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The man who saved Chinatown

Mickey Lam reflects on his bold design that revived a community

Walk down Fisgard Street and take a second look at what makes Chinatown the distinct neighbourhood it is.

The lanterns hanging overhead, the patterns on the sidewalks and the boldcolour scheme are not just a happy accident. The fluorescent lamps were chosen for their soft, yellow glow and the Scottish pine trees were picked to mimic similar Chinese trees.

Even more than 30 years later, Mickey Lam remembers all the details - with good reason.

It's his design.

Lam was the City of Victoria's city urban design planner throughout the Chinatown Rehabilitation Project, which started in 1979.

Lam, now with silver hair and a sharp beige suit, flips through a thin book with his sketches of the Chinatown Harmonious Bridge and photos of his younger self. He points to the widened streets and notes how much of a fuss he caused when he demanded more room for pedestrians.

He starts describing the pattern on the sidewalks that line the blocks of Chinatown in downtown Victoria. Soon he has the reporter's pen and notepad and is illustrating the differences between the design on Fisgard and Government streets. Fisgard's sidewalks are lined with a symbol representing China that's interlocked and repeated, while the design on Government's sidewalks symbolizes longevity.

In 1979, Lam says, Chinatown was in desperate need of restoration - it was falling apart. Overhead wires were hazards and many of the heritage buildings were eyesores.

"We weren't going to have a Chinatown in a few more years," Lam said.

"Once the fabric of a community goes, it's hard to rebuild it."

Chinatown was once prosperous. Lam says at the turn of the 20th century, 3,000 people lived in the six blocks of Chinatown. But by the late 1970s, only 100 people were left, in a block and a half of Fisgard Street.

Lam had only been living in Victoria at that point for four years. Born in Hong Kong, he studied city planning there before moving to England to study architecture. While visiting friends in Victoria, Lam dropped off his resumé at City Hall on a whim. That afternoon, he landed himself a city-planner position.

So when city council made the rehabilitation of Chinatown a priority in 1979, Lam was responsible for drafting designs and brainstorming ideas using his city-planning and architecture skills.

Prior to 1979, there were a handful of proposals funded by various levels of government for the restoration of Chinatown. But because of cost and lack of community support, none were implemented - development in Chinatown was at a standstill.

"The community felt they were being imposed [upon] by something they didn't understand and didn't feel comfortable with," Lam said. The top-down approach to development wasn't working.

During the summer of 1979, David Lai, geography professor at the University of Victoria, conducted research on the streets of Chinatown to dig deeper into the needs of the community.

His research report, The Future of Victoria's Chinatown: A Survey of Views and Opinion, kickstarted the Chinatown Restoration project.

Now retired and a renowned expert on Chinatowns across Canada, Lai says Victoria's Chinatown is unique, not just for being the first neighbourhood of its kind in Canada.

"This is the only Chinatown redevelopment that cared, in a comprehensive way, about both Chinese and non-Chinese people - it's the one big difference."

Lai surveyed Chinatown's landlords and business owners, along with tourists and users of the neighbourhood.

By September of 1979, city council had passed the 20-part Chinatown Rehabilitation Project and Lam designed the colour scheme for the Paint-Up project, the start of the neighbourhood makeover.

About $30,000 in funding from the city and the province was secured. Property owners were told they would be reimbursed for half the cost of painting their buildings as long as they adhered to Lam's design.

A month went by and there was no response from the public.

"I thought, 'This is trouble.' Even with the first project with all the money there - and it's the easiest one to do - there's no takers. I was getting nervous," Lam said.

Lam called a friend, a Chinatown building owner whose property qualified for the Paint-Up program, and asked why he hadn't applied.

"The gist of it I got from him was the community didn't believe it was really happening," Lam said.

It was then that Lam recalled a moment earlier that summer.

An elderly man with a curve in his back and a cane approached Lam at one of the public-consultation meetings.

"He came close to me. He looked at me and his face looked tired and worn but his eyes were alive. He looked at me very hard and said, 'Why do you want to extend the pain in Chinatown?' Chinatown was painful for him," Lam recalled.

Bad memories of Canada's head taxes for Chinese immigrants and other discriminatory laws earlier in the century lingered in Victoria's Chinatown community for some who experienced discrimination first-hand.

"All of these things were still in his memory, it still affected him very much. I had to gain all my courage to tell him we aren't extending the Chinatown he knew," Lam said. "We were aiming to show the rest of the city how wonderful Chinese culture is."

Lam said he knew he had to gain the trust of the Chinese community and show that the Chinatown Rehabilitation Project was theirs.

He convinced the finance department of the City of Victoria to have the cash ready immediately for any person who took part in the Paint-Up program.

Lam enlisted his friend to paint his house. Once he signed on, Lam said the phone never stopped ringing.

"If we didn't have the approval of the community, we would have never been able to do it," Lam said.

Galvanized by the Paint-Up program's success, the rest of the Chinatown Rehabilitation Project - widening of sidewalks, addition of distinctive red street lamps and hanging of lanterns - quickly gained momentum.

Within two years, Chinatown looked brand new. "Everybody put so much pride in the project and they really worked their hearts out. From the very top of city council all the way through to the city crew, everybody was so proud," Lam said.

The grand finale of the restoration - the Gate of Harmonious Interest - was unveiled on Nov. 15, 1981.

Lam was first asked to design his vision of a Chinatown gate in just one week. He rose to the occasion, staying up late each night and until midnight the night before it was due. But something else drew his attention when he finally finished his drawings.

It was 2 a.m. when his wife went into labour with his son, Otto. Otto was born that morning, the same day Lam handed in his first draft for the Gate of Harmonious Interest.

For Lam, the seal of approval from the Chinese community for his work came when he read the list of individuals who donated to the gate.

The elderly man who had once called the neighbourhood a painful place contributed to its resurrection as the new Victoria Chinatown. mkaralis@timescolonist.com

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