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Birth of a colourful mural signals a refresh for Chinatown

Artist Carolyn Wong won the commission for the two-storey mural, which she is painting on the wall of the Yen Wo Society Building.
Artist Carolyn Wong takes a break from working on a mural on the Yen Wo Society Building in Chinatown. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST VICTORIA, B.C.: SEPTEMBER 15,2023- Artist Carolyn Wong takes a break from working on a mural on the Yen Wo Society Building in Victoria, B.C. September 15, 2023. (DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST). For City story by Michael John Lo.

Keen eyes might have spotted the removal of a 10-foot-long plexiglass dragon on the wall of the Yen Wo Society Building in Chinatown this week.

But the start of a colourful two-storey-tall mural on the 1713 Government St. building on Thursday was harder to miss.

The City of Victoria has commissioned a new spray-painted mural after the Yen Wo Society approached the city in January about the state of the public art on their building.

“We’re really excited about it,” said Nora Butz, president of the Yen Wo Society. “The dragon that was up there was really faded and old.”

The new mural installation coincides with a major fundraising drive the society is undertaking to restore the 111-year-old four-storey building, which is home to the Tam Kung temple, the oldest Chinese temple in Canada.

Jackie Ngai, secretary treasurer of the Yen Wo Society, said that the old artwork — created in 2008 by Robert Amos with help from students of the Chinese Public School — will hopefully be reinstalled at the non-proft Victoria Chinatown Care Centre, which has requested the artwork after it has been refurbished.

The muralist for the new work was chosen out of a competitive process with five applicants, Ngai said.

Vancouver-based artist Carolyn Wong, who won the commission, said it’s a dream to have her work on such a prominent location in Victoria’s Chinatown.

“These spaces are so important,” said Wong, a first-­generation Chinese Canadian who has recently installed a mural in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

The mural will depict Tam Kung temple imagery and its artifacts, with the colour tones taken from the colour palette of Chinatown, she said. She’s hoping the skies stay clear until the mural is finished on Sept. 25.

City spokesperson Colleen Mycroft said in a statement that the total budget of the project is $44,400 and was funded through the OUR DWNTN revitalization fund.

The Downtown Victoria Business Association and Sunbelt Rentals also provided contributions, she said.

There will be an augmented reality feature embedded within the mural that will highlight artifacts inside the temple, Mycroft said.

Roof repairs at 1713 Government St., as well as two other nearby historic Chinatown buildings at 614 and 612 Fisgard St., will continue for the next several months.

At least $600,000 of the rooftop seismic upgrades for the three buildings is coming from the ­Victoria Civic Heritage Trust through its parapet incentive program.

Victoria Civic Heritage Trust executive director Catherine Umland said in a statement that she is very pleased to support non-profit organizations to maintain and conserve their heritage properties.

“These three buildings are architectural gems that are very significant to the heritage of the individual associations, the Chinatown community, downtown and City of Victoria,” she said.

Ngai said that three Chinese societies — the Lee’s Benevolent Association, the Shon Yee Benevolent Association and the Yen Wo Society — had to work together to make the project possible in a very busy construction industry.

“Nobody was looking at us,” she said. “It was only after the three societies were able to band together that we were able to get somebody interested.”

Ngai said her great-grandfather helped found the temple and she sees it as her duty to the Chinese community to continue the family legacy. “We want to revitalize our building. We want to put ourselves on the map.”

Storey Construction and Read Jones Christoffersen, an engineering firm, have been engaged for the roof projects.

But more repairs are needed at the Yen Wo Building. Ngai said that the pre-pandemic repair bill estimate of $600,000 is no longer accurate and it could be closer to $1 million due to inflation and soaring construction costs.

A fundraiser at the Don Mee restaurant, co-hosted by the Yen Wo Society and the Victoria Chinatown Lioness Club on Sept. 23 aims to close some of that gap.

Amanda Mills, a director at the Victoria Chinatown Lioness Club, said that they are helping to pull the fundraiser together on short notice because it’s a worthwhile cause. “Our purview is to promote Chinese culture and this seems like a very good opportunity.”

• Online, for info on the fundraiser:

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