/ The Vancouver Guide
Vancouver — By thevancouverguide on August 12, 2009 at 6:11 pm

Historic Chinatown

Vancouver has the third largest Chinatown in North America.  Chinese immigrants started arriving  here in 1858, lured by the promises of gold in the Fraser Valley.  The B.C. Coast became known as “Gold Mountain”.  Later many of these men were employed by the hundreds to work on the C.P. Railway.  Later they began settling in the area known as Shanghai Alley and Canton Alley.  These two alleys were the site of a vibrant nightlife, an opera house, shopping and political and cultural activities.  By the turn of the 20th century, Chinatown prospered as Chinese merchants invested in property extending Chinatown east along Pender St. to Gore St.    This area still has many heritage buildings  such as the Wing Sang Building ( built in 1889) at 51 E. Pender, the oldest building in Chinatown and the Sam Kee Building, the world’s narrowest commercial building at 8 W. Pender at Carrall St.

You’ll see many examples of distinctive Chinese architecture here in Vancouver’s Chinatown: recessed balconies, ornamental roof lines and curved roof tiles.  These buildings were constructed at the turn of the century by Chinese clan associations or societies which provided for the needy  immigrants who were not allowed citizenship in Canada and had no rights until 1947.  Today the Vancouver Chinese community is active and respected in all aspects of city life. The Chinese are Vancouver’s oldest and largest ethnic group and today Vancouver has the second largest Chinese community after San Francisco.

Chinatown is one of my favorite places to browse around.  The best time to visit is at lunch hour or on Sunday when it’s the liveliest.  Ever since I was a youngster, first arriving in Vancouver from the East where there were few Chinese people, I have been fascinated with Chinatown and it’s exotic legacy of  legendary secret underground tunnels,  stories of hidden opium dens, and other mysterious tales that whet the appetite of a budding  young writer like myself.  I recall once you could walk through Chinatown and hear the ‘click-click’ of mah-jong tiles coming from behind secret doorways.  It always seemed so other-worldly to me.  And even now, it’s like walking into a scene from Beijing or Hong Kong.  It has all the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of this other culture.

Chinatown is known for its street life which makes it a distinctive neighbourhood.  The sidewalks are bustling and noisy and crammed with produce and merchandise from the shops.  You’ll find everything from ginseng to green tea, strange baskets of dried fish and roots of undetermined origin, fresh fruits and vegetables, fine embroidered silks and linens, apothecaries and herbalists and the best places to buy fresh Asian delicacies from moon cakes to roasted duck and barbecued pork.

The heart of Chinatown is Pender St. from Carrall to Gore and Keefer St. from Main to Gore.  Although these days, few Chinese people live in Chinatown, many of them still shop there.  And on summer weekend nights there’s a street market where you can buy cheap imported goods and find a smorgasbord of food options.  It’s pedestrian friendly as the streets are closed.  Fri- Sun 6.30 – 11 to Sept 4.

Be sure and stop by the Chinese Cultural Centre at 50 E. Pender  and the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum and Archives at 555 Columbia St. where there are displays of the history of Chinese-Canadians in Vancouver.  The Cultural Centre is right by the entrance to the beautiful Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park.  This park and garden was designed in the People’s Republic and was built with the help of labour and materials donated by the people of China.  The Ming Dynasty style garden is the only classical Chinese garden outside of China.

Be sure and stop for lunch or dinner at one of the many restaurants in Chinatown.  Most of them are Cantonese.  Experience a Cantonese style lunch: dim sum.  Or pick up some fresh bakery goods at Maxims Bakery, 257 Keefer.  Their egg-custard tarts are to die for!

If you’re visiting in town, you can get to Chinatown on the #10, 16 or 20 buses.  It’s also an easy walking distance from Gastown and close to the Main St./Science World sky train station or Stadium sky train station.Photos by W. Ruth Kozak

3 places are mentioned in this post!
  1. This is the first museum dedicated to the history and culture of the
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