Wednesday, June 3, 2015


This is 524 Pender Street - in 1904 when this photo was taken by Philip Timms, there was no division of East and West Pender - of the manager of the Timms and Company Print Shop, George F. Timms and his son, Max.
Philip Timms took this 1907 photo of boarded up buildings in Chinatown after the race riots.

These last two photos, taken by Philip Timms, show businesses damaged during the race riots of 1907.

Today, I want to talk to you about Vancouver's Chinatown. Like most North American Chinatowns, ours was established and maintained by segregationist policies and racist attitudes among the local citizens and government. 

Chinese immigrants, like the European settlers, came to Canada looking for a better way of life. Often, they were given the lowest jobs for the poorest pay. The first wave of Chinese immigrants came over in the 1850s during the Fraser gold rush. However, CPR engineer, Andrew Onderdonk recruited between 8,000 and 17,000 Chinese workers between 1881 and 1885 in order to build the mountainous sections of the railway around Yale. This influx is what led to the formation of Vancouver's Chinatown.

These people worked for half the wages of the white labourers and often sent money home to China. Many of the Chinese were stranded in BC after the railway was completed. The CPR had no further use for them and took responsibility for the people they brought over. The Chinese settled in an area near Pender and Carrall Streets, which the called "Saltwater City". This 'city' soon reached the shores of False Creek.

Even though the Chinese helped build the railway that cemented Confederation, many of them dying in the process, they were not rewarded or welcomed. As we know, a 'head tax' was put on each new Chinese arrival, making it difficult for the male Chinese population here to bring over their wives and children.

W.M. Bruce took this photo on March 29, 1902 of the laying of the cornerstone for the Carnegie Centre.

The Metropole Hotel and Oaks Cafe on Abbott Street. Photo by Stuart Thomson, taken in 1925.

Looking east from near Carrall to Columbia in 1904. This section of what is now East Pender was called Dupont Street until 1907. The businesses and men are Chinese. Photo by Philip Timms.

In 1906, this is what the 400-500 blocks of Carrall Street looked like. From left to right - Methodist Chinese Mission, 445 Carrall St., Sam Kee & Co., 433 Carroll St.. Sun Sun Fine Tailoring, 429 Carrall St. Express horse - wagon. Philip Timms is listed as photographer.

By the dawn of the twentieth century, approximately 2,100 Chinese people lived in Chinatown. Most of them worked in their own small business since they were excluded from many occupations. The laws of the time prevented Chinese from voting and prompted many confrontations. Two noteworthy events include a riot in 1887 and a 1907 rampage. In 1907, members of the Asiatic Exclusion League marched on Chinatown, looting and destroying property. 

The federal government got into the fray in 1923 with the Exclusion Act, which effectively prevented Chinese immigration. It took 25 years for the act to be repealed. During this time, the population of Chinatown dwindled. The old died or moved out of the area. It was the bravery of Chinese-Canadian soldiers in World War II that forced the Feds to repeal the act and give Chinese-Canadians the vote. Wives and children, newly arrived, settled in Chinatown and Strathcona. 

Chinatown was threatened in the 1960s when the city's freeway plans might have demolished both neighbourhoods. Fortunately, residents' protests not only stopped the roadway but also prompted a greater appreciation of this part of the city's heritage.

Philip Timms caught this photo in 1904. This is Looking west from Columbia to Carrall on E. Pender St. (Dupont until 1907). Chinese men are on the street along with several wagons and a dog. In the background is the Central School (centre). 

In 1926, Stuart Thomson took this photo of the Chinese Branch of the Royal Bank.

The Bailey Bros took this 1887 photo looking east on Dupont Street (now Pender)
October 25, 192. Stuart Tomson photographed the funeral procession for David C. Lew

In 1971, Chinatown was designated a historic district and in 1979, a streetscape improvement program emphasized the architecture and ambience of the area. Vancouver's Chinatown is Canada's largest and home to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden, the Chinese Cultural Centre, unique buildings (You've seen many of them in past entries of the Vancouver Vagabond) and many small businesses.

Given the time and history of when many of Vancouver's streets were named, it isn't surprising that few streets are named after the Chinese population. There are over 770 streets in Vancouver and only Chinatown's Canton Alley, which disappeared in 1954 and Shanghai Alley refer to this ethnic group who did so much for the growth of this city and country.

Andrew Onderdonk is the only CPR official not have anything named after him - that was at his insistence.

A 1917 photo of the Sam Kee building, a truly unique building. The photo was taken by the Dominion Photo Co on September 20. If you want to know why this building is unique, see this entry

October 1921, photo taken of the Union Station by the Dominion Photo Co. It is still there today but has been renamed. Read about here.

 November 19, 1921, the Dominion Photo Co took this picture of the Ceperley, Rounsefell and Company building. It is at 739 West Hastings Street.
July 1927 and the Province newspaper building is decorated for Dominion Day. Photo by Dominion Photo Co.

I want to thank the book, Namely Vancouver by Tom Snyders and Jennifer O'Rourke for the above information and the Vancouver Public Library for the photos.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

The Dominion Photo Co took this January 5, 1928 photo of the Yet Sang Company.

The Dominion Photo Co took this photo of Shanghai Alley on February 14, 1944.

Chinatown - East Pender Street looking West towards Carrall in 1912 as captured by the Dominion Photo Co.

Philip Timms snapped this shot looking east on the 100 block of East Hastings on the north side.


  1. Fascinating, Karen. Gives me a whole new appreciation of what we have around us. I've been to Chinatown many times, but haven't seen what you've seen. Thanks for the tour. I plan to go back and see it with renewed interest. :)

    1. I've written a lot about this area - not that I remember everything LOL. It used to overwhelm me, all the sights and sounds and smells, but now I feel incomplete if I don't walk around Chinatown at least once a month.

  2. As always your stories and photos provide a unique and fascinating look at the past and present. I'm always amazed at how deeply you go into a story.

    I was wondering if the photo of the train station isn't of the Great Northern Way station that was built beside the current Pacific Central station? I'm not sure when it was demolished but there's a car storage lot there now.

    1. Thank you for the compliment. I am glad you are enjoying my blog.

      As for the station, I thought it was the same one, just renamed? I could be wrong.