for inner-city residents.

Pointing to 10 vacant storefronts on East Pender's 200 block, Chan said: "Even in Chinatown, which still has healthy business, there isn't enough diversity to draw people. When you have people with no money to spend, you see businesses leaving, then the banks leaving."

Many organizations -- from the city's planning department to family associations -- operate in and around Chinatown, of course.

Still, Chan said BOB's efforts "have generated $49 million worth of new business for the area."

That includes the symbolic, as well as practical, program of "bringing the light back to Pender and Hastings." Joining recently installed examples at places like the Rickhaw (formerly Shaw) theatre, the Pennsylvania hotel, Lu's Pharmacy and Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie, Chan said: "We can expect to see another 20 or more neon signs in the next two years."

Whether they do the trick remains to be seen.

Vibrant Vancouver China in the1950's

Photo courtesy of BOB

But anybody who witnessed Pender Street's 1950s-60s blaze of neon will recall what a magnet it was. Diners jammed the area deep into the night, and mercantile and other business activity ran full bore there from dawn to dusk. If Chan's staff and associated organizations recreate that, they may justifiably say: "BOB's your uncle" -  2010 April 7    Malcolm Parry, Vancouver Sun


Shirley Chan was born and educated in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Strathcona, graduating from Britannia Secondary School. She earned a Bachelor of Arts from Simon Fraser University in 1971 and completed a Masters in Environmental Studies at York University in 1978.

For more than thirty years, Shirley has been an advocate and organizer in Vancouver East both as a professional and a lay leader. She was a founding director of the Chinese Cultural Centre and a founding member, director and officer of the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association. She served on the Premier's Coalition in the Downtown Eastside and as Vice-chair of VanCity Enterprises - a development subsidiary of VanCity for market and social housing projects.

Shirley is an active volunteer with Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden, the University of British Columbia and many other community organizations and initiatives. She was appointed to the BC Hydro Board of Directors and the Channel M Advisory Committee. Shirley served as chair of the UBC Board of Governors and the VanCity Board of Directors.

Shirley’s senior leadership involvement with the public, private and voluntary sectors has given her experience with all levels of government. She was Manager of Housing Operations for the City of Vancouver and Chief-of-Staff to Mayor Mike Harcourt, overseeing strategic planning and policy development. Shirley held Health Canada’s most senior regional position as Regional Director General for BC/Yukon. She was the federal appointee to the Mayor’s Committee for Crime Prevention, and advised on the Urban Aboriginal Strategy and the Vancouver Agreement.

In 1993, Shirley was recognized by Simon Fraser University with the Outstanding Alumni Award in Community Service. She received an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of British Columbia in 1999.

Chan, Newman to receive honours

Shirley Chan, former chair of UBC's Board of Governors, political journalist Peter C. Newman and Physics and Astronomy Prof. Emeritus Erich Vogt are among the seven individuals who will be receiving honorary degrees from UBC this year.

Recipients are recognized for their distinguished career achievements and for their contributions to UBC and to Canada.

Honorary degrees will be awarded during Spring Congregation May 26-June 2 and during Fall Congregation Nov. 26 and 27.

Shirley Chan, manager of non-market housing for the City of Vancouver, was appointed to UBC's Board of Governors in 1992 and served as chair from 1995-98. She holds a master's degree in environmental studies from York University and has served as an environmental and community planner.

Chan has been a director of Van-City Savings Credit Union since 1987. She also serves on the President's Advisory Committee on developing a downtown presence for UBC.   - UBC 1999

Mary Lee Chan and her daughter Shirley worked together in SPOTA

Earlier days of Vancouver Chinatown is recounted in a documentary on Mary Chan : Taking on City Hall   

Mary Lee Chan's family had come from China in 1879 and they struggled in Vancouver for generations. In the 1950s, Mary was finally able to buy a home near Chinatown. But soon, she discovered her neighbourhood was slated for demolition as part of a controversial “Urban Renewal” program.

Mary was determined not to lose her home so she organised her community to form the Strathcona Property Owner and Tenants Association (SPOTA). They were determined to fight for their homes…and stand up to City Hall.

Mary Lee Chan and Shirley Chan

Location: Vancouver
Date: 1979
Informant: Chan, Mary Lee and Shirley Chan
Source: Reimer, Derek. Opening Doors: Vancouver's East End. Sound Heritage Volume VIII, Numbers 1 and 2, Aural History Program. Victoria, B. C.: Provincial Archives of British Columbia, 1979. 85-86.

Mother and daughter Chan describe early Vancouver from recollections of a hard family history of railroad labour and racial discrimination. It is a rather rare thing to find women talking about their own histories. Mary Lee Chan focuses primarily on the history of her father and grandfather. Shirley interjects with some information about her grandmother. This interview is an interesting document of Chinese Canadian attitudes: those who stayed and those who left.

* * *
Mary Lee Chan was born in Vancouver in 1915. Her daughter, Shirley Chan, was born in Vancouver in 1947. The interview was concucted in both English and Cantonese, with Shirley acting as interpreter for her mother. Further translation was done by Kwok Chiu of SPOTA.

MARY CHAN: My grandfather came over from Kwangtung in 1879 on a sailing ship. It took him several months to get here and he came right to Vancouver. He was coming to look for gold. You had to walk a long way along the river and then all you got was a little bit of gold dust. He made just enough to eat. So then he went to work on the railroad. Many people died during the construction of that railroad. They lived in tents along the track and it was cold. Some people got arthritis. They were attacked by mosquitoes and black flies, and some people eventually went blind. And then, after it was finished, there was no other work. So he settled where the old Immigration Building used to be, and he raised pigs and chickens. He used white cloth to partition off his land.

After he'd been there for a time and managed to save some money, he brought over his son, my father. After my father started working, he brought over 15 or 20 of his relatives, half-brothers and village "brothers" [men from the same village, therefore with the same last name]. There was no other kind of work, so they were sawing wood for a lumber company for 25 cents a cord. They'd each cut maybe 2 cords a day, 3 if they were fast, so they made 50 to 75 cents a day and that was good money.

Then the government expropriated my grandfather's land because he didn't know how to pay taxes. It was at the time when they were looking for ways to develop the harbour and they found that the water was deepest at the foot of this street, so it would make good facilties for big ships. So then they came and asked him if he had paid his taxes and his question was, "Taxes? What's taxes?" They said, "Old man, that land's worth lots of money. If you build a house on it you've got to make lots of money to pay the taxes. That's too bad." They bought him out for $200. So he killed off all his pigs and chickens and sold them and went back to China. My father stayed here cutting wood, and then later on he became a gardener working for a different household each day of the week. That's how he met his wife, because she was working for one of them.

SHIRLEY CHAN: My grandmother had come over in 1907 when she was 12 or 13. She came as a housekeeper and babysitter for a business family who lived in Chinatown. She wasn't allowed to go out, she wasn't allowed to even go downstairs to the store, because girls, as soon as they became mature, were not supposed to be in the company of men.

MARY CHAN: She married my father in 1913 when she was 19. By that time she was working in a house on Slocan Street which that same family owned. They gave it to my parents as a place to live in and that's where I was born 3 years later. Chinatown then was very dilapidated. There was a knitting mill and a Chinese bakery, I remember. The streets were unpaved and it got very muddy when it rained. My brother and I would go and play on boards in the street, one of us would stand at one end and the other would get on the other end and the water would be flying and the mud would be flying-we had a great time. But I got my dress dirty up to my neck and my mother spanked me afterwards. Up on Slocan Street, it was all trees, all forest. I was afraid to go to school because the kids would beat me up. There were very few Chinese families up that way. In the winters, when he wasn't gardening, my father carried coal and sawdust for white families, washed the floors, that kind of work. By the time they had been married 12 years, my mother had had 11 babies. And about 1923 he decided to take us all back to China-we were so poor, there was no food, and no work.

SHIRLEY CHAN: The Chinese Benevolent Association was giving out rice gruel to needy families in those days.

MARY CHAN: So we went back to my father's village. There my grandfather was a rich man. He had lots of fields and houses. But nobody liked going back to China. There was no electricity and no proper heating and the girls weren't allowed to go to school because it wasn't the custom for daughters to be educated. But everybody wanted to go to school, so the people who came back from America and the people from Canada got together, raised the money, and built a co-ed school. That's where I went. I got money to come over. Two of my sisters, and my brothers, came back before the war, and one of them actually came back on the last boat from Shanghai.

When I came back, there were big changes in Chinatown. The streets were paved, and they had sidewalks. There were lots of jobs, and restaurants and coffee shops. My brother took me out to coffee and everybody was looking funny at me. When I walked down the street, everybody stared at me. So I didn't walk down in Chinatown again. See, there were waitresses but not many other women in Chinatown. The only women they let in then were the wives of war veterans and native-born Canadians. I lived up on Cambie Street and 26th with my sister, and I worked as a Chinese teacher in New Westminster, and in the family store.

SHIRLEY CHAN: That's the Trans-Nation Emporium that my grandfather and my uncle had started way back in the Twenties. It used to be known as the Kuo Seun Company. 


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