Friday, February 17, 2012

Victoria's Treasure: The First Chinese Empire Association

February 2012, 1715 Government St.

The Baohuanghui was formally inaugurated by Kang Youwei in Victoria, British Columbia, on July 20, 1899.  Although its first home was probably on the third floor of founding member Li Fuji's Guangwanfeng store in Victoria's Chinatown, the birthplace of the international organization is most often given as the building pictured to the left, built in 1905 at 1715 Government St., also in Victoria's Chinatown.  

Archival photo, BC Archives
This February, the building's restoration was completed in time for Chinese New Year by the owner, Ian Sutherland, who has done a remarkable job in bringing to light and reconstructing historical artifacts.  Sutherland has consulted with Zhongping Chen and Jane Leung Larson, among many others, in his research on this building. The Edwardian-style building is in a National Historic District.

On the right is an historic photograph of the building from the BC Archives. You can plainly read the words "The First Chinese Empire Reform Assn." and "1905" and on the parapet see an elaborate emblem.  The image is faint, but during the restoration process found a time capsule that included an envelope fragment with a drawing that appeared close in design to the emblem on the building.  Sutherland used this to create a new image.  The Qing dragon flag is crossed with the Baohuanghui flag, which in this version has two red stripes flanking a blue stripe with three white stars.  C.E.R.A. and 保皇會 are written on the red stripes.

Sutherland found the building in serious disrepair when he bought it in 2000 from the Sing family.

Steve Barber, the City of Victoria Heritage Planner, described the restoration process in detail:

"The building was purchased in 2000 by Ian Sutherland and underwent a major rehabilitation, façade restoration and seismic upgrading between 2006 and 2011. Part of the challenge of the project was working around an existing operating restaurant, Brasserie L’Ecole , located on the main floor.

The building retained much of its original historic interior on the third floor, including tongue and groove wood paneling on the walls and ceiling. The second floor had suffered a fire in the 1960’s and had been substantially altered. The seismic upgrading strategy devised by the owner was designed to retain as much of the original interior historic fabric as possible.

The front façade was completely restored including cast iron metal railings, wood windows and doors, wood columns and the coloured glass window transoms were all retained. The ground floor storefront was restored using archival photos as a guide. Remains of wood knee brackets guided their restoration. The pilasters on each end needed extensive restoration due to rust jacking form deteriorated structural members within the wall. The decorative sheet metal lion’s heads at the top of the pilasters were also badly deteriorated and were replaced with reproductions utilizing the original lion head zinc castings. A reproduction of the original parapet, fabricated from aluminum
was installed, based on archival photos. The original metal lettering for the sign “Chinese Empire Reform Association” below the parapet was also restored.

A remarkable discovery was made during the restoration. Behind a boarded up window in the bathroom on the third floor was a stone tablet with Chinese inscriptions of the story of the Association including the names of the original donors, the amount of their donations, and their city of residence. In 2011, in honour of the 100th anniversary of the 1911 Chinese Revolution, a Chinese television crew visited the building to document the find.

Donors for building construction, dated 1907
The owner’s attention to detail, his efforts to conserve as much of the original historic fabric as possible, and the extensive restoration of original historic features deserves the highest recognition of heritage organizations in British Columbia."

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