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Turning back the clock in Chinatown

A review of the On This Spot app’s free walking tour of Chinatown

PHOTO: Thomas Lardeau, Unsplash

By: C Icart, Staff Writer

This week, I downloaded and tried On This Spot, a free app that “takes people on guided walking tours through the history that surrounds them.” On This Spot is based in Vancouver, but it has tours across so-called Canada and some European countries.

Out of the thirteen tours available in the city, I decided to explore Chinatown. I hadn’t been there much, but after attending a drag show that performed a moving number they called “a love letter to Chinatown,” it ignited a desire in me to visit and learn about the history of the vibrant neighbourhood. 

There are various stops along the tour which props up a picture of what the area looks like now and what it looked like in the past. You’re directed to stand exactly where the historical photo was taken and take one yourself to compare. The Chinatown walking tour has 15 stops and took me a little over 20 minutes to complete. The historical landmarks date back to the 19th century, when many Chinese immigrants sought out work, notably on the Canada-Pacific Railway

Because the tour doesn’t focus on prominent tourist destinations, you have to pay attention to ensure you’re not walking past the stops. It took me a while to get the hang of switching between the picture that explains the spot’s historical significance and the map, so I could find the location. On top of this, it would sometimes log me out of the tour and I would struggle to find where I was at in the tour again. It would’ve been nice to have an audio component so I could walk while listening instead of awkwardly looking down at my screen.

I didn’t get to walk down what is left of Shanghai Alley, because it was being used as a set for an upcoming action film — a reminder that Chinatown is now a popular site for Hollywood projects. I learned that alongside the no-longer-existing Canton Alley, Shanghai Alley was a cultural hub in the early 20th century, but almost entirely demolished in the mid-1900s.

The first photo I took was from the Sam Kee Building, a building that is now in the Guinness World Records book and is a testament to the tenacity and inventiveness of its creator. It’s the shallowest commercial building with a depth of only six feet. The basement, however, extends   far under the sidewalk. This happened because the city expropriated most of the land, leaving part of it unusable. Refusing to leave because of the clear discrimination, the owner got creative and was able to successfully use the building for retail shops, social organization, and residential units. 

The second photo is from the Wing Sang Building, one of the oldest buildings in Chinatown. It was owned by Yip Sang, a community organizer who “helped establish the Chinese Benevolent Association, the Chinese School, and the Chinese Hospital in Vancouver.” Historically, the building “brought together educational, societal, commercial, and residential functions in a young city still determining its identity.” Today, it’s an art gallery. 

While the tour only scratches the surface of Chinatown’s rich and vibrant history, it brought some of Chinatown’s important sites to life with photographs and historical facts. It was powerful to see the before and after photos side-by-side. When I walk down the street, I don’t typically think of those who were here before me. Where I previously just saw buildings, I now see symbols of resistance, resilience, and resourcefulness.


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