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The Cross Cultural Walking Tours is an initiative that aims to bring awareness to the contributions of early immigrant communities, and the rich layered history of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods: Strathcona, Hogan’s Alley, Chinatown, Downtown East Side and Powell Street. In collaboration with our partners Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is proud to participate in this community-led tour, that has been reinvented this year into a Virtual Tour to celebrate the city’s diversity for Asian and Jewish Heritage Months.
Canadians of Chinese descent have long played an important role in the development of our diverse, cosmopolitan city. The origins of Vancouver’s vibrant and colourful Chinatown, the largest in Canada, can be traced back to 1886, the year of Vancouver’s incorporation as a city, when a sawmill at the foot of Carrall Street hired a small group of Chinese workers who had stayed in British Columbia following the Gold Rush.
Due to restrictions on where Chinese immigrants could reside and work in the newly formed city of Vancouver, these workers, along with the growing number of Chinese immigrants, worked together to build the Chinatown neighbourhood we know today. Chinatown became a self-sufficient community, with it’s own Chinese language schools, hospitals, grocers, restaurants, and entertainment facilities, including an opera house. In fact, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden’s sits on the original site of the Sing Kew Opera House, a social space for the community, that hosted Chinese plays, Cantonese opera, lectures and political meetings. In an effort to reach non-Chinese residents of Vancouver, an English-speaking doorman was employed once a week by the opera house, who served to welcome guests from across the city and provide translations of the evening’s performance. Much like the Garden, Sing Kew Opera House provided a space for cross-cultural exchange.
Many of the iconic and architecturally distinct buildings developed during this period of growth still exist today, making Chinatown home to some of Vancouver’s oldest structures. One example of this can be seen on the northwest corner of Pender and Carrall, where the original Freemason Society building still stands today. This unique building combines elements from both Chinese and European design; with traditional Southern Chinese balconies emerging on the Pender facade while the Carrall Street side has a more European look.
Despite the long history and cultural importance of Chinatown, plans for the development of a large freeway threatened the neighbourhood in the 1960s. A strong show of opposition from the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association as well as the Chinese Benevolent Association, led to the withdrawal of the project and resulted in the area being declared as a historic district in 1971. In an effort to preserve the community for generations to come the Canadian and Chinese governments came together to honour the contributions of Chinese Canadians and Chinatown and develop the first full-scale traditional Ming Dynasty Classical Chinese Garden outside of China.
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden’s story spans miles and centuries, providing opportunities for learning and the cultural exchange. As a registered museum and cultural heritage site, the Garden works to encourage sharing, learning, and understanding with our ongoing educational and cultural programming.
In 2018, Chinatown was the site of The City of Vancouver’s official apology for the historical discrimination against people of Chinese descent. Today, Vancouver’s Chinatown is a National Historic Site of Canada, a neighbourhood of cultural, historic, and architectural significance, and an embodiment of a strong community and cultural identity for Chinese Canadians for over 130 years.
To learn more about the Strathcona neighborhood and its diverse and multicultural communities, please check our partners at the Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tours.