Vancouver History Tidbits: Chinatown

Comments 8 by Rebecca Bollwitt

The Chinatown Festival this weekend will be celebrating the 125th anniversary of Vancouver’s Chinatown. Given that the City of Vancouver is only 124, it’s important to get to know this historic community.


500 block of Carrall near Pender. 1900s. Archives item# CVA 677-580

Background and history:
“Vancouver’s Chinatown is a community with a long history. The first Chinese immigrants to British Columbia arrived in 1858 from California where they had worked for more than a decade. From California, they followed the stream of fortune seekers that came to BC searching for gold. When the gold rush ended many of those that had traveled up the coast found work stringing telegraph wires or working in canneries. The building of the Canadian Pacific Railway sparked the next large influx of immigrants as 17,000 Chinese came to Canada between 1881 and 1885.” – City of Vancouver

“Between 1890-1920, early Chinese immigrants settled in what was known as Shanghai Alley and Canton Alley. By 1890, Shanghai Alley was home to more than 1,000 Chinese residents. Much of the community’s activities and entertainment evolved around a 500 seat Chinese theatre built in 1898. Canton Alley was created in 1904 as a Chinese style courtyard surrounded by two parallel rows of buildings running South from Pender Street. The Alleys were the convergence of vibrant nightlife, opera music, shopping, political and cultural activities.” – Vancouver’s Chinatown


VJ Day parade down Pender in Chinatown. August 14, 1945. Archives item# CVA 586-3965

Tidbits from VancouverHistory.ca:

  • In 1889, the oldest building in Chinatown (the Wing Sang Company building at 51-67 East Pender) was built
  • In 1960, Donna Yee was named Miss Chinatown in the first beauty contest ever held in a Canadian Chinese community
  • In 1971, Gastown and Chinatown neighborhoods were designated historic sites
  • In 1980, the first phase of the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver’s Chinatown opened
  • 1986, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Garden opened
  • Located at 8 West Pender, the Sam Kee Building is the narrowest commercial building in the world
  • Vancouver’s Chinatown is ranked within the “cleanest” Chinatowns in the world
  • It has also been ranked one of the world’s 8 “most colourful” Chinatowns
  • Walking Tour of Gastown & Chinatown

    If you’re able to make it down to Chinatown this weekend for the festival, for the summer night market, or any other time during the year it’s definitely worth exploring.

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    8 Comments  —  Comments Are Closed

    1. Dean MichaelTuesday, August 10th, 2010 — 2:41pm PDT

      Great shots of early Chinatown. I am definately going to go out to the festival this weekend as it is one of my favourite events in Vancouver all year.

    2. Michael KwanTuesday, August 10th, 2010 — 2:48pm PDT

      For those who are interested, I wrote a piece last year about the history of Chinese Vancouver. Not all “Chinese culture” is the same.

      A Brief History of Chinese Vancouver

    3. Rebecca BollwittTuesday, August 10th, 2010 — 2:50pm PDT

      Thanks for sharing, Michael!

    4. Michael KwanTuesday, August 10th, 2010 — 6:06pm PDT

      Glad to contribute. I love our multicultural city and love it even more that we can celebrate the diversity within “individual” cultures too. ๐Ÿ™‚

    5. Monty RitchingsSaturday, August 14th, 2010 — 1:17pm PDT

      The Chinese people of Vancouver who have lived here since the beginning of our fair town certainly deserve all the recognition of the day after the way we Europeans have treated them in days gone by.
      Thank you for being part of our history!

    6. Ronnie KwekMonday, August 16th, 2010 — 2:16am PDT

      I was at the chinatown festivel this weekend. Really poorly organized.

      It was stupid and made me ashame to be chinese!

      I couldnt believe my eyes when I saw a panda bear who now represent the chinese? What a dumb idea.

      It was so sad to see how run down Vancouver chinatown is. So sad.

    7. Paul AlbrightonMonday, August 16th, 2010 — 1:41pm PDT

      Chinatown is so rich with architectural heritage, its nice to see some of the buildings NOW being converted into modern residential “lofts”. I love the Paris Block Building on Hastings.

    8. Youngin’Thursday, August 19th, 2010 — 11:43am PDT

      Great to hear a bit of history on Chinatown. =)

      A reply to Ronnie :
      From your comment about the panda, it makes me wonder how much pride you had as a Chinese to begin with. There are obviously reasons behind the choice of the mascot (Merchandising is one, but a positive role model is another, if you read up on either of their stories). The problem with the Chinese community nowadays is that there is very little support for just about anything. You don’t see Australians jump on the ‘ashamed of my heritage’ boat as soon as someone comes up with a kangaroo mascot, you’d get cheers and support. Just things to keep in mind the next time you want to feel ashamed of your heritage, or of the community the organizers of the festival are so desperately trying to change for the better.

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