Description of Historic Place
The Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) Building is a four-storey structure comprising a store on the ground floor and public assembly spaces above, on the south side of East Pender Street, the 'main street' of Vancouver's historic Chinatown district.
This building has value as the headquarters of the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA), which from its establishment in 1889 through to the 1960s was the leading institution in Vancouver's Chinese community. It also has architectural value as the first identified example of the mature 'Chinatown style' and the first identified use of references to Chinese architecture in its detailing.
Organized by Chinatown's leading businessmen, including Yip Sang, owner of the Wing Sang Company, who supervised the construction work; Chang Toy, owner of the Sam Kee Company; and Wang Yu Shan, who sold the land to CBA at no profit, the Vancouver Chinese Benevolent Association was significant both within and outside the Chinese community for identifying and representing the interests of Chinese-Canadians across Canada, especially to government. It lobbied government on many political and social matters, such as establishing burial rights for the early Chinese communities in Victoria and Vancouver, opposing the Head Tax, and successfully achieving the relaxation of the Immigration Act in 1956, allowing Chinese-Canadians to bring their wives from China. The successes of the 1950s are associated in particular with the leadership of Foon Sien. For many years, the CBA was recognized within the community as speaking for it, regardless of surnames, birthplaces, or political allegiances. Within the community, it acted as a 'supreme court' to resolve conflicts among Chinatown organizations.
In addition to its political work, the CBA also supported the development of health and educational services. In 1910, a hospital was established in the building, and, in 1917, the Chinese Public School became a tenant. The CBA, hospital, and school illustrate important aspects of how the Chinese community organized itself in Vancouver. The need for an umbrella organization, and the services it provided, was driven in part by discrimination from the white community. However, the organization also responded to the specific educational and social needs of the community, helping it to define and retain its 'Chinese-ness'. The influence of the CBA declined in the 1960s as community political divisions, reduced discrimination, and a growing and more diverse Chinese community sought new outlets for community action. The history of the CBA and its significance extends beyond its specific accomplishments and activities. Similar organizations existed in other overseas Chinese communities and in other immigrant communities, and its history therefore represents an outstanding example of a broad pattern of response to the immigrant experience.
The architecture of the CBA Building also has considerable heritage value. Built in 1909, it represents the first full expression of the distinctive Chinatown style, whose features include vertical proportions, recessed balconies, an inscribed parapet, and a meeting hall on the top floor, accessed by a staircase along one side. Recessed balconies were seen earlier in Chinatown, at the Chinese Freemasons Building of c. 1901, but in a horizontally-composed building combined with vestiges of Victorian style.
The influence of the CBA Building on Chinatown's appearance more generally adds to the heritage value of this building. In 1921, the CBA formed, in response to rising discrimination, a Self-Improvement Committee to try to elevate the public image of Chinatown. This may well have been one of the factors that contributed to the building boom that occurred along Pender Street in the first half of the 1920s, in which many other community societies erected or modified buildings to resemble the architecture of the CBA.
Source: City of Vancouver Heritage Conservation Program
The character-defining elements of the Chinese Benevolent Association Building include:
- Location on south side of East Pender Street, Chinatown's 'main street'
- Vertical proportions of the composition
- Flag staff
- Hipped roof with Chinese eaves atop the sign and date plaque over the cornice
- Recessed balconies
- External pendant globe lighting within the balconies
- Decorative iron balustrades
- Chinese characters above the fourth-floor balcony fenestration
- Building-wide fenestration and strongly expressed mullions and transoms
- Rustic stone treatment of party wall ends
- Separate entrance to the CBA to the left of the ground-floor shop
- Use of the building for community purposes, including meeting rooms and offices of organizations