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Fire at 165 East Hastings

Gabi Dao

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Many times I would sit on the SkyTrain on my way there. To be precise, every weekend.

We—my mother, my sister and I—would visit my Bà Ngoại, Ông Ngoại and my uncle who lived with them. My father too would join most of the time. Two dollars for a haircut on Pender Street back then, he’d say. I had learned to love this neighbourhood fiercely despite those who taught me to not.

During our hour-long commute I’d lose my sense of self inside the full-body clamour of the train speeding on the tracks, echoes rattling against the surfaces of the compartment, gradually seeping out and decaying inside the cloudy wisps that hovered over the lilac grey mountains. Main Street, Science World, the robotic voice would then say. I remember the voice so clearly, always suspiciously calm. 


As the airplane tires hit the tarmac during the descent of my flight, I somehow heard that same voice. Back from my first year of living abroad, I hustled out of the airplane cabin into the airport, feeling my mother’s energy power my stride. It was the way she’d immediately burst out of the SkyTrain doors at our stop, zip down the escalators and march straight down Main Street on her mission. My father was the opposite of her, a daydreaming wanderer. He’d often split off—strolling around the neighbourhood, maybe looking for his two-dollar haircut again. On the heels of my mother, my sister and I weaved through the back alleys—she taught us her shortcuts through Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside.

On the way there we’d pass by Main and Hastings. One particularly scorching day I remember an occasion where my mother actually paused; her shoelace had become undone. Finally, I had thought to myself as she bent over to tie it. My sister and I paused too, resting, as we would carry all the heavy grocery bags full of produce from Sunrise Market. Clutching at my hands, sore from the plastic bag handles digging into the fingers of my curled fists, I remember turning around to meet the gaze of an older woman.

She was about my Bà Ngoại’s age, sitting on a burgundy foldable chair in front of 165 East Hastings, across the street from Brandiz, beside the Belvedere Hotel. She smiled at me and I smiled back. Would you give me a hug?, she said, as my eyes lingered with hers. I looked over at my sister, preoccupied with a pineapple-coconut bun, and then at my mother, watching me and the woman as she finished double-knotting her shoe, not saying a thing. I inched forward and politely put my arms around her neck, my arms gently resting on her shoulders. I noticed the reflections of the sun glinting in her silver hair as I squeezed her tenderly, pressing my cheek against her ear, just as I would do to my Bà Ngoại. If this woman were my Bà Ngoại, she’d bury her nose in my hair and vigorously inhale—as if she was breathing in my vapours, my spirit. As I left our embrace, I shyly and quietly sniffed this woman’s shimmering locks. I don’t think she noticed. Thank you sweetie, the woman said. As we continued on our way I kept her scent in my memory—baby powder, with a bit of smoke.


On the SkyTrain again I checked my phone and read messages from K—did u read the news? about this fire? It spread to our first studio together,1 made me much happened for us there…so fucked but what’s new honestly…did u hear about Value Village too? When do u come back again? I doom scrolled through Instagram stories, tears forming for many reasons; they distorted the text, warping and bulging—Last night around 10 PM onward the building next door to 165 East Hastings caught fire which eventually spread leaving both buildings damaged beyond repair. This left many Downtown EastSide community members, artists, residents, and businesses in a tough spot…the cause of the fire is still unknown


I saw the corner of Hastings on the horizon. I was powering down Main Street alone, midday in the August heat after visiting Ông Ngoại at the seniors’ home. I wondered if I should even bother to stop and look, to witness something I already knew—an anxious habit, maybe even a bit masochistic. I was already late to meet K at her new studio, but I was getting thirsty and my body was beginning to get that contextual nicotine craving again. Both desires were hard to ignore, so I ducked into Papa’s, the corner store across the alley, adjacent to 165. I browsed the aisle a bit, for old times sake—the drinks and snacks, the odd bits of stationery and household items, the toiletries. Catching the side of 165 in the reflection of the store window I saw blackened brick with yellow “do not cross” tape draped across. I let my eyes linger for a bit as I stood beside another shopper in the cramped aisle. Excuse me sweetie, she said as she squeezed past me, wafting faint traces of baby powder with a bit of smoke.

Gabi Dao

Gabi Dao is an artist and organizer currently based between Rotterdam, The Netherlands and the unceded and ancestral territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səlilwətaɬ Nations (Vancouver, Canada). Dao’s practice culminates in collage, sculpture, sound, and moving image installations with an insistence on multiple truths, blurry temporalities, sensory affirmations, and ways of knowing otherwise. They work through long-gestating, fluid processes of gathering, breaking and repairing from their own world-making vernacular of audio/visual fragments, tactile collections of whatnots and scraps of linguistic detritus. Thinking with these materials, their work often begins within the slippages of “history,” archives and storytelling—towards channeling the ineffable tensions between grief and joy, alienation and belonging, dissidence and complicity, disassociation and sentimentality. From this juncture, Dao attempts to reclaim and re-enchant meaning-making from the ruins of capitalism and colonialism, especially in the ways they have extracted from racialized, gendered and more-than-human communities. They also host intimate, olfactory “readings” through Scent Bar, which operates adjacently to their slow, small-batch perfume business, PPL’S PERFUME. At CAG, Dao was a preparator, 2015–2017, and Assistant Curator of Learning and Public Education, 2018–2019.


1 This building was my first studio ever. I first began renting there in the summer of 2012. It was a small, dimly lit corner that fit two desks that I shared with one of my best friends. If I remember correctly, it cost us $65 each. This building was an affordable studio and also a home for many artists, musicians and creative folks who made all kinds of things, from paintings and sculptures, costumes and textiles, gritty rock albums and all night parties. My first studio collective formed inside that building, out of friendship and spending time with each other while making things. We had a gallery with many exhibitions, performances and hang outs—late nights listening to music, reading, watching films, sewing. So many of my formative lessons and politics of being with people and doing things together came out of this space. It was social, experimental, joyous, difficult, challenging, implicating, complicated, and confronting to be there, to understand our role as artists, educated at the local art university. Many times I thought hard about my privileges, to sit inside my little studio corner, making collages and staring at the abject, wrinkled print outs of the theory I was meant to read. Many times I wondered why art felt like it was kept from certain people. Many times I felt so frustrated at the brokenness of the world, and many times I felt useless making my collages—a sentiment that exists to this day, but now with a bit more learning that the desire for community and belonging is an ongoing process that is imperfect and incomplete.