Vancouver’s Chinatown

Backgrounder

Established in the 1880s, Vancouver’s Chinatown is one of the oldest and largest Chinatowns in Canada. 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 use, reflect the many contributions and struggles of Chinese Canadians throughout most of their history in this country. Its architecture is characterized by a distinctive “recessed balcony” style, a hybrid that blends aspects of the architecture of Guangdong Province of China with western styles and construction methods. It is also one of the earliest established communities of Vancouver and has remained a vital physical and cultural part of the city.

Vancouver’s Chinatown began in the early 1880s when a number of Chinese people settled at the end of Carrall Street. When Vancouver was incorporated in 1886, the Chinese were granted a 65 hectare (160-acre) lease on the outskirts of town, and by the end of that year, a small Chinese settlement had grown on Dupont Street (named East Pender after 1904) west of Main Street. As a result of discrimination and segregation, Vancouver’s Chinatown developed as a distinctive and self-contained neighbourhood that grew with the city. By 1900, Chinatown boasted some 60 businesses and by 1901, its population was almost 2,900. During the 1910s and 1920s, many of the neighbourhood’s buildings standing today were constructed; these included commercial buildings erected by Chinese merchants, and Society buildings, built to accommodate the cultural associations to which many Chinese belonged. By 1921, the neighbourhood’s population had risen to 6,484. However, following the implementation of the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923, the neighbourhood went into a period of stagnation, and the community of largely aging bachelor men was unable to grow without new immigration. The Great Depression also devastated Chinatown. With changing attitudes and policies in the period after the Second World War, Chinatown again began to flourish with a great influx of population.   

Centred on Pender Street, Chinatown’s distinctive physical character is derived in large part from its buildings and streetscapes. Their features when taken together create a harmonious ensemble. Within the neighbourhood there are 70 contiguous properties, representing a mix of commercial, residential, and cultural buildings, along with courtyards and alleys. The vast majority of Chinatown’s buildings are constructed at the front property lines, and vary in height from two to four storeys. At street level, pedestrians are treated to a lively assortment of commercial uses, while the upper floors of buildings are typically developed for office, institutional and residential uses. Common architectural features include recessed balconies, a strong verticality, and high ceilings at ground-level with mezzanines. By combining aspects of both western and Chinese regional architectures, the neighbourhood’s buildings represent a distinctive style known as “balcony” or “Chinatown” style. Overall, the architecture of Chinatown reflects its occupants’ heritage, social structure, and ways of life.

Vancouver’s Chinatown has been described as a functioning, working neighbourhood that also plays an important role in tourism for Vancouver and British Columbia. A distinct urban landscape with a specific vernacular architecture, its enduring culture is expressed through a historic concentration of Chinese Canadian businesses, services, cultural facilities, and residential structures, and is reinforced by the community associations still headquartered there.

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