Vancouver’s civic history is ripe with stories of seedy back alley deals, corrupt officials, murders, gangsters, and gambling; a recent wave of books has mined archives and libraries, used bookstores, antique sales, and auctions to present this city’s dark side. One such book is Vancouver Confidential.
John Belshaw, the book’s editor and an established historian, explains, “Most civic histories celebrate progress, industry, order, and vision. [Vancouver Confidential] isn’t one of those.”
Topping the BC Bestseller list in its first week on the shelves, Vancouver Confidential features contributions from everyone from local historians and authors, to storytellers and bloggers. The book joins a list of other recent local hits such as Liquor, Lust, and the Law by Aaron Chapman about The Penthouse Nightclub, The History of Metropolitan Vancouver by the late Chuck Davis, and Vancouver Noir, which Belshaw co-edited with Diane Purvey — all of which explore Vancouver’s ‘ugly’ side.
Vancouver was bound to get caught up in trouble as it was not only a port city and a railway terminus, but its proximity to the American border made it a prime spot for illicit activities. Imports of opium from Asia were common, transients often hopped the rail and stayed at the end of the line, and rum-runners frequented the city during prohibition.
Lani Russworm, creator of the Past Tense blog and author of Vancouver Was Awesome, contributes to the collection with a piece about the red scare in the 1930s, and the communist spies in Vancouver. Jason Vanderhill, of Illustrated Vancouver fame, continues his interest in BC brewing ephemera and looks at cocktail connoisseur Daniel Joseph Kennedy and the prohibition era.
Author and reporter Eve Lazarus also contributed to the book. Her recently published fifth book, Sensational Vancouver, looks at the homes and spaces occupied by both the famous and the ordinary people of the city. Lazarus’ chapter in Vancouver Confidential looks at police corruption and the infamous mayor L.D. Taylor.
At the book’s launch party, Rosanne Amosovs Sia spoke about the inspiration behind her chapter, entitled “Crime and its Punishments in Chinatown.” She discovered a photograph by Stan Williams of 15 waitresses in 1937 marching from Chinatown to the newly built city hall south of False Creek. It was the middle of the Depression, and they were protesting the loss of jobs due to legislation that prohibited white women from working at Chinese-owned businesses.
Although the law had been around for a number of years, it wasn’t until a murder/suicide in 1931 and the appointment of W.W. Foster as police chief that it was enforced. Sia spoke about her interest in these waitresses and what became of them, as the mayor refused to see them, and their protests fell on deaf ears for many years.
The launch party was held on September 21 at The Emerald supper club in Chinatown, a fitting establishment for the ambiance of the book. The restaurant was packed with people, many wearing swanky hats and ‘20s to ‘40s era attire. Prizes were awarded for the best outfits and Aaron Chapman closed out the night performing a spoken word beat poem with jazz tunes playing from the speakers. In a deep smoky voice, Chapman told the tale of the arsenic milkshake murderer, a radio DJ who slowly poisoned his wife to death while broadcasting from the BOWMAC car lot on Broadway.
All the contributors have a distinct style of storytelling, which will have you picking up Vancouver Confidential time and time again to get another taste of Vancouver’s seedy underbelly in the mid-20th century.