Chinatown⁠—The Neon-Lit History of a Resurgent Neighbourhood

This story is the seventh in our series on the hidden history of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods. Read more here.

In 2018, what feels like both an epoch and a blink of an eye before COVID-19 made Vancouver the anti-Asian hate-crime capital of North America (again), the talk of Chinatown was a river otter that killed six koi living in Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. As the wily creature remained on the loose for weeks, it captured international attention, gaining supporters who cheered the old stock local’s victory over the foreign imports.

Like the endangered koi, the residents of Vancouver’s Chinatown (which is listed by the city as part of Strathcona) sought refuge in a threatening land. Over the decades, the area has evolved from ethnic slum and den of vice to a distressed cultural asset and tourist destination. Now, as always, its survival is not guaranteed.

The story of the Chinese in Canada is that of a guest who makes a long journey to a party only to be disinvited shortly after arrival. As Wayson Choy described in his iconic Chinatown novel The Jade Peony, “Most Chinatown people were from the dense villages of southern Kwangtung province, a territory racked by cycles of famine and drought. When the call for railroad workers came from labour contract brokers in Canada in the 1880s, every man who was able and capable left his farm and village to be indentured for dangerous work in the mountain ranges of the Rockies.”

After Vancouver displaced Victoria as the launchpad to railway gigs and gold-mining exploits eastward, a Chinatown began to form around the swampy land at Carrall and East Pender Street, then known as Dupont Street, with a group of 90 Chinese settling there by 1886. Despite the racist head tax levied on every Chinese migrant, 90,000 entered the country between 1885 and 1923.

The early growth of Chinatown, then considered a source of disease and vice, built resentment in the city’s white population, premised on the suspicion that the Chinese were suppressing wages. On September 7, 1907, a mob of working-class protesters, egged on by the Vancouver Asiatic Exclusion League, marched into Chinatown bearing signs with slogans such as “A White Canada For Us” and smashed windows of Chinese-owned businesses. They then proceeded to the Japanese-Canadian community on Powell Street, where they were met with more forceful resistance.

According to Michael Barnholden in Reading the Riot Act: A Brief History of Riots in Vancouver, “the white workers were manipulated by the ruling elites, who had no intention of excluding the (oriental) labour they so desperately needed in order to make their business projects profitable.” Henry Tsang’s interactive walking tour 360 Riot Walk, scripted by Barnholden, guides visitors to key locations in the riot.

Despite discrimination, Chinatown flourished and expanded. South off Dupont Street emerged Shanghai Alley and Canton Alley, with Chinese courtyards offering rooming houses, opium factories, and a theatre. More ambitious architecture could be found on Pender Street. Fraternal organizations—groups that helped find work and housing (and made funeral arrangements) for newcomers, such as the Chinese Benevolent Association at 108 East Pender—built their headquarters with the recessed balconies, high ceilings, and steep staircases of Chinese architecture.

The year after the city expropriated Chang Toy’s standard lot to expand Pender Street in 1912, the businessman (some have said he wanted to win a bet) built a steel-framed structure on the remaining six feet. With distinctive bay windows that expand the floor space of the second storey, the Sam Kee Building was recognized by Guinness World Records as the narrowest commercial building in the world.

At 51 East Pender, the Wing Sang Building was the home to Chinatown’s “unofficial mayor,” Yip Sang. After working with a company to bring Chinese labourers to Canada, Yip launched his own import-export concern, the Wing Sang Company. His business success allowed him to build rooming houses for Chinese men and to help found the Chinese Benevolent Association. His defining contribution to Chinatown’s landscape was built in 1889: the three-storey Wing Sang Building served as his company headquarters, and an adjacent six-storey private residence housed Yip, his three surviving wives (out of four), and his 23 children. His son, soccer star Quene Yip, was inducted in the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 1998. Until recently, the Wing Sang Building housed Bob Rennie’s offices and private art collection. This summer, it will be unveiled as the home of the Chinese Canadian Museum.

Although his business was much more modest than Yip’s, Yucho Chow’s legacy as a photographer from 1906 to 1949 spanned generations. Working from various Chinatown studios, Chow was one of the few commercial photographers who took portraits of non-white clients, including South Asians, Eastern Europeans, and mixed-raced families, lending them pocket watches, necklaces, and books for refinement. Chow also took a portrait of the founder of modern China, Sun Yat-Sen, in 1911 while Sun was in Vancouver for his North American fundraising tour. Although many of his negatives were binned after his sudden death in 1949, his surviving photos serve as a visual reminder of Vancouver’s non-white past.

From 1923 to 1947, Chinese migration to Canada was outlawed by the Chinese Immigration Act, preventing families from reuniting at a time when men already outnumbered women in Chinatown by 150 to one. Chinatown became the home of stranded bachelors who were viewed by white Vancouverites as such a threat to white women that, in 1937, the city banned white women from working in Chinese-owned restaurants. In September of that year, 15 waitresses marched in protest to City Hall. “We must live and heaven knows if a girl is inclined to go wrong,” one waitress told the Vancouver Sun, “she can do it just as readily on Granville Street as she can down here.”

After the act’s repeal in 1947, the neon signs of clubs like Ming’s and the Bamboo Terrace, and of restaurants like Foo’s Ho Ho, announced Chinatown’s new identity as a place of exotic glamour and fun. The turnaround had begun. In 1971, the province named the area a historic site, along with neighbouring Gastown. In the last half century, amenities such as the Chinese Cultural Centre, Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the Chinatown Millennium Gate, and, most recently, the Chinatown Storytelling Centre have cemented the area’s role as the city’s symbolic home of Chinese culture. Community entrepreneurs like Carol Lee are helping to revitalize its once-dormant restaurant scene, while newer restaurants like Pizza Coming Soon and Kissa Tanto bring youth and vitality.

Though Chinatown is still a living community, one that recently welcomed the prime minister and a large, jubilant crowd to its first New Year parade since COVID, it feels like an increasingly vulnerable one. The green grocers, bakeries, and restaurants that welcome elders living in SROs are steadily chipped away by gentrification, rising rents, and the stigma of the Downtown Eastside. It’s passed over by many Vancouverites of Chinese descent, who have, since the 1980s, spread throughout the city, living, shopping, and eating primarily on the west side and in ethnoburbs like Richmond and Burnaby. After 150 years of discrimination and violence, Chinatown now faces its greatest existential threat⁠—that Chinese people have other options.

Read more stories of Vancouver’s historic neighbourhoods.


Post Date:

June 26, 2023