Chinatown, a prominent neighbourhood in Vancouver, is Canada’s largest Chinatown, and a destination very much worth exploring. Our nation is a cultural mosaic made up of the stories of many peoples. From food to museums to classical Chinese gardens, this is a place for visitors to appreciate one of the most prominent origin stories for many Chinese Canadians. Hans Tammemagi explored the neighbourhood in depth, and is here to offer his insight.
On a sunny spring day, I strode eastward from downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, not realizing I was about to undergo a cultural awakening. Passing under the colourful Millennium Gate flanked by two large lions, was like stepping into a different country. The streets were crowded with people with Chinese ancestry, the writing was in Chinese script, Chinese banners and decorations were dominant. I had entered Chinatown.
In terms of getting here, know that it’s centred around Pender Street, bordered by Gastown to the north, the financial and central business districts of Downtown to the west, the Georgia Viaduct and False Creek inlet to the south, the Downtown Eastside and the remaining portion of old Japantown to the northeast, and the residential district of Strathcona to the southeast.
Exploring Vancouver’s Chinatown With Intention
Finding Serenity at the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden
To get a sense of the world’s oldest continuous civilization, with more than four thousand years of recorded history, I headed to the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Completed in 1986, it is the first full-scale classical Chinese garden constructed outside of China.
I was overwhelmed by the beauty and rich symbolism. The object of the Garden is to offer serenity, while also capturing the elements of the natural landscape in a small space, walled off from the rest of the city. The Garden consists of a main hall, courtyards, gates, several pavilions and a hill, all meticulously assembled using traditional techniques by 53 craftsmen from China. The Garden is named for Sun Yat Sen (1866-1925), the Father of Modern China. He visited Vancouver three times to fundraise for his revolution.
The Garden immersed me in beauty, symbolism and the philosophy of the design. For example, the courtyards are floored by thousands of smooth pebbles from river beds, placed with broken pieces of porcelain bowls and clay roof tiles, creating stunning artistic and meaningful patterns. The Garden is a tangible reminder of the cultural and historical importance of Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Important Lessons Learned at the Chinatown Storytelling Centre
Next, I wandered over to the new Story Telling Centre, opened in November 2021, which highlights the roles of Chinese Canadians in the building of Canada as a nation. Through interactive displays, the Centre describes the history of Chinatown through the eyes of the individuals who lived and worked here.
The stories of suffering and resilience opened my eyes. I learned that Chinese peoples had come to Canada initially in 1788, then in the 1800s to build a railway and mine for gold – and they suffered horrendous prejudice and isolation. The government applied “a Head Tax” (a fixed fee applied to any individual of Chinese descent entering Canada) and did not allow the Chinese to vote. As the former did not stop Chinese immigration, the Chinese Exclusion Act was imposed on July 1, 1923, excluding almost all Chinese coming into Canada. For the Chinese, Canada Day was known as ‘Humiliation Day.”
Furthermore, Chinese-Canadian weren’t allowed to train or operate as lawyers and engineers, they couldn’t go to a swimming pool, they couldn’t run a pharmacy, and if they went to a movie, they had to sit in the back row.
In World War II, many enlisted to show they cared about Canada, even though they were denied basic human rights. With particular cruelty, as soon as the war ended, the right to vote, which was temporarily granted to Chinese Canadian soldiers, was withdrawn.
Indigenous people suffered from discrimination along with the Chinese and there was much intermingling between the two peoples.
I learned the story of Alexander Cumyow, who was born on Canadian soil in 1861, and is believed to be the first Chinese born individual in Canada. He was known for his industriousness, intellect and perseverance. His parents ran a store for miners during the gold rush. Cumyow learned several languages and studied for law, but the government did not allow him to practice. Instead, Cumyow became an unofficial legal advisor to fellow Chinese peoples. He played a vital role in his community and, today, his importance is finally recognized, for in 2020 he was shortlisted to be shown on the $5 bill.
The Lunar New Year Festival & Celebrating Chinese Culture in Canada
Regretfully, I had not been able to attend the Lunar New Year Festival, the most important festival of the year, which started on January 23, 2023, and lasted an exuberant 15 days with thousands thronging the streets. This (2023) is the Year of the Rabbit. The people in Chinatown celebrated through dragon/ lion dances and lettuce, which symbolizes wealth and prosperity, hung in front of stores and businesses. Often, the lion or animal will throw lettuce into the crowd, and an individual who “catches the lettuce” is said to be in line for good fortune.
I was smitten by the dragon dance, which dates back almost 2,000 years, and is performed by a team of dancers who manipulate a long flexible dragon puppet using poles. The dance moves like a dragon and requires athleticism and choreography. It is mesmerizing!
In Chinatown, I was learning that the Chinese have overcome bigotry, and have become a rich part of the cultural mosaic that today forms Canada. In 2011, Vancouver’s Chinatown was recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada. Chinatowns are found in most major centres, like Toronto, Calgary, Victoria, Winnipeg, Montreal, and Saskatoon. In fact, the populations of some areas, like Richmond BC, are more than 50% of Chinese origin.
Dining in Vancouver’s Chinatown
Heading for lunch at a Dim Sum restaurant, many of the buildings I passed were reminders of the contribution Chinese have made. The Chinese Times Building (1902) housed the newspaper for 60 years, providing local and Chinese news. It still contains a mezzanine, or “cheater” floor, a clever way of avoiding tax assessment on floor space. The Yue Shan Society Headquarters is the only historic building in Chinatown built by a Chinese architect. Another historic building houses the Chinese Benevolent Association, an important organization, which was established in 1895 to unify and defend the community against anti-Asian legislation and provide welfare services for the poor. Many other historic buildings, monuments and museums dot Chinatown.
Arriving at the Jade Dynasty Restaurant I found the menu overflowing with 102 items. Luckily for me, each item in Chinese script, was also identified in English. I ordered Steamed Minced Pork Rissoles with Peanuts (#10) and a Congee with Dried Bok-Choy & Pork Bones (#34). Sprinkling my dishes with soy sauce, I munched happily. The chop sticks had a mind of their own, but I copied the other diners and somehow managed. Many people may not realize that there are restaurants in Vancouver’s Chinatown that have a Michelin star, and some have two! So, bring your appetite when you’re visiting.
A Memorable Visit to a Remarkable Vancouver Neighbourhood
I passed Shangai Alley. Here and at Canton Alley, between 1890 and 1920, early Chinese immigrants settled and started Chinatown. Soon I was inside the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum & Archives where the numerous photographs and displays further illustrated how the Chinese overcame discrimination to become a vibrant part of the larger Vancouver community.
I left Chinatown by passing under the Millennium Gate, which symbolizes both past and future. I left grateful for the notion that the Chinese culture is a proud and vital part of the Canadian mosaic.
Hans’ writing is eclectic including travel, environment, Indigenous culture and things quirky. He has penned 10 books including one national best seller. Hans writes for Canadian Geographic, Westworld, Ensemble, Zoomer, British Columbia magazine, Explore, Northwest Travel, Canada’s History, the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun. A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and former adjunct professor, he has a strong affinity for the environment around us. He lives in the Gulf Islands where he enjoys kayaking and photography.