Unbuilt Vancouver: A New Sing Kew Theatre


In response to continued development pressures in Chinatown, UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA) Associate Professor Inge Roecker has been running a repeating investigative design studio in the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown. In Spring of 2015, her studio was titled Vertical Social and focused on how new housing could be added to two vacant sites in Chinatown (105 Keefer Street and the parking lot adjacent to the Chinatown gate) in a way which acknowledges the historical urbanism of Chinatown and empowers the community.

One such project incubated in this studio and designed by Masters of Architecture student Christopher Torres, envisions an architecture of housing and public space inspired by the Sing Kew Theatre, an iconic theatre which existed in Chinatown for nearly 50 years starting in 1904. Christopher proposes to build an open-air theatre mixed with Single Residency Occupancy (SRO) residential units at 105 Keefer Street, two blocks down from its previous location. The selection of this site is timely as it is currently in the midst of a lengthy and ongoing rezoning application for a 12-storey mixed-use building, putting into question the best use of the site.

Project Gallery

If built, a project such as this could provide an accessible forum for the arts and public debate in the epicentre of Vancouver’s housing crisis. Christopher describes the project:

The Sing Kew theatre was the central public forum of Vancouver’s Chinatown for nearly 50 years. Beginning in 1904, the venue provided a space where the traditions of Chinese Opera could be performed.

Beyond opera, the theatre served as a public forum, hosting lectures, meetings, and social events. Opening into what was then Chinatown’s heart, Shanghai Alley, the theatre was a beloved and revered institution, which allowed the residents to preserve and perform traditions that date back thousands of years. This proposal seeks to restore the opera to the Chinatown community, situating itself in a central location adjacent to the Chinese Cultural Centre and the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Gardens. In addition to an open-air stage, a broad public space is dedicated to fostering the long-standing culture of street-vendors in Chinatown.

In this proposal, the walls of the opera are thickened and lifted from the earth. Within these thickened walls, 96 SRO (single room occupant) units and their communal amenity spaces array themselves like loggias around a stage. Each module of two SRO units shares a balcony and access to the catwalk-like circulation along the interior of the court.  The pairing of SROs is intended to give a multitude of scales at which community bonds can form between residents, be it in the intimacy of their shared deck, or the familial openness of the amenity loggias. The roof is a sprawling green deck, with incredible views to the city and ample space for urban gardening. The ground plane becomes an open and flowing public space for the community to appropriate as needed, sheltered by the residences above.

The sun sets and the plaza fills with vendors, performers, and spectators.

The opera returns to Chinatown.

Project Diagram

If you are interested in Christopher and his work, he can be reached here. Inge Roecker’s next studio (Winter 2017) is titled Powell Street: Connecting Narrative Through Place Making. If you would like to get involved in the urban development happening in Chinatown, there is an online feedback form available to review the next rezoning application for 105 Keefer Street and 544 Columbia Street; the form is available until February 27, 2017.



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James is an architect and writer from Vancouver, British Columbia with a passion for affordable housing, public space, design, and the Pacific Northwest. James has worked on architecture projects across the lower mainland and has written for Canadian Architect, Objekt International, and Price Tags. He holds a Masters in Architecture from the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design and a Bachelors of Applied Science in Civil-Structural Engineering from the University of Waterloo. James has been an AIBC architectural awards jury member, has served on UBC SALA Thesis Committee, and was awarded a special mention in the Urbanarium's Missing Middle competition. He lives in Gastown with his wife Errin, a cool optometrist responsible for his maple glasses.