Photostory #11: Vancouver's Chinatown Largest in Canada
National Film Board Photos by Gar Lunney
May 31, 1955
Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography fonds, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives
Boxed in downtown Vancouver (B.C.) is Canada's biggest Chinatown, and the second largest Chinese community in North America. Second only to San Francisco in population, Vancouver's Chinese quarter contains, within thirteen square blocks, the heaviest concentration of Canada's 30,000 Chinese-speaking citizens. The district was born in the mid-1800's when thousands of Cantonese, brought to Canada for railway construction work, had to fend for themselves. Because of their strong sense of family, they gravitated together, establishing a community along Pender Street near the waterfront. Today, Chinatown is an orderly, sometimes squalid, community of 7,000 inhabitants where the life of the modern West meets and offers inevitable contrasts to the traditions and culture of the East. Behind the exotic facade of chop suey houses and Oriental curio shops presented to tourists, a placid older generation clings tenaciously to reminders of the homeland. Lonely shopkeepers and market gardeners from Lulu Island meet in darkened rooms to play endless games of Mah Jong. The shopkeeper selling tourist trade vases, gimcracks and bamboo place mats finds a following with faith in the ancient healing powers of dried sea-horses, Chinese roots and herbs. Joss sticks and incense still burn before fat, grinning Buddhas. And in the offices of the Chinese Times, only Chinese-language daily newspaper in Canada, elderly printers bend over the fonts, setting type by hand from over 4,000 characters. But more and more the younger, Canadian-born generation is leaving the brick tenements and tiny stores of Pender Street to win through to the professions. The herb seller finds his counterpart in the five Chinese doctors who police the community's health. The progressive uptown merchant, druggist, dentist -- the Chinese manager of the chrome and concrete bank branch -- all feel that nothing can stop Chinatown's modernization and that within a few years its physical appearance will make it almost indistinguishable from any other business area. And though bobby-soxed Chinese schoolchildren attend classes in the Chinese language and culture after regular school, the trend is more and more to Canadian ways. Their roots are down -- they are at home in Canada.