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Thursday, October 27, 2011


Recently Vancouver's Chinatown was officially named a national historic site. The area covers Pender Street from Gore Avenue to Taylor Street and includes 24 heritage buildings that showcase the distinct architectural style with their recessed balconies and iron framework.  The site includes buildings such as the three-storey Chinese Freemason's Building, built in 1901 and Shanghai Alley where Chinatown originated.  Many of the original residential buildings and stores in the area were demolished by fire but there are many still standing. 

I decided to make a trip to Chinatown specifically to photograph some of the old buildings.  I go to Chinatown frequently but don't always take time to appreciate these historic buildings that were part of the beginnings of my city.

The Jack Chow Building (known historically as the Sam Kee Building) was listed in Ripley's Believe It or Not as the 'narrowest building in the world" (it's only 6 ft wide).  Back in the 50's when my ex husband was doing a lot of painting in Chinatown, he worked in this building and we were invited to spend Chinese New Years there with the then owners.  That was an experience I've never forgotten -- not only sitting in the salon that was so narrow it had only room for a couch, or taking part in the mah jong and card games in the underground room that goes right under Pender Street!


The Wing Sang Building at 51-67 E. Pender is the oldest building in Chinatown dating to the late 1800's. It was owned by a Chinese merchant, Yip Sang, who established the Wing Sang Company which sold tickets for the Canadian Pacific Steamship Line and operated two salt herring plants on Vancouver Island.

You can take a guided walking tour of Chinatown, but I chose to go on my own as I often do, mainly to photograph some of these unique old buildings.  The history of this area goes back to the days of the Gold Rush of 1858 which brought the first Chinese to Canada.  Many of them arrived not only to pan for gold along the Fraser River, but to work as labourers for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).  As the city of Vancouver was built, Chinatown also grew and became the heart of the Chinese settlement in Canada.

Shanghai Alley started in the late 1880's on the shores of False Creek at Pender and Carrall Streets.  The population then consisted mainly of male labourers who worked as mill workers, loggers, farmers, peddlers, grocers, laundrymen and restaurant workers.  It was a male bachelor society who lived in crowded and densely populated Chinatown that gradually expanded eastward along Pender Street.
Along Shanghai Alley are plaques and posters explaining the history of the area.  The Han Bell at the end of the alley was a gift to the citizens of Vancouver from the sister city of Guangalon China. It is a replica of one unearthed in 1983 in that city.  The original bell dates back to two millenia and is the symbol of the history of both cities.

Chinatown was first declared a historical site in 1971 and the first restorations were carried out but recently it has been named a National Historic Site proclaimed by the Federal Government.  Although these days the major Chinese population lives in suburban Richmond, Chinatown is still an important part of our city's history and a day's stroll around the interesting shops and narrow alleys proves to be a worthwhile adventure.

The Millennium Gate and marks the entrance to this historic area. It was donated by the People's Republic of China after Expo '86. It's Chinatown's landmark, an elaborate 4-columned gate with hand painted traditional colours and tiles. At 50 East Pender is the Chinese Cultural Centre a two-storied building with exhibition rooms and an auditorium where events are held aimed to preserve and cultivate Chinese heritage.  The China Gate entrance to the Cultural Centre,  was originally the entrance to the China pavilion at Expo '86 in Vancouver, was presented to Vancouver Chinatown, As you enter the China Gate at the entrance of the Cultural Centre, you will see the bust of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen in front of the gateway that takes you into the serene atmosphere of the Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden which is modeled after the private gardens of Ming Dynasty Suzhou China.  The garden is free, but don't miss the interesting tour into the adjoining scholar's house for a small admission.

Don't miss a stroll up the streets to browse in the many shops including all the tea and herb shops where medicinal plants are sold. There are a variety of grocery stores which sell unusual dried produce including salted fish and strange roots. And stop for a meal at one of the many restaurants.  I particularly like the Hon's Won Ton House on Keefer Street.  For Dim Sum, try the Floata Seafood Restaurant on Keefer Street.  And the Keefer Bakery on Georgia Street specializes in ethnic Chinese cake and baked goods.

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