Chinatown, Vancouver

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Chinatown, Vancouver
Millennium Gate, Vancouver's Chinatown National Historic Site of Canada, WLM2012.jpg
Millennium Gate on Pender Street in Chinatown
Traditional Chinese 溫哥華唐人街
Simplified Chinese 温哥华唐人街
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 溫哥華華埠
Simplified Chinese 温哥华华埠
Official name Vancouver's Chinatown National Historic Site of Canada
Designated 2011

Chinatown in Vancouver, British Columbia is Canada's largest Chinatown. Centred on Pender Street, it is surrounded by Gastown and the Downtown Financial and Central Business Districts to the west, the Downtown Eastside to the north, the remnant of old Japantown to the northeast, and the residential neighbourhood of Strathcona to the east. The approximate street borders of Chinatown's official area as designated by the City of Vancouver are the alley between Pender Street and Hastings, Georgia, Gore, and Taylor Streets,[1] although its unofficial boundaries extend well into the rest of the Downtown Eastside. Main, Pender, and Keefer Streets are the principal areas of commercial activity.

Chinatown remains a popular tourist attraction, and is one of the largest historic Chinatowns in North America. However, it went into decline as newer members of Vancouver's Cantonese Chinese community dispersed to other areas of the metropolis. It has been more recently overshadowed by the newer Chinese immigrant business district along No. 3 Road in the City of Richmond, which is a municipality of Greater Vancouver. Many affluent Hong Kong and Taiwanese immigrants have moved there since the late 1980s, coinciding with the increase of Chinese-ethnic retail and restaurants in that area. This new area is designated the "Golden Village" by the City of Richmond, which met resistance to the proposed renaming of the area to "Chinatown" both from merchants in Vancouver's Chinatown and also from non-Chinese residents and merchants in Richmond itself.

Chinatown was once known for its neon signs but like the rest of the city lost many of the spectacular signs to changing times and a new sign by law passed in 1974. The last of these was the Ho Ho sign (which showed a rice bowl and chop sticks) which was removed in 1997. Ongoing efforts at revitalization include efforts by the business community to improve safety by hiring private security; looking at new marketing promotions and introducing residential units into the neighbourhood by restoring and renovating some of the heritage buildings. Current focus is on the restoration and adaptive reuse of the distinctive Association buildings.

Due to the large ethnic Chinese presence in Vancouver—especially represented by multi-generation Chinese Canadians and first-generation immigrants from Hong Kong—the city has been referred to as "Hongcouver" and "Vongkong" (a term considered derogatory by some Chinese).[2]


Chinatown is becoming more prosperous as new investment and old traditional businesses flourish[citation needed]. Today the neighbourhood is complete with many traditional restaurants, banks, open markets and clinics, tea shops, clothing and other shops catering to the local community and tourists alike. The Vancouver office of Sing Tao Daily, one of the city's four Chinese dailies, remains in Chinatown. OMNI British Columbia (formerly Channel M) had its television studio in Chinatown from 2003 to 2010.

Recent developments[edit]

Street in Chinatown

Vancouver experienced large numbers of immigrants from the Asia Pacific region in the last two decades of the twentieth century, most notably from China, whose population in the Vancouver Census Metropolitan Area was estimated at 300,000 in the mid-1990s.[3] A significant development since the 1980s onwards has been the increase of transnational awareness among the Chinese. Their heightened mobility of capital, information, people and commodities stretching over territorial boundaries and distance challenged the traditional meaning of migration. Compared to Chinatown itself, more Chinese immigrants settled in Richmond BC for its lower house prices, considerable concentration of Chinese retailers, and the nearby Vancouver airport. The business heart of Chinatown was visibly affected after the arrival of suburban Asian shopping districts, such as Richmond's Aberdeen Centre that was promoted as North America's largest enclosed Asian mall in the proximity of other Chinese shopping centres, that offered more retail parking and open space than historic Chinatown.

In 1979, the Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee sponsored a streetscape improvement program to add various Chinese style elements in the area, such as specially paved sidewalks and red dragon streetlamps that in effect demarcated its borders while emphasizing it as a destination for heritage tourism. Starting from its provincial designation as a historic area by the province in 1971 and economic shifts, the landscape of Chinatown shifted from being a central business district to a largely cultural role. Murality, a local non-profit, is installing a mural on East Pender Street with the aim to bring colour and vitality to the neighbourhood.

The growth of Chinatown that occurred in most of the twentieth century created a healthy, robust community that gradually became an aging one as many Chinese immigrants no longer lived nearby. Noticing local businesses suffering, the Chinatown Merchants Association cited the lack of parking and restrictive heritage district rules as impediments towards new use and renovations. Their concerns subsequently led to a relaxation of zoning laws to allow for broader uses, including necessary demolition [4] Additions added in the mid-1990s included the opening of a large parkade, shopping mall, as well as the largest Chinese restaurant in Canada. More residential projects around the community and a lowering of property taxes helped to maintain a more rounded community. Reinvigoration was a discussed topic along government members, symbolically embedded in the Millennium Gate project which opened in 2002.[5] It can be argued that the role of the early Chinese settlers in Vancouver's Chinatown area in the late 1800s and 20th century helped to bring the city onto the global map as a popular destination for contemporary Asian investment and immigration.

New Business Strategies[edit]

The market business today predominantly consists of lower order, working class goods, such as groceries, tea shops, and souvenir stores. While some businesses such as restaurants stand out, they are no longer the only Chinese food establishments found in the city which contributed to a visible decline in foot traffic and nighttime activity. As the vacancy rate in Chinatown currently stands at 10 percent, it is acknowledged that Chinatown needs a fresh approach to development, since some businesses relocated out to suburban shopping centres while others simply retired or went out of business. Examples include the closing of some restaurants and shops, sometimes in instances where the family did not have successors, or the business could not sustain itself any longer. Although there is a considerable business vacancy, Chinatown lease rates are considered the cheapest in the city, from $15–$30 per square foot, which is about only a tenth of the asking price on Vancouver's Downtown Robson Street, the city's upscale shopping district.

The new Chinatown business plan now encourages new entrepreneurs to move in, such as a longboard store and German sausage shop, as ways of restoring storefronts and bringing a younger crowd in and to make higher-income people more comfortable in the area.[6] Attracted to the lower rent and the building's heritage status, younger businesses have moved in, often with Caucasian owners who also settle in apartments above the shops.[7] The general consensus is that Chinatown's priority is to attract people of all backgrounds to come to Chinatown, and it is believed that the opening of non-traditional stores will bring a new flow of energy and income onto its streets.[8] As a result, the commercial activity is increasingly becoming more diversified, dotted with Western chain stores such as Waves Coffeeshop and Dollar Giant. Other additions include vintage stores, two art galleries, bars, and even one nightclub built on the location of the former Ming's restaurant,[9] in an attempt to bring back something of a nightlife atmosphere reminiscent of the 1950s and 60s to the neighbourhood. The diversity of new shops and businesses are believed to be necessary in creating a new image for Chinatown in order to bring vibrancy back in the area and encourage commercial activities in general, as a way to compete with suburban districts as well as nearby Gastown and Downtown Vancouver.

Chinatown Revitalization Action Plan[edit]

The Chinatown Historic Area planning committee along with AECOM Economics, a US-based planning firm, helped to prepare a Chinatown Revitalization Action Plan for Vancouver's planning department in November 2011.[10] Vancouver planners surveyed 77 businesses and found that 64 percent reported a decrease in revenue between 2008 and 2011. The majority of consumers, 58 percent, are local residents with 21 percent from elsewhere in the Lower Mainland. On the lower end of the scale, tourist spending only accounted for 12 percent of Chinatown customers.[11] Recognizing the shifting role of Chinatown, the report highlighted key points that can help the district keep up with the times:

  • Although Chinatown itself experienced rapid residential growth, Vancouver's Chinese population is no longer concentrated in the Chinatown vicinity, as new immigration settlement pattern is dispersed throughout Metro Vancouver especially in Richmond.
  • Historically Chinese immigration to Vancouver were predominantly from Southern China, while immigrants today come from a more varied background throughout China and Asia. Therefore, Chinatown restaurants need to broaden its offerings from beyond mostly Cantonese dishes and towards cuisine from other parts of China and Asia in order to serve a more diversified consumer base.

Building on these points, the report recommended that Chinatown needs:

  • More life on the streets at night and on weekends as a way to dilute social problems
  • To focus on providing better restaurants as they make up the heart of Chinatown and are key to improving its business sector
  • To modernize the cultural centre and museum as a viable attraction while keeping its neighbourhood aspects
  • To cater more to its residents through everyday services such as groceries and restaurants
  • Take advantage of its close knitted streetscape pattern which offers a unique sidewalk experience in comparison to newer auto-oriented suburban areas
  • To involve younger community members in decision making roles
  • To renovate its 20 heritage buildings that will create an unparalleled historic district in Western Canada, which will increase appeal to tourists and residents, leading to more local spending
  • To be clean and safe to reduce negative images associated with the Downtown Eastside in general, such as illegal drug use and panhandlers

Condominium Development[edit]

Chinese themed Street-light

Vancouver city councillors made a decision in 2011 to raise building height restrictions in Chinatown in order to boost its population density. A limit of nine stories for most of the neighbourhood was set, with a maximum of fifteen stories along its busiest streets.[12] Highrises close to the Chinatown Stadium Station have already been built with more condominium towers under construction, some projects taking advantage of empty lots that sat unused for decades. Due to the unconventional lot sizes, one nine story condominium is only 25 feet wide. However, that is not expected to be a problem in Vancouver as there exists a market for affordable smaller scale homes. Critics to highrise development speculate that the plan will effectively divide up the neighbourhood to form a "Great Wall of Chinatown" as lower income residents are marginalized and displaced.

Facts and figures[edit]

  • The 'China Gate' on Pender Street was donated to the City of Vancouver by the Government of the People's Republic of China following the Expo 86 world's fair, where it was on display. After being displayed for almost 20 years at its current location, the Gate was re-built and received a major renovated facade employing stone and steel. Funding for this renovation came through some government and private support; the renovated gate had its unveiling during the October 2005 visit of Guangdong governor Huang Huahua.
  • The Sam Kee Building - The Sam Kee Company, run by Chang Toy one of the wealthier merchants in turn-of-the-20th-century Chinatown, bought this land as a standard-sized lot in 1903. However, in 1912 the City widened Pender Street, expropriating all but 6 feet off the Pender Street side of the lot. In 1913 the architects Brown and Gillam designed this narrow, steel-framed free-standing building on the left-over 6 feet. The basement, extending under the sidewalk and much wider than the rest of the building, housed public baths; with shops on the ground floor and offices above (such basements in Vancouver were once common and zoned as "areaways"). The 1980s rehabilitation of the building for Jack Chow was designed by Soren Rasmussen Architect and completed in 1986. The building is considered the narrowest commercial building in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records.
  • Lord Strathcona Elementary School, the oldest public school in Greater Vancouver, is the only public school serving Vancouver's Chinatown.
  • Wing Sang Building is one of the oldest buildings in Chinatown. Built in 1889 by Thomas Ennor Julian, the six story home was home to Yip Sang's Wing Sang Company (Wing Sang Limited) from 1889 to 1955.
  • In addition to Han Chinese from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mainland China, Chinese Latin Americans have also settled in the Chinatown area.[citation needed] Most of them were from Peru, and arrived shortly after Juan Velasco Alvarado took over the country in a military coup in 1968. Others have come from Brazil, Mexico, and Nicaragua.
  • The neighbourhood was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2011.[13]

List of historic buildings in Chinatown[edit]

Name Location Builder/Designer Year Built by/for Photo
Sam Kee Building 8 West Pender Street Brown and Gillam 1913 Sam Kee Company [1]
Wing Sang Building 51 East Pender Street Thomas Ennor Julian 1889–1901 Wing Sang Company
Chinese Freemasons Building 1 West Pender Street 1901 [2]
Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver 104–108 E Pender Street 1901–10 Chinese Benevolent Association [3]
Lim Sai Hor Association Building 525–531 Carrall Street 1903 Chinese Empire Reform Association [4]
Mah Society of Canada 137–139 E Pender Street 1913 [5]
Shon Yee Benevolent Association 258 E Pender Street 1914
Yue Shan Society 33–47 E Pender St. W.H. Chow 1898, 1920 [6]
Chinese Times Building 1 East Pender Street William Tuff Whiteway 1902 Wing Sang Company [7]
Mon Keang School 123 East Pender Street J.A. Radford and G.L. Southall 1921 Mon Keang School [8]
Lee Building 129–131 East Pender Street Henriquez and Todd 1907 Lee's Association [9]
Carnegie Community Centre 401 Main Street G.W. Grant 1902–03 Vancouver Public Library; later as Vancouver Museum and City Archives
Commercial Buildings 237–257 East Hastings Street 1901–13
Hotel East 445 Gore Street S.B. Birds 1912
Kuomintang Building 296 East Pender Street W.E. Sproat 1920 The Kuomintang (KMT, or Chinese Nationalist League) [10]
Chin Wing Chun Society 160 East Pender Street R.A. McKenzie 1925 [11]
Ho Ho Restaurant and Sun Ah Hotel 102 East Pender Street R.T. Perry and White and Cockrill 1911

International Village[edit]

In recent years Chinatown has seen growth in new construction as a downtown building boom continued into the Expo Lands, which adjoin Chinatown. New high-rise towers are being constructed around the old Expo 86 site including International Village, which was built twelve years after Expo (1998) and is located next to Stadium–Chinatown SkyTrain station. Anchored by Cineplex Odeon International Village Cinemas, and flanked by Rexall Drugstore and Yokoyaya 123, the International Village Shopping Centre is a 300,000 ft² entertainment and shopping venue. It is one of the earliest master-planned communities of Greater Vancouver, and is the central hub connecting Gastown, Chinatown and Yaletown, and adjacent to the Rogers Arena, Plaza of Nations and BC Place Stadium.

International Village mall was designed to be downtown's answer to the Asian malls found in the Golden Village, though it is not as racially exclusive and includes businesses and residents who are non-Chinese.

Besides the shopping mall, International Village also refers to the name given to the area by developer Henderson Development (Canada) Ltd.(a subsidiary of Henderson Land Development).

The International Village was commonly called Tinseltown, based on one of the brands of theater chain Cinemark Theatres that owned the building before Cineplex did.

Notable residents[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Map of official boundaries of Chinatown, City of Vancouver website
  2. ^ Chinese Vancouver: A decade of change
  3. ^ Ng, Wing Chung (1999). The Chinese in Vancouver 1945-80. Vancouver: UBC Press. p. 137. ISBN 0-7748-0733-4. 
  4. ^ Yee, Paul (2006). Saltwater City. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. p. 219. ISBN 978-1-55365-174-1. 
  5. ^ "Millennium Gate". Retrieved 12 February 2013. 
  6. ^ "Behind the Changing Face of Vancouver's Chinatown". Toronto: Globe and Mail. 13 January 2013. Retrieved 12 February 2013. 
  7. ^ Quinn, Stephen (8 February 2013). "Saving Chinatown, One Sausage and Pilates pose at a Time". The Globe and Mail. Toronto. Retrieved 12 February 2013. 
  8. ^ Allingham, Jeremy. "Vancouver's Chinatown embraces change". CBC News. Retrieved 12 February 2013. 
  9. ^ "Fortune Sound Club". Retrieved 12 February 2013. 
  10. ^ "Chinatown Revitalization". Retrieved 12 February 2013. 
  11. ^ Howell, Mike. "Vancouver prepares plan to renew ailing Chinatown". Vancouver Courier. Retrieved 12 February 2013. 
  12. ^ Hutchinson, Brian (Sep 28, 2012). "Can condo-zones save Vancouver’s beleaguered Chinatown?". National Post. Retrieved 12 February 2013. 
  13. ^ Vancouver's Chinatown. Directory of Federal Heritage Designations. Parks Canada. Retrieved 4 May 2012.

Further reading[edit]

  • Anderson, Kay. Vancouver's Chinatown: Racial Discourse in Canada, 1875–1980 (Montreal and Buffalo: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991).
  • Anderson, Kay. Cultural Hegemony and the Race Definition Process in Vancouver's Chinatown: 1880–1980 in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 1988. Reprinted in 1996, Social Geography: A Reader, ed. Hamnett C., (Arnold, London)
  • Anderson, Kay. The idea of Chinatown: the Power of Place and Institutional Practice in the Making of a Racial Category in Annals Association of American Geographers (1987 - vol. 77, no. 4). Reprinted in 1992, A Daunting Modernity: A Reader in Post-Confederation Canada ed. McKay, I (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Ontario).
  • Ng, Wing Chung. ' 'The Chinese in Vancouver 1945–80: The Pursuit of Identity and Power' ' (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999).
  • Yee, Paul. Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2006).

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 49°16′48″N 123°5′58″W / 49.28000°N 123.09944°W / 49.28000; -123.09944