One day during our trip to Vancouver this past winter, before heading to the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Cliffwalk, we took advantage of a FREE walking tour of downtown Chinatown Vancouver with Tour Guys Vancouver.
I don’t know much about Chinese history or culture, and I rarely visit Chinatown here in Los Angeles. But for some reason, the opportunity to explore Vancouver’s Chinatown piqued my interest. Perhaps it’s because Vancouver has such a large Cantonese population, or maybe it’s because I just wanted to get a complete perspective of Vancouver – I’m really not sure what motivated me to sign us up for this tour, but I’m glad we did.
We met up with our guide and about four other tourists in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery and off we went. Along the way, our guide explained that there’s been a move to gentrify the northeast section of downtown Vancouver, and with such gentrification, the area has been rebranded as “Crosstown” which you can see on business awnings and the like. The same push towards gentrification is currently underway in Chinatown.
Once past Crosstown, when we reached the Millennium Gate at Taylor & Pender Streets, our guide noted that we were at the entrance to Vancouver’s Chinatown – Canada’s largest Chinatown and one of the largest historic Chinatowns in North America.
Next, we made our way to Shanghai Alley & Canton Alley, a section of Chinatown where a small Chinese district developed in the late 1800s. Over 1,000 Chinese residents lived in tenements in this tiny alley, and there was even a 500-seat Chinese theatre in operation at the time.
Canton Alley developed in the early 1900s and was comprised of a courtyard enclosed by two rows of buildings that housed shops on the main floors and residences, boarding houses, and meeting halls on the upper floors. These alleys were the heart of Chinese life in Vancouver.
There was only one entrance to the courtyard which featured an iron gate that could be closed in the event of an emergency such as the Anti-Asian Riot of 1907. The Asian Exclusion League formed in Vancouver to exclude Asian immigrants from British Columbia. A riot broke out when members of the league mobbed Chinatown after getting worked up by inflammatory, racist speeches at City Hall. By the time the mob made its way to Japantown, the residents there were armed with bats and bottles and were fully ready to defend themselves. Our guide explained these historical events with apparent remorse for British Columbia’s racist past.
Next up was Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park, one of the city’s public parks and an extension of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Garden next door with which it shares a pond. Both the park and the garden are named in honor of Sun Yat-Sen who was a revolutionary, a founding father of the nationalist Republic of China, and the Republic of China’s first president.
Along our walk, our guide pointed out eateries to try, including a dim sum restaurant. We eventually made our way to a Chinese market that sells all sorts of “goodies” from chicken feet to dried scallops, traditional Chinese remedies, and ever-controversial shark fins which are sold for an astronomical price (I believe it was something like $500 per ounce or per pound – I don’t recall).
Our last stop on the tour was at the Monument to the Chinese Canadians which lies on the edge of Chinatown. On the right is a statue dedicated to the Chinese railway workers who sacrificed their lives building the Trans-Canadian railway system, and on the left is a statue dedicated to the Chinese Canadians who voluntarily served in World War II which later earned them voting rights.
I’m glad that we didn’t pass up the chance to take the Chinatown tour. It’s always good to learn about the different cultures that influence your destination as it provides a deeper understanding of a place.