Architects: Joe W. Wai, IBI Group and Adrishak + Sturgess Joint Venture


Schematic rendering of the buildings that stood here, according to the footprints indicated on the 1961 fire insurance maps.

Here, 2nd Avenue still continued through the site, before it was successfully petitioned to be closed off for the Cultural Centre's construction.


+ What’s your story? How long have you been in Chinatown and what was Chinatown like back then?
I came to Calgary in 1974 to attend university. In 1981 I became actively involved in Chinatown; I started volunteering at the Chinese Public School, and later served as the director of the school.

In 1984 I was the director of the United Calgary Chinese Association (UCCA), which was formed in 1967 when there was a crisis in Chinatown as the government was trying to build the East-West Penetrator. The association led the fight against this proposal and was formed to speak as one voice in City Hall. But after this, Chinatown fell into obscurity. 

I’m also one of the five founding members of the CCCCA.

+ Tell me about the context in which the CCCC was built.
What was on this land before this building was built? How was the land acquired?

Tony Wong inside the atrium of the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre, 2020.

Before 1923 – 1946, there was no Chinese immigration because of the Exclusion Act. In the early 1950s, the first wave of Chinese came.

This current Chinatown used to be a swamp (land prone to flooding). The street level has been raised around 10 feet in the last 30 years, in the late 1980s. On the west side of the CCCCA building, there’s a flight of stairs going down 8-10 feet — this was the old street level of Chinatown. You can see that on the east side, it’s the same as street level.

In the late 1970’s, oil prices were good and Calgary was booming. Chinatown was a little set of wooden bungalows. At this time, some Chinese businessmen quietly purchased the bungalows — mostly owned by around 7 individuals — who formed the Calgary Chinatown Ratepayers’ Association. These were seven of the largest landowners of Chinatown. They then hired architects and lawyers to redevelop Chinatown and propose a new Chinatown. However, their hidden agenda was exposed. 

In 1980-1981, they tried to lobby City Hall to change Chinatown’s land use to high density land use. Douglas Tims stumbled across this and worked with Victor Mah to oppose this proposal, and they won. For the next 2-3 years, the two parties met at the Planning Department to discuss the development of Chinatown to try to find some common ground.

Malcolm Chow (the current director of CCCCA) suggested that a compromise needed to be made; that the landowners could donate land in return for more air rights for higher building density. Some of the Rateplayers had already sold their land to companies like Canadian Superior Oil and Oxford Development.

This is how a negotiation came about, as volunteers were asked for land donation to build a Chinese Cultural Center.  Two landowners agreed to donate 120’ x 100’ parcels and rights to the land. However, the street was in the way, so they then lobbied with the City to get the street closed off.

In 1985, the City suggested they build an association, and try to  raise funds for the center within 10 years. They offered that, if they didn’t succeed, they would convert the land into a public park.

In March 1985, the Calgary Chinese Cultural Center Association was formed.

Greyhound donated 175K. Within 2-3 years, the CCCCA had seed money to hire consultants to come up with the conceptual designs and to hold the public hearings to collect suggestions. 

In 1987, the first fundraiser was begun.

+ When was the CCCCA building constructed?
In 1989 construction was begun, and in 1992 it was completed. 

Directors on the roof of the Cultural Centre, September 1992.
Photograph courtesy of Tony Wong.

+ Can you tell me a little bit about the history behind its design development and construction?
What was the decision behind the building’s design?

We selected an architecture firm in Calgary who didn’t know much about Chinese architecture, as well  as one in Vancouver named Joe Wei who had worked on Sun Yat Sen’s garden and knew about Chinese architecture. We asked the two firms to form a joint venture.

We also held public hearings, and got suggestions from these sessions.
Richard Chow, an architecture student, also gave feedback that it should be a multi-purpose space.

During the design phase, the architects and the board decided that it was crucial for this to have Chinese character. After research, they found that the Temple of Heaven was the most recognizable piece of Chinese architecture, which was why they incorporated it into the design.The problem was that no one knew how to build it.

Fortunately, there was a guy working in the Silver Dragon restaurant’s kitchen from China, who put the board in touch with (Chong Wen) the Beijing-based “Ancient Building Maintenance Company” (a company specializing in restoration — though they’re no longer in existence).

23 artists and workers came from Beijing to build the dome. Local contractors did the rest of the building. 

The footprint of the Cultural Centre, May 15, 1991. Courtesy of Tony Wong.

+ What is the extent of the outdoor plaza area around the building? 
The plaza was developed a few years after the CCCCA building opened. As mentioned before, on the west side, the street level was lower (although the East side was raised). When the City was ready to raise the street level, then they built the plaza. While the City built the plaza, the CCCCA had a voice in the design of it. It’s the second largest plaza outside of the City Hall municipal plaza.

There were two members of the board who were in the City Planning Department who were instrumental in getting this project done. These were Larry Pollack and Bill Johnson (who sat on the board and was on the City Managers).

+ Do you know of any major renovations or changes to the building since it was first constructed?
The biggest technical problem now is the roof. Though it’s a unique roof, the roof gets worn down because of the extreme weather.

+ What do you think the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre means for the Calgary Chinatown community?
The Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre stands as a symbol of the presence of the Chinese in Calgary since the late 1800’s. The Chinese community has been growing with the city and contributing to its prosperity and vibrancy for the last 100+ years. Calgary’s Chinatown is in its third location, after being forced to move over the years. The Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre acts as an anchor to prevent “forced relocation” in the future. The building serves as a beacon that proclaims that Chinese culture is thriving in Calgary, and is like a hand that reaches out to other communities and ethnic groups.


Photographs taken in 2020.