The Vancouver Historical Society had a full house of more than 120 when Shirley Chan spoke to the audience about her late mother, Mary Lee Chan, who was in the forefront of one of the most important movements in Vancouver’s history, the fight to save the Strathcona neighborhood.
That struggle would change forever the way Vancouver city hall dealt with its citizens.
It began in 1959 with the announcement that great swaths of Strathcona houses (described as a “blight” on the cityscape) would be demolished to make way for new apartment buildings and a freeway connector. The residents of those houses—the majority of them Chinese—would be able to move to a new development near Boundary Road and the Lougheed Highway.
One block of the neighborhood was razed in 1959, eight more by 1965. It was when “Phase 3" began in 1968 that Mary Lee Chan stepped up. The demolition plans were frightening and angering the residents, who had not been consulted, and who wanted to stay near Chinatown. Mary Chan, in effect, said “Enough.”
Even though she was working at three jobs, she began to knock on doors in the neighborhood to tell people what was happening and encourage them to protest. She was soon joined by others. Bessie Lee, another tireless campaigner, joined the cause. Shirley Chan herself, back then a young girl, joined the door-knocking army. The neighborhood tradition of talking to each other across the area’s back lanes played a part, too. What had started as a one-woman campaign soon involved hundreds of people—many of whom had been afraid of city hall.
In November 1968 they formed SPOTA, the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants’ Association. They organized fund-raising events and feted local politicians . . . and then got the support of Paul Hellyer, the federal minister of housing. Hellyer announced a freeze of federal funds for urban renewal, and the destruction of Strathcona stopped.
There is much more to the story, but it was summed up neatly by Shirley Chan, who said, “Citizens’ voices are heard today, the way they weren’t in the past.”
And it was her Mom who started it all.
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