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 -- www.buildingopportunities.org-- 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
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
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
MING PAO SATURDAY MAGAZINE 2010.01.02
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
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. -
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
Informant: Chan, Mary Lee and Shirley Chan
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
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.