Chinatown walking tour

The Chinatown walking tour describes the architecture and history of Vancouver's Chinatown with stops at historical buildings and sites.

Chinatown is one of the city's earliest commercial and residential districts, containing a remarkable collection of buildings from Vancouver’s boom years at the turn of the 1900s.

The tour takes one to two hours and starts at the intersection of Pender and Carrall Streets. On the crowded Pender Street, architectural details above street level are difficult to see so cross the street to look back across. Take in the shops and restaurants along your way.

 

Chinatown walking tour (1-2 hours)

By City of Vancouver

This slideshow describes the buildings numbered on the map below. Start the tour at the intersection of Pender and Carrall Streets. On crowded Pender Street, architectural details above street level are difficult to see so try crossing to the other side of the street and looking back across.

  • Sam Kee Building, 8 West Pender St

    By City of Vancouver

    The Sam Kee Company, one of the wealthiest firms in turn-of-the-last-century Chinatown, bought this land as a standard-sized lot in 1903. But in 1912 the City widened Pender Street, expropriating 24 feet off the front of the lot. In 1913 the achitects Brown and Gillam designed this narrow, steel-framed building that is only 6 feet wide. The basement, extending under the sidewalk, housed public baths; offices and shops were on the ground floor and living quarters above. Rehabilitation of the building for Jack Chow was designed by Soren Rasmussen Architect and completed in 1986. The building is considered the thinnest commercial building in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records.

  • Shanghai Alley

    By City of Vancouver

    After 1904, Chinese businesses, responding to pressure from white merchants on Hastings Street, began moving south of Pender Street along Carrall Street. Many of the new buildings had double fronts, one side opening onto Carrall Street and the other onto Shanghai Alley behind. Eventually restaurants, stores, a theatre and several tenements crowded the narrow alley. A similar alley, Canton Alley, ran parallel one block west. Canton Alley and much of Shanghai Alley were demolished in the 1940s when non-Chinese industries began squeezing into the older, western edge of Chinatown. A portion of Shanghai Alley has been re-instituted as part of a housing and commercial development on this site.

  • Chinese Freemasons Building, 1 West Pender St

    By City of Vancouver

    Chinatown does not look like a Chinese town, nor are its buildings identical to those of China. For example, this building (completed in 1901) shows Chinese-influenced recessed balconies to Pender Street, and a Victorian Italianate-style façade to Carrall Street. The Cheekungton (CKT), which purchased this building in 1907, was a powerful secret society that supported the 1911 Chinese rebellion led by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. It even mortgaged this building to raise money for the cause. In 1920 the CKT changed its name to the Chinese Freemasons in an attempt to forge ties with white organizations

  • Chinese Times Building, 1 East Pender St

    By City of Vancouver

    The Wing Sang Company commissioned a major Vancouver architect to design this building in 1902. W.T. Whiteway, who had practiced in California, incorporated seven bay windows and a "cheater storey" or mezzanine above the first floor. Cheater storeys were a common way of avoiding tax assessments on floor space. The Chinese Times newspaper has been published in Chinatown since 1914, and in this building between 1939 and 1994, when it ceased operation due to the introduction of Hong Kong-based daily newspapers Ming Pao and Sing Tao in Vancouver.

  • Yue Shan Society Headquarters, 33-37 East Pender St

    By City of Vancouver

    W.H. Chow, the architect of this building (built in 1920), managed to surmount both the legal and the informal hurdles that prevented most of Vancouver's early Chinese from entering professions. Chow designed several other Chinatown buildings, including Ming's at 141-147 East Pender, which has been extensively altered over the years.

  • Wing Sang Building, 51-67 East Pender St

    By City of Vancouver

    This building is actually a group of structures built over a 12-year period. The part inscribed "1889" is the oldest standing building in Chinatown. The brick addition and third floor were built in 1901 and designed by architect T.E. Julian. The builders were the Wing Sang Company, one of the wealthy firms at the top of Chinatown's pyramid of power. Established in 1888, the firm prospered by supplying Chinese contract labourers to build the CPR, selling tickets for the CPR's steamship lines and operating a herring plant in Vancouver. Much of the interior of this building is still intact.

  • Mon Keang School, 123 East Pender St

    By City of Vancouver

    A mutual assistance association based on a common surname, the Wong Benevolent Association built this structure in 1921 as their clan headquarters. Since 1925, Chinese children have attended after-school Chinese language classes on the second floor. In 1947, after the repeal of the Exclusion Act and the reunification of many families, the school began offering the first high school-level Chinese classes in Canada. Look for the recessed balconies, the stained glass window incorporating Chinese characters and the cheater storey. The building was designed by architects J.A. Radford and G.L. Southall.

  • Lee Building, 129-131 East Pender St

    By City of Vancouver

    Another structure built (in 1907) as headquarters for a surname association, the Lee Building was gutted by fire in 1972. Architects Henriquez and Todd preserved the original façade as a free-standing screen and built a new structure behind it. Just a few years before this successful private preservation of a heritage building, the Province had designated Chinatown a historic district.

  • Carnegie Centre, 401 Main St

    By City of Vancouver

    Today this building's monumental Romanesque design with a domed and pillared porch seems imposing for its use as a community centre. It was designed by G.W. Grant and built to house Vancouver's public library in 1902-1903. In 1957, the library relocated to Burrard Street and the Vancouver Museum and City Archives used the building until they moved into new quarters in Vanier Park in 1968. The building was then converted to a community centre for the residents of the Downtown Eastside by architects Downs/Archambault in 1978-79.

  • Ford Building, 193 East Hastings

    By City of Vancouver

    Originally named the Dawson Building, this Commercial-style structure housed a variety of offices when it was completed in 1911. By that time, it was one of the few new office buildings going up east of Cambie Street as the downtown core had been shifting west of Main Street towards Granville Street since the early 1900s. The building was designed by architects Bedford Davidson and Son. A renovation and conversion to residential accommodation was designed by Adolph Ingre and Associates for the Affordable Housing Advisory Association and completed in 1985.

  • Former Bank of Montreal, 390 Main St

    By City of Vancouver

    Long after the Roman Revival-style had lost its popularity, the Bank of Montreal continued to pattern new banks after its main branch in Montreal. Designed by architects Honeyman and Curtis and completed in 1929-30, the building re-opened in 1996 as a community-based bank, Four Corners, offering banking services oriented to low-income residents of the area.

  • Commercial Buildings, 237-257 East Hastings St

    By City of Vancouver

    Chinatown's building boom at the turn of the last century was not exceptional. Other parts of Vancouver were also transformed during those active years. Most of the buildings on this block were built between 1901 and 1913. Vancouver's next great building boom during the 1960s passed this area by, leaving most of Chinatown intact

  • Hotel East, 445 Gore Ave

    By City of Vancouver

    When it was built in 1912 according to a design by architect S.B. Birds, the top three floors of the Hotel East provided lodgings for recently arrived Chinese immigrants. The fresh produce shops at street level are a few of the hundreds of Chinese-owned green groceries throughout the city. In the 1880s and 1890s, growing and selling vegetables and fruits were occupations open to Chinese.

  • Kuomintang Building, 296 East Pender St

    By City of Vancouver

    Clubs and associations in Chinatown mirrored changes in China's politics. The Kuomintang (KMT, or Chinese Nationalist League) built this as its western Canadian headquarters. The KMT supported Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the 1911 rebellion, and the rebel government in southern China. During World War I, the northern Chinese Manchu Government persuaded its ally, Canada, to ban the KMT. The ban was lifted in 1919 and this building was constructed the following year to the design prepared by W.E. Sproat.

  • Hong Kong Bank Building, 600 Main St

    By City of Vancouver

    The Hong Kong Bank of Canada Building is the prime tenant in this building designed by Wing Ting Leung Architects and opened in 1996. The building includes many traditional architectural features such as a recessed balcony and heavy cornice, as well as an unusual round corner element. The construction of the building was welcomed as an indication of confidence in the future of Chinatown despite recent years of economic uncertainty.

  • Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, 501 Main St

    By City of Vancouver

    This is an extreme example of the tendency of banks in the first half of this century to seek imposing architectural styles, regardless of community context. The building was completed in 1915 and was designed by V.D. Horsburgh. Note the presence of the caduceus, a winged staff with entwined snakes, as a decorative element on the front of the building. This emblem, the symbol of medicine, was also a popular symbol of commerce.

  • Former Bank of Montreal, 178 East Pender St

    By City of Vancouver

    This building served as branch for the Bank of Montreal from when it was completed in 1971 to 1992 when it moved next door. With a recessed balcony, broken roof line, and ornamental dragons, the design by architects Birmingham and Wood is a conscious attempt to fit in with the streetscape.

  • Chin Wing Chun Society, 160 East Pender St

    By City of Vancouver

    This building, constructed in 1925 as headquarters for a surname association, demonstrates the blending of influences in Chinatown's architecture. The architect, R.A. McKenzie, who practiced for more than five years in northern China, included the recessed balconies common in tropical southern China in the building design. However, the crowning pediment supported by columns is pulled from the classical Western tradition.

  • Chinese Benevolent Association Building, 108 East Pender St

    By City of Vancouver

    The Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) was organized at the turn of the century to represent Chinatown to the larger Vancouver community. The CBA led protests against repressive legislation, provided for Chinatown's poor during hard times and sponsored Chinese-language schools. Look for posters announcing its current activities. This building, completed in 1901, is home to the Association.

  • Ho Ho Restaurant and Sun Ah Hotel, 102 East Pender St

    By City of Vancouver

    The Sun Ah Hotel's 48 rooms on the top three storeys were typical of the crowded lodgings for Chinese labourers early in this century. Below, the Ho Ho Restaurant was typical of another generation of Chinatown development - post-war restaurants and curios shops that catered to newly-acquired tastes for the foreign and exotic. The splendid HoHo neon sign was removed in 1997 for restoration. The building was built in 1911 and was designed by R.T. Perry and White and Cockrill.

  • Chinese Cultural Centre, 50 East Pender St

    By City of Vancouver

    The Chinese Cultural Centre and the adjoining Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden are ambitious projects that reflect Chinatown’s continuing importance for Vancouver’s Chinese. Opened in 1981, the Cultural Centre houses classrooms, meeting rooms, exhibition space, an activity hall, a bookstore, and a reading room. The gateway arch was originally erected in front of the pavillion of the People’s Republic of China at Vancouver’s Expo 86, held in 1986 around False Creek, near Chinatown. It was moved to this location in 1987. The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, designed by architect Joe Wai and landscape architect Don Vaughan, was completed in 1986. Built by artisans from China employing traditional techniques and materials, it is the only full-size classical Chinese garden outside of China. A new Museum and Library building, designed with a traditional pagoda roof, opened in 1998 and is accessed off Columbia Street.

  • Chinatown Plaza, 180 Keefer St

    By City of Vancouver

    In response to competition from "new Chinatowns" in the suburbs, the merchants of historic Chinatown sought to attract shoppers through the construction of this 950-space parkade. Designed by Joe Wai Architects, the parkade has traditional features such as brick construction and a red tile roof. The 1000-seat Floata Seafood Restaurant is a major attraction.

Chinese pioneers

The Chinese in British Columbia are usually thought of as immigrants, but many were pioneers as well. Years before Vancouver was incorporated in 1886, Chinese labourers worked in the industries that built the province – in gold fields, coal mines, sawmills, and canneries. Many emigrated from southern China, where English-speaking Chinese bosses recruited them to work under contract in Canada. Between 1881 and 1885, for example, 10,000 Chinese were contracted to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. And in 1882, the United States passed a law barring Chinese CPR labourers. Out of work and with little money, many came to Vancouver.

In those early years Chinatown was overwhelmingly male. This reflected the process of recruiting men as labourers, a pattern that was reinforced in 1885 when the Canadian Government placed a head tax on incoming Chinese immigrants. Few had savings sufficient to pay the taxes required to bring over wives, children, and other relatives.

Social life in Chinatown

Many Chinese labourers lived in Chinatown only between jobs. Often they were out of Vancouver for months at a time working at seasonal jobs, like lumbering or canning fish. In Chinatown, they usually lived in crowded rooming houses in the Pender Street area. Some of them turned to opium for solace; others gambled. These activities frightened and fascinated white Vancouver, which both launched campaigns to close down the Chinatown "vice dens" and privately patronized them.

Not all the Chinese shared the circumscribed life of the labourers. Class distinctions in Chinatown were sharp. At the top were a handful of wealthy firms run by individuals who controlled much of the business life of Chinatown. The firms grew rich contracting workers, importing and exporting, investing in real estate, selling steamship tickets, and manufacturing opium (which was legal to manufacture for export). Partners in the wealthiest firms lived in Chinatown in great luxury and elegance surrounded by their family members.

More numerous were the middle-class merchants, who owned and operated green-groceries, laundries, tailor shops, and other small businesses. Often they chose these occupations for lack of other options – for instance, civic politicians barred them from employment on City works!

Chinese associations serve the community

The Chinese created their own associations to aid their fellows. Associations based on common surnames or place of birth in China provided social activities and social services in Chinatown. Members raised funds to build the imposing headquarters that still line Pender Street. Some also sponsored rotating credit associations, a kind of lottery among friends, that provided the capital for many new Chinatown businesses.

During Vancouver's prosperous years between 1897 and 1913, Chinatown grew as Chinese merchants invested in new properties. They extended Chinatown south along Carrall Street, west to Shanghai Alley and Canton Alley, and eventually east along Pender Street to Gore Street.

Racism leads to a halt in immigration

But even the wealthiest Chinese lived on the margins of Vancouver society. Discrimination took many forms, from disparaging cartoons in local newspapers to systematic harassment by City inspectors. The Chinese were not allowed to vote in city, provincial, or federal elections. Powerless at the ballot box, they nevertheless actively resisted discriminatory measures. Chinese people frequently took the City to court to redress their grievances. Chinatown itself was a response to the climate of racial hostility. The Chinese were not legally required to live apart from white folk, but the "unfriendly feelings" in the rest of the city made it seem the wiser course.

In bad times, when jobs were scarce, anti-Chinese sentiment peaked. Union workers resented Chinese labourers because they were often used by employers to break strikes. Chinese labour bosses prevented contact between Chinese workers and the organized union movement, hoping to maintain their supply of cheap labour.

In 1907 the boom that began with the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 faltered. The mild recession focussed attention on Chinese workers. That year Vancouver's Asiatic Exclusion League held a rally attended by thousands. Afterwards, a mob marched on Chinatown, smashing property and looting stores. After World War I, another job shortage led to renewed calls to restrict Chinese immigration. In 1923 the Federal Government responded by passing the Exclusion Act which effectively barred all new Chinese immigration. Until its repeal 25 years later, Vancouver's Chinatown commemorated its passage with an annual Humiliation Day.

Chinatown recovers after World War II

Under the Exclusion Act, Chinatown stagnated. The community of aging men and women was unable to grow without new immigration. During the 1930s the Vancouver Chinese community lost 6,000 people, half of its members, by death or emigration. The Depression hurt Chinatown too. The City legislated lower levels of relief for Chinese than for white residents. In all, 175 patrons of Chinatown's Pender Street soup kitchen died of malnutrition during those years.

World War II brought dramatic change to the status of the Chinese and Chinatown in Vancouver. During the war, China fought as Canada's ally, and the war taught a powerful lesson about the folly of racism. In 1947 the Canadian Government repealed the Exclusion Act. Finally, ordinary Chinese were able to bring their wives and children from China. Chinatown, always crowded, could not contain the newcomers. Many families found homes in the old working-class neighbourhood of Strathcona, immediately east of Chinatown.

During the war and afterwards, Vancouver began to look at Chinatown in a new way. Suddenly the Chinatown that had seemed foreign, sinister, and dangerous began to seem foreign, exotic, and appealing. From all over the city, residents travelled there with the enthusiasm of tourists – sampling foods, buying curios, and savouring the district's distinctiveness. Merchants and restaurateurs added glamour to Chinatown's new image with glittering new neon sign.

Chinatown recognized as a historic district

In the 1960s, Vancouver planned its first major freeway to cut right through Chinatown. But in 1968 citizens' action groups effectively intervened, and caused the plan to be abandoned. The Province also recognized Chinatown's special history and architecture by designating it a historic district in 1971. In 1979, the Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee sponsored a streetscape improvement program. Chinese-style elements, such as tile red street lamps and specially paved sidewalk crosswalks, were deliberately added, reflecting the City's current appreciation of Chinatown as a civic asset.