BC government turning Rennie HQ into new Vancouver Chinese Canadian Museum

Feb 11 2022, 8:00 pm

The headquarters office building of real estate marketing firm Rennie in Vancouver’s Chinatown district will be permanently transformed into Canada’s largest Chinese Canadian Museum.

The provincial government announced today that it is providing $27.5 million to the Chinese Canadian Museum Society of British Columbia to support continued planning of the museum and operations of the society, as well as the acquisition of the historic Wing Sang Building at 51 East Pender Street from Rennie.

This is in addition to the initial $11 million provided by the provincial government in 2019 and 2020 for earlier planning and site selection work.

The Rennie Foundation is also planning to make a $7.5 million contribution to the museum in the near future.

51 east pender vancouver chinese canadian museum rennie

Site of the former Rennie Museum and offices at 51 East Pender Street In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the future home of the Chinese Canadian Museum. (Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers)

51 east pender vancouver chinese canadian museum rennie

Inside the former Rennie Museum and offices at 51 East Pender Street In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the future home of the Chinese Canadian Museum. (Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers)

“The contributions of Chinese Canadians to this province have been invaluable,” said Premier John Horgan in a statement.

“The Chinese Canadian Museum responds to the community’s long-standing desire for a place to share stories of achievement and shine a light on injustice. The museum will be an important place for all British Columbians, connecting the past to the present and future generations.”

The Wing Sang Building is immediately north of the Chinese Cultural Centre, and entails two buildings — a three-storey building fronting East Pender Street, and a six-storey building in the rear. The original structures on the site were first built in 1889, and subsequent additions were made in 1901 and 1912 by Chinatown pioneer Yip Sang for his import-export business.

51 east pender vancouver chinese canadian museum rennie

Inside the former Rennie Museum and offices at 51 East Pender Street In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the future home of the Chinese Canadian Museum. (Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers)

51 east pender vancouver chinese canadian museum rennie

Inside the former Rennie Museum and offices at 51 East Pender Street In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the future home of the Chinese Canadian Museum. (Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers)

51 east pender vancouver chinese canadian museum rennie

Rooftop of the former Rennie Museum and offices at 51 East Pender Street In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the future home of the Chinese Canadian Museum. (Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers)

Both buildings span a total floor area of about 27,000 sq ft, with 7,000 sq ft used by Rennie’s offices and 20,000 sq ft used for the Rennie Museum, which is Bob Rennie’s private gallery housing his large collection.

Rennie acquired the Wing Sang Building in 2004, and then spent $10 million on performing extensive renovations over four years. The building reopened with its new uses in 2009.

The renovation work of preserving heritage aspects while also creating new contemporary spaces — designed by Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers — won a number national and international architectural accolades.

“Our family’s duty to 51 East Pender has always been to be a good custodian and we are honoured and excited to have Vancouver Chinatown’s oldest structure now celebrated as home to the Chinese Canadian Museum for all Canadians to experience this piece of history and the journey of Chinese Canadians,” said Bob Rennie.

“Our family met recently, and we really want to make sure that the Chinese Canadian Museum has a solid foundation to carry out its mission.”

The strategic use of the building for the Chinese Canadian Museum is ideal not just for its central location in Chinatown, establishing a larger cultural precinct with the adjacent cultural centre, but as it is already used as a museum it lowers the project’s construction costs.

The building’s relative readiness will allow the museum to open in 2023. It will feature space for permanent and temporary exhibits, multi-purpose programs and events, and learning spaces for students. This includes a large accessible rooftop space.

51 east pender vancouver chinese canadian museum rennie

Inside the former Rennie Museum and offices at 51 East Pender Street In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the future home of the Chinese Canadian Museum. (Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers)

51 east pender vancouver chinese canadian museum rennie

Inside the former Rennie Museum and offices at 51 East Pender Street In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the future home of the Chinese Canadian Museum. (Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers)

“This is a historic moment for Chinese Canadians across the province. This is the first such museum in Canada and will widely share the history, contributions and heritage of Chinese Canadians and their lived experiences. Having the home in the Wing Sang Building, one of the most historic buildings of Vancouver Chinatown, is particularly meaningful,” said Grace Wong, the chair of the Chinese Canadian Museum Society of BC.

This wonderful building is part of the history of Chinese Canadians and has been lovingly restored by Mr. Bob Rennie. We thank Mr. Rennie for his belief in the importance of the Chinese Canadian Museum and for his plans for a legacy gift in the future. We hope everyone will join with us in appreciating this very special moment and in working toward fully opening the museum.”

Planning for the museum by the provincial and municipal governments and the non-profit society began before the pandemic as one of the key strategies of revitalizing Chinatown.

It will also support the case by both governments in their bid to have Chinatown designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In 2019, after conducting public consultation and a feasibility study, the provincial government selected a “hub-and-spoke” model for the museum of establishing a central museum hub in Chinatown that attracts visitors with a range of artifacts and exhibits, and supplemented by satellite attractions potentially across the province at locations with historical and cultural relevance to Chinese Canadians.

51 east pender vancouver chinese canadian museum rennie

Inside the former Rennie Museum and offices at 51 East Pender Street In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the future home of the Chinese Canadian Museum. (Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers)

51 east pender vancouver chinese canadian museum rennie

Inside the former Rennie Museum and offices at 51 East Pender Street In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the future home of the Chinese Canadian Museum. (Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers)

The museum will tell the story of early Chinese Canadians and their contributions to the early development of the country, including the Chinese who came to BC in the 1800s for the gold rush and the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. They lived and worked in highly abusive and harsh conditions.

Potent racism towards Chinese Canadians continued into the middle of the 1900s, with Chinatown becoming a place of support for these unwanted individuals, the enactment of the discriminatory Chinese Head Tax, their lack of equal rights including the ability to vote, and other discrimination in everyday life.

The opening of the new museum within Rennie’s former space comes at a time when there is a resurgence in anti-Asian sentiments and racism. Businesses and cultural institutions within Chinatown have been struggling from the onslaught of social issues — vandalism and property damage, disorder, theft, and violent crime — stemming from the district’s adjacency to the Downtown Eastside.

In Summer 2020, the society opened a temporary museum exhibit at the Hon Hsing Athletic Club just to the west on the same block at 27 East Pender Street.

And in late 2021, with the support of the federal government and donors, the separate not-for-profit Vancouver Chinatown Foundation opened the Chinatown Storytelling Centre at 168 East Pender, just to the east of the former Rennie building.

51 east pender vancouver chinese canadian museum rennie

Inside the former Rennie Museum and offices at 51 East Pender Street In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the future home of the Chinese Canadian Museum. (Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers)

51 east pender vancouver chinese canadian museum rennie

Inside the former Rennie Museum and offices at 51 East Pender Street In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the future home of the Chinese Canadian Museum. (Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers)

51 east pender vancouver chinese canadian museum rennie

Inside the former Rennie Museum and offices at 51 East Pender Street In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the future home of the Chinese Canadian Museum. (Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers)

51 east pender vancouver chinese canadian museum rennie

Inside the former Rennie Museum and offices at 51 East Pender Street In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the future home of the Chinese Canadian Museum. (Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers)

51 east pender vancouver chinese canadian museum rennie

Inside the former Rennie Museum and offices at 51 East Pender Street In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the future home of the Chinese Canadian Museum. (Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers)

51 east pender vancouver chinese canadian museum rennie

Inside the former Rennie Museum and offices at 51 East Pender Street In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the future home of the Chinese Canadian Museum. (Office of Mcfarlane Biggar Architects and Designers)

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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