Sunday, September 2, 2012

Wing Sang

The Wing Sang building at 51 East Pender is one of the oldest in Vancouver, almost as old as the city itself (a 125 this year). Construction began in 1889, bankrolled by its first owner, a Chinese-born labour boss/philanthropist named Yip Sang. In 1901 Yip extended the building to 69 East Pender, and then in 1912 he added a six-storey building across the lane. When we refer to the Wing Sang building today, what we really mean is the Wing Sang building complex.

The history of the Wing Sang building is long and storied, in some ways a dipstick into the larger civic history, a history Vancouverites are generally indifferent to, at least until the Vancouver Art Gallery's Fred Herzog photography exhibition in 2007, where Vancouver's past came alive. Had it not been for the efforts of Bob Rennie, the Wing Sang building would have been torn down, or left in disrepair, as it had been since the 1970s, after the closure of the Yip Sang Travel Agency Ltd.

Today the Wing Sang building is home to Rennie Marketing Systems, Rennie & Associates Realty and the Rennie Collection, "one of the largest collections of contemporary art in Canada." I have visited this  building on a number of occasions, where I have seen its exhibitions, its rooftop top Dan Graham pavilion and, to the north, Martin Creed's wall-mounted neon sign EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT.

As these exhibitions take place over multiple floors, visitors cannot help but notice the building's non-exhibition spaces, where the business that underwrites the Rennie Collection takes place. One space that gives me the chills is the school room Wing Sang built for the 23 children he fathered with his four wives (Lee Shee, Dong Shee, Wong Shee and Chin Shee), a room that remains in tact and today acts as a "board room" in which the selling of real estate and the buying of art are discussed.

Rennie has numerous residences, and Wing Sang is among them, making it similar to those complexes I spoke of in yesterday's email, where I went so far as to suggestion that one day these home-and-market developments might eventually include private schools (and gun turrets!). The difference between Wing Sang and developments such as Americana is that the former is under the rule of one person, just as it was in the Yip Sang era. What chills me most about the Wing Sang school room/board room is not its function but its passage from a place of education to a place of business. That and the patriarchs who preside over it.

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