Windows to the past: building up historic Chinatown

Chinatown’s strength and resilience are reflected in its architecture

The outside of a building with a pink and grey storefront on the bottom floor with a neon sign that reads Foo's Ho Ho Restaurant accompanied by a bowl of noodles and chopsticks
The buildings in Chinatown hold a history of quiet strength. ILLUSTRATION: Josh Ralla / The Peak

By: Kelly Chia, Humour Editor

Growing up, my fondest memories of Chinatown were walking through the iconic Millenium Gate that greets every visitor and seeing the dancing lions parading around red street lights every Lunar New Year. I also think back to the bakeries I would go to with my parents. We would come home with soft steamed pork buns and flaky pineapple buns. It’s only in recent years I’ve grown more appreciative of the history of Chinatown and the placemaking efforts of Chinese Canadians to make it such an iconic part of Vancouver. The buildings that make up Chinatown, some of which have existed proudly since the 1800s, reflect the strength of the neighbourhood and the community, offering a glimpse into its history of resistance and resilience. 

A Brief History of Chinatown in the 1800s

Though Chinese immigration to BC started in the 1850s as part of the Gold Rush, the history of permanent settlement in what is now known as Chinatown dates largely back to the late 1800s. This coincided with the influx of the approximately 17,000 Chinese migrants arriving to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). 

Though Chinese migrants made up the majority of the railway worker crew by the end of construction, none of them were in the historic photograph capturing the railway’s completion. It was clear the BC government only employed them as cheap labour, with hundreds dying through this work. They were given the most dangerous tasks, worked in harsh conditions, and were paid $1.00 a day while paying for food and gear out of pocket. Comparatively, white workers made $1.50 to $2.50 and were provided food and equipment. 

Additionally, due to racism and economic segregation, they were forced to self-segregate in the area which eventually became Chinatown

After the CPR’s completion in 1885, the federal government no longer needed this labour force and enacted the Head Tax in an attempt to restrict Chinese immigration. This fee required every Chinese person immigrating to Canada to pay $50.00 (approximately $1,240.00 today). That fee increased exponentially to $500 in 1903 (approximately $12,408.00 in 2022). 

Despite this, more than 90,000 Chinese immigrants entered Canada between 1885 and 1923. By 1901, Vancouver’s Chinatown had a population of around 2,900 people. 

Then, the government passed a new Chinese Immigration Act in 1923, completely banning Chinese migrants from entering Canada, leaving many unable to bring their families over. In a Canada Museum for Human Rights interview, the grandson of a Chinese migrant, Dr. Henry Yu, noted the act made it nearly impossible for most men to marry and have grandkids, and many would die alone. These policies resulted in the population going from 45,000 in 1923 to a little over 20,000 by 1947, when the act was finally repealed.

Chinese people faced segregation in places like swimming pools, movie theatres, classrooms, and were excluded from voting. Their efforts to build a community in Chinatown faced constant threats, most notably in 1907, when thousands of white settlers rioted through Chinatown and Powell Street, destroying businesses and homes of Chinese and Japanese migrants. Looking into the history of the buildings in Chinatown show the efforts of Chinese Canadians to unify their growing communities, in spite of the discrimination they faced. 

Wing Sang Building 

The oldest building in Chinatown — the Wing Sang building — was constructed in 1889 by Yip Sang, an immigrant from Guangdong. Yip Sang is often recognized today for being a formidable community leader in the then-budding Chinatown.

Hired by the CPR as a bookkeeper, timekeeper, and paymaster for the Chinese railway workers, Yip went on to establish his own business — the extraordinarily successful Wing Sang Company. The import/export company, founded in 1888, opened a two-storey office on Pender Street which would eventually become the Wing Sang building.  

Beyond his business acumen, Yip helped build a number of social institutions. In 1902, he established Aiguo Xuetang, a school for his and other Chinese children. It provided a safe space in which students had proper access to education and could learn both English and Chinese. This, along with similar schools established by others, were likely a response to the racism Chinese students faced in the BC school system from additional entrance barriers to outright segregation

The Wing Sang building remained in Yip’s family until 2004, when it was bought by Bob Rennie, a real estate marketer, with the intent to restore and preserve it. For the legacy and community it represents, the Wing Sang building will be donated as the home of the Chinese Canadian Museum in 2023.

Chinese Benevolent Association Building

Another key building Yip helped establish was the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA). Built in 1910 on Pender Street, the CBA building was one of the first in Chinatown with recognizably Chinese architecture: Chinese eaves, recessed balconies, and an inscribed parapet (a barrier that starts at the roof). 

The CBA was an important umbrella for many social services and provided crucial support for the educational and communal needs of the growing Chinese community in Chinatown.

They helped establish burial rights for Chinese communities in Vancouver and Victoria, provided some financial stability to CPR workers who were laid off, built a clinic in the building, and established a Chinese Public School. 

The clinic, which would later be incorporated into the Mount Saint Joseph Hospital, provided Chinese patients free medical services when they were not welcome at other medical establishments.

In addition to providing services, they were politically involved, advocating against the Head Tax. While the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed in 1947, many of the restrictions remained in place. In 1956, the CBA helped relax them, finally allowing many Chinese Canadian men to bring their families to the country. The CBA also fought for Chinese Canadians to gain the right to vote in 1947 — a fight that was successful.

Movements to Revitalize and Preserve Chinatown

By the time the anti-immigration laws had relaxed in 1956, large historic parts of Chinatown and Strathcona faced threats of demolition for modern development. Hogan’s Alley, a historically Black neighbourhood in Strathcona, was destroyed

The 1950s to 1970s thus saw Chinatown leaders making efforts to revitalise the area. Hong Kong entrepreneurs made new investments in the area, and Chinatown’s value as a cultural neighbourhood was recognized with it being deemed a historic district in 1971. Groups like the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association fought to preserve the historic areas against threats of demolition. 

In 1979, the Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee funded Chinese-style elements,  like red street lamps and paved crosswalks, increasing the cultural value of the neighbourhood.

This revitalization marked a new era. Leaders of Chinatown focused on drawing in citizens all over the city for their social scene through food and entertainment. 

Foo’s Ho Ho Restaurant

One of the major attractions of Chinatown in the 1950s were the neon signs that decorated the streets. Adorned with a neon bowl and chopsticks, Foo’s Ho Ho restaurant stood out to many visitors.

It was built in the Sun Ah Hotel, a 1911 building commissioned by Chinatown merchant Loo Gee Wing. Loo wanted to invest in real estate in Chinatown that would cement Chinese aesthetics to shape the city’s appearance and heritage value. 

On the bottom floor, Ho Ho restaurant, a buzzing social hub, was opened in 1954 by the Quon family, featuring Cantonese dishes

In 1997, the neon sign was removed, and the restaurant moved across the block. The building was designated a historic building in 2014. There are plans to reopen the restaurant on the same spot in 2022. 

Jack Chow Insurance Building

During this time, another iconic building was being renovated — Jack Chow Insurance, also known as the narrowest building in the world. 

In 1985, Jack Chow bought the four-foot, 10-inch deteriorating building that would later become Jack Chow Insurance. The lot had originally been bought as a bet by businessman Chang Toy to see if he could create a building in the tiny space. When Jack Chow purchased the building, he saw potential in the thin building and renovated it for $250,000. The iconic neon sign decorating the building was wider than the building itself, and has since been moved to the Western entrance of Chinatown.

In a CBC interview, Rod Chow said his father had the foresight to install sidewalk facing service windows, a feature which helped serve people in a socially distanced manner during the height of the pandemic.

Altogether, the unique visual features of this building kept people coming. The building would go on to win the International Live Design Award of Excellence in 2016, and is just as much an insurance business today as it is a tourist attraction. Rod says his father’s goal had always been to keep people interested in returning to Chinatown — to keep Chinatown alive.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

I cannot discuss any significant historical buildings without discussing Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Garden, which sits staunchly in the heart of Chinatown. 

According to the garden’s website, the community recognized a need to create a central cultural artefact to preserve Chinatown as a civic asset. The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen society formed with the hope to build a Chinese classical garden for the Chinese migrant community.

But there had never been a garden like this built outside of China. Architects Joe Wai and Don Vaughan were enlisted to work on the Ming Dynasty Chinese Garden, and they worked with the Suzhou Garden administration to help design and construct this garden. The garden received large funding from the Canadian and Chinese governments, as well as many private and public contributors

Not only is it a physical reminder of the efforts to preserve cultural heritage in the face of demolition, it serves as a non-profit at the centre of Chinatown. The garden provides many educational programs and tours, and partners with various community organisations in Chinatown to promote cultural connections and celebrations. 

Chinatown’s Fight for the Future

Through these buildings, I’ve learned there is a palpable determination and love for community in Chinatown. The next time you find yourself in Chinatown, I encourage you to take a walk through the neighbourhood and appreciate the culture and strength of a people who built it up in the face of harsh discrimination from the government and others. 

Chinatown has endured the rage of anti-Asian sentiment for decades. It still takes the brunt of these sentiments, particularly after 2020. In recent years, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden, businesses, and murals have faced rampant vandalism. Gentrification has also threatened to displace lower income tenants. Even so, the fight to keep Chinatown alive has always been a part of Chinatown itself. However disheartening this period may be, Chinatown is here to stay. It has weathered so many disasters and formed a strong community nonetheless.

You can learn more about the stories of Chinatown from the 1880s onwards at the Chinatown Storytelling Centre. Neon lights are visible through their augmented reality app, which I highly recommend.