This story is the eighth in our series on the hidden history of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods. Read more.
For many Vancouverites, visiting the Pacific National Exhibition is a once-a-year trip to the past—to a simpler, easier time. Even haggling with one of the neighbourhood women who’ll let you angle-park in their front yards for cash has a homespun charm—the throwback vibe of riding a 65-year-old wooden roller coaster, sizing up prize-winning livestock, and eating mini-doughnuts. (The so-called “parking ladies” were a plot point in filmmaker and area resident Mina Shum’s 2018 dramedy Meditation Park.) At other times, folks will trek to the northeasternmost corner of the city to see a horse race or a concert.
While the attractions of Hastings-Sunrise are legacies from a different era, its distance from downtown and its value as a getaway destination have remained constant. Traditionally, the area was known as Khanahmoot. On the crab-lined shores of the Burrard Inlet, near where the Second Narrows Bridge now spans the water, the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples would leave their canoes to pick berries and hunt. In 1863, the provincial government earmarked the land for a port that later developed further west, in Gastown.
Hastings was a better place for pleasure than business. Within a few years, customs collector Oliver M. Hocking would build the first hotel in the area, then called New Brighton after the British resort town, and a regular stagecoach service delivered vacationers from New Westminster along Douglas Road. (New Brighton’s name lives on in Hastings-Sunrise’s much-adored park and beach.) By 1869, the settlement also had a new name, Hastings Townsite, after a visit from Admiral George Fowler Hastings. Ferry service connected Hastings to what’s now known as downtown Vancouver, until a road was built to Gastown in 1876.
By the turn of the 20th century, Hastings was rapidly growing. And while residents lived in a resort town, they yearned for more room to play. In 1889, the provincial government gave the community 154 acres of land “for the use, recreation and enjoyment of the public.” The second largest park in the City of Vancouver (once residents of the townsite voted, 1,200 to one, to join the city in 1911), what was then known as East Park, became, to the chagrin of many residents, less tranquil hideaway and more engine of amusement. In 1892, it became home to Hastings Racecourse and for decades drew punters to its bullring racetrack, to bet on champions like George Royal and Spaghetti Mouse.
In August 1910, the Vancouver Exhibition Association, a group of businessmen led by the Australian-born real-estate promoter J.J. Miller, launched its first Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition so that, in Miller’s words, “all may derive some education in the advancement of the world in industrial, commercial, agricultural and scientific matters.” The fair, a success from the start, would later be renamed the Pacific National Exhibition, the PNE for short, and would, in 1926, add an amusement park known as Happyland (rebuilt and renamed Playland in 1958). Over the decades, it would host a Freckle Face Championship, serve horse burgers for 20 cents, and offer exhibitions including a recreation of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre using wax figures for the slain Chicago mobsters.
According to Nick Marino in East Side Story, his absorbing personal history of the PNE, the fair represented for local kids “their playground, where they learned to check every door, to hide in the dark, and to sneak through a hole in the fence. It was where they played sports, met their heroes, and held the back door open to let their friends in. For many of them, it was also where they had their first job, their first kiss, and their first drink.”
The venues on Hastings Park (which has often gone by Exhibition Park), such as the Empire Stadium, the Forum, and the Pacific Coliseum, have hosted musical icons including Elvis Presley (who hid under the stage while a lookalike dashed to a car so he could leave safely), the Beatles, and Ella Fitzgerald. The Pacific Coast League’s Canucks were followed by an NHL team of the same name. The park hosted the 1954 British Empire Games, where John Landy and Roger Bannister both ran a mile under four minutes. From her home on Dundas Street, Clelia Lenarduzzi, too nervous to attend Whitecaps soccer games, listened to the crowd noise from nearby Empire Stadium to determine how well her son Bobby was playing.
Hastings Park served a grimmer role in 1942 when, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, thousands of Japanese Canadians were forcibly removed from their homes and detained in the barns of the racetrack before being sent to work at prisoner-of-war camps far from the coast. While non-Japanese visitors enjoyed the midway games and dancehall in Happyland, across a chain-link and barbed-wire fence, Japanese Canadians lived in maggot-infested horse stalls. “Mothers are prostrate in nervous exhaustion—the babies crying endlessly—fathers torn from them without a farewell,” Joy Kogawa writes in her novel Obasan.
In 1993, Momiji Gardens was built, with a commemorative plaque to note the unjust incarceration. A few years later, Vancouver City Council voted to relocate the PNE, demolish most of its buildings and rides, and devote the site entirely to green space—a plan that was reversed a decade later.
As a century of amusement, entertainment, and tragedy passed by, a family-oriented immigrant neighbourhood grew quietly around it, including the Sunrise area south of East First Avenue that developed after the 1940s. About a decade ago, when the neighbourhood was reconceptualized as the East Village—and banners with the new name were erected above the commercial strip along East Hastings Street—residents complained and circulated a petition to remove the new signage. In her 2015 poetry collection Hastings Sunrise, Bren Simmers writes:
“We’ve been rebranded by business
and their bid to attract more
young families now that the graffiti’s down
What drew us here: cheap rent,
hole-in-the-wall diners, mixed incomes,
a community with a pulse
soon wallpapered by boutiques.”
Even Hastings-Sunrise, the nostalgic getaway destination for locals, can’t escape the problems of the present.
Read more stories of Vancouver neighbourhoods.