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Mary Lee Chan's family had come from China in 1879 and they struggled in Vancouver for generations. In the 1950s, Mary was finally able to buy a home near Chinatown. But soon, she discovered her neighbourhood was slated for demolition as part of a controversial “Urban Renewal” program.

Mary was determined not to lose her home so she organised her community to form the Strathcona Property Owner and Tenants Association (SPOTA). They were determined to fight for their homes…and stand up to City Hall.

Photo: Mary Lee Chan and her daughter Shirley worked together in SPOTA

Chinese immigrants came to Vancouver in the 19th Century. Many hoped to strike it rich in The Goldrush but few found their fortune. Instead, Chinese men took the tough and dangerous work building the railroads.

The Chinese newcomers settled in an area that would later be called Vancouver’s Chinatown and in neighbouring Strathcona. In the 1950s and 60s the Federal Government launched an "Urban Renewal" program in which they would demolish old neighbourhoods and build low-cost housing instead.

Mary Lee Chan and her neighbours in Strathcona decided to fight Urban Renewal. Most of the activists were housewives and they developed a cunning new type of activism that they hoped would help show the decision makers that Strathcona was not a slum; instead it was a vibrant community worth preserving and investing in.

Photo: Mary Lee Chan and her family in front of their home which was slated for demolition.

-As you enjoy wandering around this area, remember that none of this would be here without the work of Mary Lee Chan and the other members of SPOTA. The destruction of Strathcona would have meant that the Chinese community would be scattered around the city, cutting off the lifeblood of Chinatown.

-Start your tour at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the first full scale Ming Dynasty style garden built outside China. Take a guided tour to learn about the symbolism of the architecture and harmonious landscaping.

-Having experienced the tranquility of these peaceful gardens, plunge into the colour and vigour of Chinatown’s shops and restaurants on Keefer and Pender Street. Join one of the twice daily tours of historic Chinatown organised by the Chinese Cultural Centre.

-Visit the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum and Archives, which was built in the classical Su Zhou Garden style. Their permanent exhibitions explore the history of the Chinese in Vancouver, and the stories of Chinese Canadian soldiers who fought in the First and Second World Wars.

- Don’t miss the Chinatown Night Market, which takes place from 6.30-11.00pm every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from June to September. Located on Keefer Street, the market includes street vendors selling handicrafts, clothing and ethnic snacks. But there’s also music and dancing. For more information call (604) 682 8998.

- Strathcona, the neighbourhood that Mary Lee Chan and her colleagues saved from demolition in the 1960s, is now Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood, with the largest concentration of turn-of the century homes in the city. Organise a guided tour of Strathcona with historian John Atkin.

- Take some time out for a Dim Sum lunch at Floata Seafood Restaurant. If your Cantonese isn’t up to snuff, just make sure you have a good finger to point with, as waiters wheel the dim sum dishes around the room on trolleys so you can choose the most appealing ones.

Photo: Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden


Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden
578 Carrall Street
Telephone: +1 (604) 662-3207

Chinese Cultural Centre
50 East Pender Street
Vancouver BC, V6A 3V6
Telephone: +1 (604) 658-8850

Chinese Cultural Centre Museum and Archives Building
555 Columbia Street
Vancouver BC, V6A 4H5
Telephone: +1 (604) 658-8880

John Atkin, historian and tourguide

Floata Seafood Restaurant
400-180 Keefer Street
Vancouver B.C. V6A 4E9
Telephone: +1 (604) 602 0368

broadcast times
Tue, October 10, 2006 @ 8:30 pm (CST)

channel m
Sun, September 17, 2006 @ 11:00 am ()
Mon, September 11, 2006 @ 8:30 am ()
Tue, April 25, 2006 @ 1:00 pm (PST)
Sun, January 29, 2006 @ 9:30 pm (PST)

Canadian Learning Television
Mon, December 19, 2005 @ 9:30 pm (EST)

Tue, October 11, 2005 @ 10:00 pm (CST)

Canadian Learning Television
Mon, September 19, 2005 @ 9:30 pm (EST)

teacher's notes
Post-viewing Questions

1. When Mary Lee Chan’s grandfather escaped the hardships of his homeland and immigrated to Canada, hoping to find a more prosperous life, his hopes were dashed. He could only find low status and poorly paid work on the railroad and had to face virulent anti-Chinese discrimination. Compare this disappointing experience to the experiences that new immigrants to Canada presently face. Have job prospects and feelings about new immigrants changed? If so, why? If not,why do the same conditions of poor employment prospects for immigrants and anti-immigration feelings persist?

2. In Canada, Mary experienced discrimination, hardship and poverty. And yet, when her family returned to China she was not treated as authentically Chinese. In both places, she experienced feelings of displacement and not belonging. Do you believe that most immigrants experience similar feelings?

3. Mary took her early experiences of hardship, poverty and discrimination and used them as fuel to energize her for her community service work. Does hardship always lead to character development or are there inherent risks involved when citizens experience such difficult life experiences when trying to adapt to a new country?

4. Mary was lucky enough to acquire an educational level that was unusual for Chinese girls in China at that time. Do you think this educational background enabled her to “take on city hall” in Vancouver in the 1960’s?

5. Shirley is following in her mother’s footsteps. How did Mary provide opportunities for Shirley to acquire the confidence and skills to become involved in social activism?

Further Research

1. Write a short description about the anti-Asian riots in 1907.

2. Mary’s first Canadian job was in a textile factory in Vancouver. Many women immigrants have found employment in the textile industry. Write a short piece on the history of the role of women immigrants in the textile industry in Canada.

3. The film about Mary is a film about how “ordinary women” can change life in their communities for the better. Interview an older woman that has been a role model for you, or whom you admire for overcoming early adversity. Be sure to ask her who or what experiences encouraged/motivated her in her personal and/or professional development.

Additional Research Question:

This film tells the story of a woman who is a role model to women in her family and in her community and now. Who, in your life has been a role model? If you would like to share the story about this person with other young people to whom you think this story might act as a beacon, please add it to the website Alternately, if you would like to read stories that others have posted, please click on the website and become a part of a dialogue about the importance of role models.

These starting points for discussion and research questions were written by Dr. Carole Ann Reed, an educational consultant. Dr. Reed has worked as a human rights educator for almost twenty years in the Toronto area and has authored and co-authored many articles, curricula, and educational kits as well as a book. The topics she writes about include issues such as the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, women’s rights and anti-racism. For several years she was the Director of the Holocaust Centre of Toronto.

No material currently available.

Written, Directed and Produced by
Susan Poizner

Shirley Chan
Steve Hopkins
Emma and Hemming
Bessie Lee
Jo-Anne Lee
John Atkin
Paul Yee

Stefan Randstrom

Calvin B. Grant

Production Managers
Brenda Kovrig

Composer and Sound Designer
Steven Sauve

Trish Williams

Re-Recording Mixer
Rob Andres

Record Mixing Facility
Crunch Recording Group

Sound Recordist
Brooke Thomson

Assistant Editor
David Gesell

Production Assistant/Still Photographer
Jamie Bruni

Photos Courtesy of
Shirley Chan
Jo-Anne Lee
Tony Westman

Hair Services
O Sole Salon and Spa, Toronto

Kim Drosdick

Special Thanks
Hayne Wai
Floata Seafood Restaurant
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden Society of Vancouver
Cinequipe Whites
Olivia Ward
Andy Thomson

Share your family history at

Produced in association with


We acknowledge the financial support of the
Government of Canada through the
Multiculturalism program, a program of the
Department of Canadian Heritage

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