Looking through five decades of archives, it’s astounding to see how often a celebrated place seems to embody the famed architect who created it. Bold and unconventional personalities tend to make bold and unconventional buildings. 

joe wai
Credit: Brian Howell

The late architect Joe Wai, at the Chinese Benevolent Society in Chinatown in 2006. Wai was a tireless booster of the neighbourhood in the face of repeated calls for redevelopment.

So when one looks at the understated facade of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden, is it really hard to appreciate how the creation of this first formal Chinese garden outside of Mainland China sprung from the imagination of the low-key Joe Wai? Or that the wonder that awaits past the demure entrance mirrors Wai’s own quiet brilliance?

jade pavillion

The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is one of the most important expressions
of this historical form anywhere in the world.

Wai graduated from UBC in 1965 and, after apprenticing at several bold-name firms and doing a stint in London, he returned to Vancouver and opened his own spot in Chinatown, a neighbourhood that he painstakingly shepherded over the next four decades. 

jow wai illustration
Credit: Western Living September 1981/Joe Wai Architects and Don Vaughan Associates Landscape Architects

In our September 1981 issue, we ran  plans for the not-yet-built garden in conjuction with a
long feature on Wai’s dogged determination to get the project built.

Wai helped stop the proposed freeway from decimating the neighbourhood and created affordable infill housing for the area, now colloquially know as “Joe Wai Specials.” But his crowning achievement came with the creation of those gardens, which Carolann Rule documented for us in an essay in September 1981, a testament to the enduring legacy of understated genius.

sun yat sen garden

Another shot of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.

To read about more great people, designs, homes and innovations that shaped Western Living, click here.