Vancouver's Chinatown National Historic Site of Canada
Vancouver, British Columbia
© Parks Canada / Parcs Canada, 2010 (Kate MacFarlane)
Pender Street, Vancouver, British Columbia
Historic Sites and Monuments Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. H-4)
1880 to 2002
1886 to 1886
1907 to 1907
Event, Person, Organization:
Chang Toy a.k.a. Sam Kee
Chinese Freemasons Asssociation
Empire Reform Association
Chinese Benevolent Association
Research Report Number:
First settled in the 1880s, Vancouver’s Chinatown is one of the oldest and largest in Canada. Its evolution, fabric, and continued vitality reflect the contributions and struggles of Chinese Canadians over the years. As a result of discrimination and segregation, Chinese immigrants and sojourners clustered together in the area, forming a self-contained and distinctive neighbourhood that grew with the city. Chinatown’s enduring culture results from an historic concentration of Chinese-Canadian businesses, services, cultural facilities, and residential structures, and is reinforced by the community associations still headquartered here. Many community and cultural buildings are characterized by a distinctive hybrid style that blends aspects of the architecture of Guangdong Province of China with Western styles and construction methods. Key features include recessed balconies, decorative cornices, strong verticality, and high ceilings at ground-level with mezzanines. One of the earliest established communities of Vancouver, the Chinatown district has remained a vital cultural part of the city.
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).
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.
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.