Get to know Vancouver’s Chinatown

New to Vancouver? Check out one of the city’s most iconic neighbourhoods.

Photo courtesy of Culture Trip

By: Anindita Gupta

Chinatown is one of Vancouver’s most cultural neighbourhoods, and it carries a significant history. Not only is this part of the city famous amongst tourists, but it is also a favourite among locals, because it is the third largest Chinatown in North America.

Chinatown shares borders with Gastown, the downtown financial district, and Strathcona. Its history takes us back to 1886, to Vancouver’s incorporation, though Chinese settlers had arrived in Canada much earlier. By the 1910s, Vancouver’s Chinatown had grown bigger than Victoria’s, becoming the largest Chinatown in Canada. Existing parallel to Chinatown were Canton and Shanghai Alley, which were known as the “deviant alleys” of Vancouver at the time because they were booming sites of the sex trade. These notions solidified pre-existing stereotypes against Chinese Canadians, who faced an incredible amount of violence and discrimination which affected their abilities to work, own certain businesses, vote, own property in certain parts of Vancouver, or run for public office.  

Chinatown has always featured a mixture of Western elements and Chinese architecture, which is one of the reasons that it became a National Historic Site of Canada in 2011 and for good reason! If you walk to Chinatown from Gastown, you will enter the neighbourhood through the massive and majestic Millennium Gate (inaugurated in 2002).

Among other things you can do in this neighbourhood, you can visit the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Gardens. Opening hours and prices depend on the season, though students with a valid student ID receive a discount. The garden is a model of a Ming Dynasty scholar’s home, and every element that fills the garden, from the plants and rocks to the traditional lattice doors, has been shipped in from China. Surrounded by the elegant architecture, the large koi ponds and the beautiful Penzing trees at these gardens, you find yourself in a quaint haven in the middle of a rather bustling Chinatown.

For fun, if you want to hunt down the narrowest commercial building in the world, you’re in the right part of the right city! The Sam Kee building on Pender Street is supposedly the “shallowest commercial building in the world,” and was mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records for being only 4’11’’ wide on the bottom most floor, and 6’ long on the second floor. The building goes by many fun nicknames, such as “Slender on Pender.” If you have trouble recognizing it, it’s the building that says “Jack Chow Insurance” just as you enter Chinatown through the Millennium Gate!

One wonderful attraction is located in Shanghai Alley  — it’s the West Han Dynasty Bell. This bell is a replica of an original that was excavated from the city of Guangzhou, dating back to the second millennia. The cities of Guangzhou and Vancouver are considered sister cities, the former gifting the bell to Vancouver in 2001. In Guangzhou, the bell archaeologically confirms the establishment of the first-ever urban settlement in the Pearl River Delta area, while closer to home it symbolizes the origins of Vancouver’s Chinese community.

If you’re interested in bringing something home, you can stop by the Chinese Tea Shop on East Pender, which boasts an impressive assortment of tea and teaware. The owner is deeply invested in the shop and knowledgeable, and will be happy to tell you more about the tea you’re buying and its origins.

Now, to cover the food options of Chinatown!

The first is a dim sum house, called Jade Dynasty Restaurant, and they sell some mind-blowing dim sum! Personally, I am a fan of the shrimp dumplings and the atmosphere inside the restaurant. The ambience is busy and bustling, the staff are nice and attentive, even though the restaurant can be loud due to flurry of waitresses running around with trays and trolleys of food. It is all a very different brunch experience. In addition, the dim sum menu has a 20% off before 11 a.m., so try heading there for brunch!

You can also go to Chinatown to find one of the best, most highly rated restaurant in the area, Phnom Penh. They are rated 4.9 out of a 5, on Zomato (an app I live by), and serve authentic Cambodian noodle soups and rice dishes, as well as Vietnamese spring rolls and buns. Some of their most famous dishes, though, are the fancily served butter beef, the oyster pancakes, the beef luc-lac, and the deep-fried chicken wings.

Something surprising to run into in a neighbourhood called Chinatown is a famous German bakery! Bestie is a German café that serves up sausage in all possible ways. You can have the bratwurst or a currywurst on fries, stuffed in a pretzel, or just on its own. They have beer on tap and even serve a Chinatown iced tea, made of the tea available in the neighbourhood.

Crackle Crème is another spot in Chinatown that is one of the most famous dessert spots in the city. The café serves some of the cutest macarons I have ever seen, in the forms of tiny, round Pikachus, minions, emojis and other animal motifs. Their main attraction is the various flavours of crème brulée, such as the Vietnamese coffee, Earl Grey, pandan coconut, Bourbon, and white chocolate rose. They also serve coffees and teas and affogato, so there is something for everyone to enjoy.

There are definitely a ton of other places to visit, eat and drink at, but if you decide to take a day and stroll around Chinatown, you could make a day out of this list!