This Week in History

Archives

Vancouver’s Chinatown: a vibrant neighbourhood!

For the week of Monday April 30, 2012

On May 2, 1986, the World Exposition opened its doors in Vancouver, British Columbia. At this fair, participating countries presented their representative pavilions. China’s pavilion was distinguished by an imposing gate, the China Gate, that would later be given to the Vancouver Chinatown. This gate had to be demolished and rebuilt because it was not designed as a permanent structure. A new China gate now adorns the Chinese Cultural Centre plaza on Pender Street, the main street of Chinatown.

Millennium Gate, not to be confused with the China Gate, straddles Pender Street and marks the beginning of Vancouver’s Chinatown.
© City of Vancouver, 2007

Chinatown’s origins date back to the 1880s, when a number of Chinese settlers established themselves around East Pender, west of Main Street. While the City of Vancouver had given the community a parcel of land to clear and cultivate, the arrival of numerous Chinese labourers after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway inflamed anti-Asian feelings in Vancouver. This led to acts of violence and vandalism against the Chinese population in 1887. Despite these tensions, the community grew and the neighbourhood prospered.

Originally, Chinese Canadians constructed rows of narrow wooden apartment buildings in order to house the majority of the population: male labourers. By the end of 1910, Chinatown covered approximately four city blocks and was typically composed of two- to four-storey buildings that usually had a business on the ground floor or that accommodated the cultural associations to which many Chinese belonged. It was during that decade and the next that most of the buildings standing today in Vancouver’s Chinatown were constructed.

The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen classical garden
© Parks Canada / Kate MacFarlane / 2010

In the 1970s, Chinatown was declared a protected heritage area because of its well-preserved architecture, which blends traditional Chinese and Western elements. Distinctive architecture features include recessed balconies and buildings with two main fronts. The neighbourhood is characterized by hidden interior courtyards, alleys, and narrow passages. New developments were created in the 1980s including the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden, a traditional classical garden that harmonizes its four elements (rock, water, plants and architecture).

One of the oldest and largest Chinatowns in Canada, Vancouver’s Chinatown was designated a national historic site in 2012 because of its architectural and cultural importance. It remains a vital and vibrant centre of commercial and daily life of the Chinese Canadians. It also reflects the many struggles and contributions of Chinese Canadians throughout much of their history.

For more information on other Chinatowns and the history of the Chinese community in Canada, please read Victoria’s Chinatown: Not Enough Women, Toward a Better Future and Commemorating Chinese Railroad Workers in the This Week in History archives.

Date Modified: