Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Historic Chinatown building to host Olympic gold greats

The gold rush drew Guangdong, China-born pioneer Yip Sang to British Columbia in 1881.

Next February, the 120-year-old "house that Yip built" in Vancouver's Chinatown will be the home away from home for golden greats of Olympics-past.

Chinatown patriarch Yip built a small import/export, retail and labour agency empire at 51 East Pender before he died in 1927. The Wing Sang building included stores, a classroom and even an opium factory. It is slated to reopen in October as real estate marketing whiz Bob Rennie's office and gallery.

Rennie is providing Wing Sang, rent-free, for the World Olympians Association to use as its reunion centre during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Rennie's restoration has been a four-year labour of love. When asked how much it's costing, he rolls his eyes, smiles and says, "way more than I ever expected."

"It doesn’t make business sense, it makes cultural sense," said Rennie, who was raised in east Vancouver and believes the building could be the catalyst for the rebirth of Chinatown.

At night it's distinguished by a Martin Creed-designed neon sign (as photographed by Scott Massey) that reads: Everything is going to be alright. That is also Rennie's philosophy for the 2010 Games and the Downtown Eastside, a troubled community in transition.

The WOA reunion centre is the only known Olympic hospitality event coming to Chinatown. The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is expected to be a draw for those wanting to take a break from the Games. The Sam Kee building, the world's narrowest, is just down the street.

Summertime brings the weekend night market to Chinatown. The rest of the year, it's almost empty at night, even when the Vancouver Canucks are at home a few blocks away in General Motors Place. Chinese shopping malls in Richmond and Coquitlam are bigger, glitzier draws for recent immigrants from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Almost one in five people in Metro Vancouver are ethnic Chinese.

“We are so delighted Bob has offered this to be our home away from home," said WOA vice-president and five-time Canadian Olympian Charmaine Crooks. "It speaks to powerful contributions of community leaders like him that are making to the athletes.”

Crooks, a Los Angeles 1984 track silver medalist and VANOC director, said it’s a location “where we can really engage the community.”

She envisions the third-floor classroom as a venue for special events, like forums to discuss women in sports and themed days devoted to youth and media.

Visa is sponsoring the opening gala. Paralympians will be invited, too.

"The Olympics are about celebrating sport, culture and diversity," Crooks said. "In this facilty we have a powerful combination of all those."

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