Carefully manicured trees, intricate lattice work, fascinatingly shaped rocks reminiscent of mythical creatures, and the sound of a waterfall greet me at every turn in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden in Vancouver’s large and bustling Chinatown. Armed with a free cup of jasmine tea from a dispenser near the entrance, I slowly walk through the small maze of chambers, gazing through windows and doorways into both areas of the Garden as well as the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park next door.

Looking through a lattice-filled doorway into the Park from the Garden

Named for the first President of the Republic of China who served in that capacity in 1912 after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, the Garden is a small oasis in the hustle and noise of a busy city, as well as a reminder that in the history of Vancouver, the Chinese have always played a central role.

In 1885, just a year before Vancouver incorporated as a city, the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, linking British Columbia with the Atlantic provinces. As with major American railway ventures, Chinese immigrant laborers were brought in, worked nearly (and in many cases all the way) to death, and paid half the wages of white workers. More than 15,000 Chinese came to Canada to work the railways, and many remained in British Columbia; the vast majority of these ended up calling Vancouver home.

Early Vancouver discriminated heavily against the Chinese, and even against those born in Canada but with Chinese ancestry. Chinese were forbidden to operate businesses outside of a small section of Pender Street (still the center of Chinatown today) between Carrall and Columbia Streets. Mob riots against Chinese were commonplace.

Pender Street as it enters Chinatown

Any walk through Chinatown will center on Pender Street. Eastern architecture blends with British colonial facades, and modern business stand alongside traditional markets and food stalls. I stopped into New Town for what was perhaps the best pork bun I’ve ever had as I walked among the gates and stared at the golden dragons on the lamp posts.

The lamp posts are one of my favorite features!

Chinese immigration to Vancouver spiked in the decades leading up to the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong to China, the population increasing from just under 20,000 in 1964 to more than 380,000 in 2006, a result of both the Hong Kong handover and tensions between China and Taiwan. Today, that number is still growing, mainly from mainland China as a result of current policies. A 2013 study states that by 2031, the Chinese population in Greater Vancouver will be over 800,000.

As a result, Vancouver is as bilingual of a city as Montreal, except that Chinese dialects are spoken in place of French, though French remains the second official language. Chinese markets have spread beyond Chinatown, and the city boasts some of the best regional Chinese cuisine in the world. Dinesty Dumpling House serves both fried and steamed dumplings, and an order of pork soup dumplings is only $6 CAD. Just make sure to bring cash, as credit cards need a $20 minimum.

Soup dumplings!!

Most ethnic Chinese immigrants have worked hard to assimilate into mainstream Canadian society. While there are still pockets of traditional Chinese society, medicine, and foodstuffs (Main Street, just off Pender, seems to be the center of these shops), the vast majority of Chinese Vancouverites live and work alongside their neighbors of all backgrounds. While the Chinese population is underrepresented in local politics, 12% of local politicians were of Chinese ancestry as of 2005 (compared to the Chinese being about 18% of the overall metro population), and ethnicity has not been a barrier to mainstream election in recent years.

Any exploration of Vancouver, in order to truly be a representative experience, needs to include an exposure to Chinese culture and Chinatown. The city’s history can only really be understood with a look into that of its Chinese population.

3 thoughts on “A Chinese History of Vancouver

  1. Wow, this is an interesting insight into the history here. Those numbers are crazy. I recently read up on the sad history of Japantown (which has become the “dodgy” area of Vancouver since Japantown ceased to exist). It’s fascinating how much Vancouver has changed, although unfortunately it’s hard to talk about the Chinese culture without talking about the housing market, seeing as it’s become totally unaffordable for Canadians. It’s kinda interesting that it might never have happened if they hadn’t employed so many Chinese people for the railways, huh??

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