On a late November evening in 1877, the distinctive clip-clop, clip-clop of horses' hooves would pierce through Winnipeg's cold autumn air. The setting sun outlined the silhouette of an overloaded stagecoach staggering along the sharp prairie horizon. Curious onlookers were drawn by the moan of rigid wheels struggling to navigate the city's dusty Main Street. Unfamiliar sounds of foreign voices came from within the American caravan transporting the first three Chinese settlers to the isolated town of 6,500 people.
Charley Yam, the leader of the three, would soon open the city's first Chinese laundry on Post Office Street (now Lombard Avenue). Three months later, demanding better living conditions, his employees would stage an armed revolt. The 'Chinese War' would captivate readers of the Manitoba Free Press, which announced the end of the week-long standoff with the simple message, "Two Chinese laundries are now in operation in this city." Six more would open over the next eight years.
In 1905, the Quong Chong Tai Company opened a grocery at 249 King St., forming the genesis of Winnipeg's Chinatown. In the next year, another grocery and four laundries would open and by 1909 the neighbourhood would take on a distinctive exotic flavour.
Facing significant linguistic and cultural barriers, economic hardship and racial discrimination, early Chinese settlers would band together by isolating themselves on inexpensive land at the fringes of city centres across the country. In search of security, social networks and community support, this voluntary residential segregation would result in the birth of Chinatowns in many Canadian cities.
Winnipeg's Chinatown would reach its zenith in the 1920s, covering six city blocks with King Street as its main commercial artery. With 900 Chinese residents and 300 laundries across the city, the pulsating sidewalks and pungent smells of Chinatown served as the commercial and social focal point of a vibrant community. The area's original wooden structures were replaced with two- and three-storey brick buildings, typically with small-scale commercial storefronts along the sidewalk and residential suites, often for employees in the floors above.
In 1923, the federal government would introduce the Exclusion Act, virtually terminating Chinese immigration to Canada. This resulted in the eventual economic stagnation and physical decline of Chinatown neighbourhoods across the country. By 1938, only 125 Chinese laundries remained in Winnipeg. Many of Chinatown's shops and restaurants began to close as the area fell into decay.
In 1974, architect Gustavo da Roza was commissioned to develop a Chinatown revitalization plan. Typical of the era, the scheme called for a clean-slate redevelopment strategy with the gradual demolition of the entire area, to be replaced with an enclosed shopping mall, recreation space and housing. The grand plan never gained traction but the ideal of top-down, mega-project urban-renewal strategies has lived on ever since.
Like any successful urban neighbourhood, Chinatown's physical character inspired much of its historic vibrancy and street life. Small-scale storefronts created commercial diversity, economic opportunity and intimate, pedestrian-focused streetscapes. Low-rise, mixed-use buildings provided population density and visual connection to the sidewalks.
Chinatown's redevelopment initiatives, past and present, have generally disregarded this traditional neighbourhood character, choosing to focus on large-scale institutional buildings or suburban-style residential highrise projects that are disengaged from the sidewalk and offer little commercial activity or pedestrian vibrancy. These projects have severed the traditional economic and social networks of the neighbourhood, resulting in empty sidewalks, struggling businesses and further proliferation of surface parking lots.
The empty lot on the former site of the Coronation Block, home to the historic Shanghai Restaurant, sits as a poignant reminder of the clean-slate renewal strategies that have been promoted in the area for four decades. With second-floor residential units above a series of small-scale, low-rent commercial storefronts, the building had an ideal configuration to promote organic, ground-up neighbourhood growth and small-business opportunity, but it was demolished last year in hopes one day an assisted-living complex will be built on the site.
After almost 70 years in operation, Shanghai owner Henry Lee sadly closed his iconic restaurant, unable to convince the younger members of his family to be the fifth generation to run the business. Tiffany Leong, one of those young family members with dreams of her own, recently completed her master's degree in architecture at the University of Manitoba.
For her thesis project, she took on the unique personal challenge of investigating opportunities for the site of her great-grandfather's restaurant and the neighbourhood that has been so much a part of their lives.
Leong's project envisions an urban marketplace that restores the historic social and commercial networks of the neighbourhood's past, while providing a modern platform from which a new kind of Chinatown can blossom. Her sensitive, human scale architecture explores ways of re-engaging what once made Chinatown a vibrant urban neighbourhood.
To promote pedestrian activity, her scheme implements a strong sidewalk edge, while creating a welcoming transparency and porosity in the building faßade by incorporating a unique system of awnings, louvres, pocket doors and folding partitions that allow interior spaces to spill open to the sidewalk and an exterior marketplace beyond.
Her small-scale intervention reestablishes Chinatown's traditional mixed-use building configuration with second-storey apartments above street-level shops, accessed through a series of catwalks, intermediate floors and external staircases.
The composition of private and public spaces recaptures the spirit of traditional Chinatown neighbourhoods with intimate hidden spaces and small passageways.
An architectural expression that references traditional Chinese paper art, similar to origami, folds outward into a dramatic roof form, seen as a characteristic element that could proliferate across the empty parking lots of the neighbourhood, unifying new buildings in the district with a signature modern expression.
As Winnipeg's Chinatown continues to redevelop, the lessons of Leong's thesis exploration might provide an inspiring template for future efforts. By moving away from the ideals of mega-project renewal schemes and focusing on design principles that inform strong urban communities, she exposes the importance of embracing fine-grain, street friendly development that facilitates a vibrant street life. Her work re-engages the area's commercial past by providing a range of economic opportunities for its inhabitants, including those immigrants from across the globe who are new to our city and face the same fears and challenges Charley and his two friends did on that stagecoach 136 years ago.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.