The Chinese Canadian Museum will have its first permanent home in Vancouver’s Chinatown – in the historic building that now houses Bob Rennie’s private art museum. In a deal announced by the province on Friday, the Chinese Canadian Museum Society will acquire the restored historic property with funding from the provincial government and Mr. Rennie himself.
“This has been a dream of the Chinese Canadian community for a very, very long time,” said British Columbia’s Minister for Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport, Melanie Mark, in announcing $27.5-million toward the purchase of the building housing the Rennie Museum at Wing Sang. The oldest building in Chinatown, it was built by Chinese immigrant Yip Sang in 1889.
“Being able to locate in such a historic building that stands for all the stories of the Yip Sang family and of that era, that time, is just an amazing opportunity,” CCM board chair Grace Wong said in an interview. “That match of being able to put this Chinese Canadian Museum in the most historic building in Chinatown; it just came together so wonderfully.”
In 2018, the province and City of Vancouver jointly announced their commitment to establish a Chinese Canadian museum and to seek UNESCO World Heritage site designation for Chinatown.
The Chinese Canadian Museum Society was founded in March, 2020, with the goal of establishing a permanent museum. Ms. Wong said they began with 25 potential sites and ultimately concluded Mr. Rennie’s building was the right choice.
“It’s wonderful – both the building and what it means, the pieces of history still there, and yet [it’s] a wonderfully restored space. You can just envision these museum exhibitions in there,” said Ms. Wong, who visited the place for the first time last year. The purchase price for the building has not been finalized, she said.
As Minister, Ms. Mark, who is also the MLA for the area, was actively involved. She too visited the building for the first time during this process and saw its potential.
“When you go to Treasury to make the case [for funding], you have to present options. You know, here’s a vacant piece of land; here’s the land that you can renovate; here’s another piece of property, but it’s got these complications. And then there’s the Wing Sang Building,” said Ms. Mark. “I just have to tell you; [it’s] breathtaking, right? Absolutely breathtaking. … If you go into that building, you’ll feel the history.”
Yip Sang was born in Guangdong Province in 1845. He emigrated to San Francisco, then came to Vancouver en route north to Yukon – the gold rush – but, unsuccessful, he returned to Vancouver. In 1888, he started the Wing Sang Company, an import/export business. He built the original part of the building the next year. Extensions were built as the company’s success grew, along with Mr. Yip’s family: He had four wives and 23 children. One of the highlights of the current building is the original schoolroom, chalkboard and all.
The buildings were owned by the family until 2001, and purchased by Mr. Rennie, a real-estate marketer, in 2004. He was looking for office space, but primarily a building where he could show some of his renowned contemporary art collection.
He undertook a major renovation. In August, 2008, Mr. Rennie invited Mr. Yip’s descendants – more than 375 of them – to the construction site. “I wanted their blessing for the new direction of the building,” says Mr. Rennie. “It was very important.”
The inaugural project of the Chinese Canadian Museum Society of B.C. is a temporary exhibition installed as a pop-up on the same block as the Rennie Museum, just a few doors down. The show, A Seat at the Table: Chinese Immigration and British Columbia, can be seen as a sort of blueprint for what the permanent museum will offer. (There is a companion exhibition on currently at the Museum of Vancouver.)
“These snapshots from people’s lives show how Chinese migrants and their descendants have found ways to earn a living, challenge systemic racism, connect with others, survive and thrive through hope and resilience,” says the welcome plaque – in English, Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese.
Touring the exhibit in the Hon Hsing Athletic Club building – the main floor was also once home to the Kuo Kong Silk Company – visitors learn about everything from food to activism. The information begins with early immigration and continues to more recent political events, such as Gim Wong’s Ride for Redress. In 2005, the Second World War veteran, then 82, rode his motorcycle from Victoria to Ottawa to campaign for an apology and compensation for the Chinese Head Tax. You can see his motorcycle helmet and gloves, along with photos.
The Head Tax is among the racist histories covered in the exhibition, along with more recent issues such as the 1970s ban on barbecued meat, which targeted meat shops in Chinatown.
Like this exhibit, the permanent museum will focus on the experiences of Chinese Canadians across the province. There is national resonance too. The first Chinese people landed on the west coast in 1788, Ms. Wong points out – before the gold rush, before the railroad. “As Chinese settled, they moved across Canada,” she says. “So with that journey, Chinese-Canadians in B.C. are in fact connected to [the rest of] Canada.”
Mr. Rennie opened his museum in 2009 with a show by Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum. He has since shown work by Canadian artists such as Ian Wallace and Rodney Graham; and international artists such as Yoko Ono and Martin Creed – who famously filled the ground floor gallery with pink balloons, visible from the street.
He plans to mount one more show this September – details to come. The Chinese Canadian museum will take over the building at the beginning of next year, with at least parts expected to open to the public in summer or September, 2023.
“It was time,” says Mr. Rennie, who will keep his office operations in the space next door for now. The art collection will be moving to a site in Burnaby – for storage, not exhibition. The Creed work on the building’s exterior – which reassures Vancouverites in glowing neon that “Everything Is Going To Be Alright” – has become a Vancouver landmark. It will be coming down too.
Mr. Rennie says his work will still be accessible in the form of loans. He points out that he currently has more than 90 works on loan out to galleries and museums around the world. He sits on numerous boards, including the Council for Canadian American Relations. He is board president of the Tate Americas Foundation and was recently named chair of acquisitions for contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago.
He is donating $7.5-million to the CCM to ensure that it is sustainable, he says. He considers it a lead gift that he hopes will attract others.
“This is highly emotional for me,” says Mr. Rennie, who is 65 but says he has no plans to retire. “It’s a big change, but it’s the right thing to do; it’s returning to its rightful place and its rightful custodian.”
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