Vancouver's Chinatown National Historic Site of Canada

Vancouver, British Columbia
View from Chinese Benevolent Association Building balcony © Parks Canada / Parcs Canada, 2010 (Kate MacFarlane)
Balcony view
© Parks Canada / Parcs Canada, 2010 (Kate MacFarlane)
View from Chinese Benevolent Association Building balcony © Parks Canada / Parcs Canada, 2010 (Kate MacFarlane)Chairs, Chinese Benevolent Association Building © Parks Canada / Parcs Canada, 2010 (Kate MacFarlane)View of Chinatown © Parks Canada Agency / Agence Parcs Canada, 2010
Address : Pender Street, Vancouver, British Columbia

Recognition Statute: Historic Sites and Monuments Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. H-4)
Designation Date: 2011-07-19
Dates:
  • 1880 to 2002 (Construction)
  • 1886 to 1886 (Significant)
  • 1907 to 1907 (Significant)

Event, Person, Organization:
  • Yip Sang  (Person)
  • Yip On  (Person)
  • Chang Toy a.k.a. Sam Kee  (Person)
  • Wing Sang  (Organization)
  • Chinese Freemasons Asssociation  (Organization)
  • Empire Reform Association  (Organization)
  • Chinese Benevolent Association  (Organization)
  • W.H. Chow  (Architect)
  • Wang Zu-Xin  (Architect)
Other Name(s):
  • Vancouver's Chinatown  (Designation Name)
Research Report Number: 2010-006

Description of Historic Place

Vancouver’s Chinatown National Historic Site of Canada is a distinct neighbourhood on the east side of downtown Vancouver, British Columbia. It is centred on Pender Street, between Taylor Street in the West and Gore Avenue in the East and the lanes north and south of Pender. Its buildings are characterized by a distinctive hybrid architectural style that blends aspects of Chinese regional architecture with western styles and building methods. The main streets follow a traditional 1880s grid pattern while the north side is distinct to Chinatown with interior courtyards, passageways, alleys, and main facades that face both streets and laneways. Constructed to the property lines, the mostly two to four storeys buildings provide commercial, institutional, and residential space. The neighbourhood’s uniform layout changes on its south side. Here the large Chinese Cultural Centre is set back, with a large courtyard leading to the district’s largest open public space, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Classical Garden. Official recognition refers to an irregular polygon precisely corresponding to the City of Vancouver’s Chinatown Historic Area District Schedule (HA-1).

Heritage Value

Vancouver’s Chinatown was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in June 2010 because: one of the oldest and largest Chinatowns in the country, its physical fabric, its development as a self-segregated enclave, due in part to racially motivated hostility elsewhere in the city prior to the Second World War, and its ongoing uses reflect the many contributions and struggles of Chinese Canadians throughout most of their history in this country; it [Vancouver’s Chinatown] is characterized by a distinctive “recessed balcony” style of architecture, a hybrid style that blends aspects of Chinese regional architecture with western styles and building methods that is seen most clearly in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Common architectural features include deeply recessed balconies, a strong verticality, mezzanines, and a separate, narrow door at grade leading to a deep staircase to the upper floors. These features taken together create a harmonious ensemble; and, Chinatown is one of the earliest established communities of Vancouver and has remained a vital element of the physical and cultural history of the city.
In addition, the heritage value of Vancouver’s Chinatown lies in its ties to the development of the social and cultural life of Chinese immigrants to British Columbia and Canada, and to the commercial activities of Vancouver’s original business and port districts. The district is defined by its form, embellishments, layout and architecture. Incorporated in1886, Vancouver became a major point of entry for new Chinese immigrants, many of whom settled in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Chinese labourers were granted a 160-acre lease and built their settlement along Main Street at East Pender. In the early 1900s, Vancouver’s Chinatown became Canada’s leading Chinatown, remaining so until the 1970’s. Within the district’s streetscapes the 70 contiguous properties are a mix of commercial, residential and cultural buildings, alleys and courtyards, many dating from the early 20th century. Significant newer cultural resources, such as the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Classical Garden and Park (1986), the Chinese Cultural Centre (1981-86) and the Millennium Gate (2002), enhance the traditional Chinese character of the area.
Protected since 1971 under provincial and municipal heritage legislation, the area has 24 properties listed on the Vancouver Heritage Register. Vancouver’s Chinatown displays a continuity and connection to its past, and – as a working urban neighbourhood - offers lively contrasts between its peaceful public garden, distinctive buildings and colourful street-life.

Character-Defining Elements

Key elements that contribute to the heritage character of the site include: its location just to the east of downtown Vancouver; its clearly defined boundaries (69,052.42 m2) centred on Pender Street, between Taylor Street in the West and Gore Avenue in the East and the lanes north and south of Pender (and generally following an irregular polygon precisely corresponding to the City of Vancouver’s Chinatown Historic Area District Schedule (HA-1); its historic associations to Chinese immigration, the development of Chinese Canadians as a cultural community, and to the greater commercial and cultural expansion of the city of Vancouver; all major elements of the existing urban layout, including grid-like residential street patterns, network of narrow passageways between buildings, alleys, and back lanes, hidden interior courtyards, and one public green space; the characteristic blend of eastern and western architectural styles on buildings, known as the “Chinatown” or “balcony” style, most dating from 1901-1926; the visual cohesiveness of building design (generally two-four storeys high) that often combine retail units at street level, and residential and office space on upper floors; the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Classical Garden, a large walled garden incorporating four traditional elements - rock, water, plants and architecture - into its design; the distinctive architectural features that include deeply recessed balconies, wrought-iron railings, abundant fenestration, brick piers, stepped parapets and heavy cornices, colourful paintwork, the Chinese characters that name the buildings, and a separate, narrow door at grade leading to a deep staircase to the upper floors; the use of standard, though not uniform materials, with the earliest being of wood-frame construction with masonry walls, while other commercial structures are of brick construction; and rare examples of stone construction; along with decorative elements – such as glazed roof tiles – that act as a visual shorthand for Chinese vernacular architecture; the Millennium Gate.