Bill Yuen

Redefining Heritage

Bill Yuen’s understanding of Vancouver’s urban heritage goes well beyond the age of its buildings. As Executive Director of the Heritage Vancouver Society since 2015, he has created opportunities for place-based and intersectional identity-based knowledge of the city’s development. In SFU’s Urban Studies master’s program, he has focused his thesis research on sustainability and community building within the challenging realm of housing provision in Vancouver. His excellent work in the program has won him graduate fellowships and awards, including the Urban Studies Alumni Award for Community Engagement.

Belle Cheung, Senior Manager of Strategic Initiative in the City Manager’s Office at the City of Vancouver, has worked with Yuen through the Heritage Vancouver Society. She says, “I cannot think of someone else who has had such an outsized impact in supporting communities, the practice of heritage, and in advocating tirelessly for a more equitable city.”

Yuen says that his Urban Studies Program experience has helped him in his role at the Society.

“What we [at the Heritage Vancouver Society] try to do is relate heritage to urbanism—how heritage is connected to the city and relevant to urbanism and contemporary life now,” he says. “So, I think the program helps me to see those things more clearly. For example, I’ve learned how ethnography is important—helping people tell stories about places.”

Yuen also took Kamala Todd’s URB 413-613 class, Storyscapes: Decolonizing the City through Arts and Culture. He says he learned key information in this course.

“In terms of heritage work, there always was this one story of Vancouver, but we know that there are many stories of Vancouver,” says Yuen. “We know that the stories of the Indigenous nations have been left out or ignored. Learning about ideas of how to bring back those stories into the city is very important.”

Outside of his work with the Heritage Vancouver Society, Yuen serves on committees like the Gain Wah project steering committee. On September 9th, 2022, the Gain Wah restaurant in Chinatown caught on fire. This fire forced the closure of the 30-year-old restaurant and the displacement of the 39 residents living above it. Yuen and others are helping to try and restore the restaurant as a social enterprise.

“It’s a business that has a deep connection to the cultural and social context of Chinatown, but also is an affordable cultural food asset,” he says. “It’s really important that there’s a place where people feel welcome and comfortable that’s maybe not so cost-prohibitive and not so fancy.”

Yuen’s knowledge of Vancouver’s urban development and community involvement have led many to call on him to give public talks and lead guided tours. He has also been quoted by various media outlets, and acts as an advisor to Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Department of Anthropology and the UBC’s Centre for Asian Canadian Research and Engagement.

Though he has a busy life outside the Urban Studies Program, Yuen is excelling in the program and is completing a promising thesis under the supervision of Professors Meg Holden and Mohsen Javdani. Yuen’s thesis focuses on the political economy underlying co-operative housing, including an examination of the local Vancouver discourse and its evolution since the 1970s, and the economic theoretical underpinnings of co-operative housing as an alternative to private provision of housing on the free market that has different implications for sustainability and community life.