Chinatown Historical Tour - Vancouver

Notes from Nathan


My dad’s heritage is Chinese, so I guess it was just a matter of time before he dragged Jen and I along for the Chinatown tour.  What I thought was going to be a total sleeper turned out to be an eye-opening experience.  I mean who’s ever seen lizard on a stick, live eels, snakeskins, dried cock roaches…you name it. 

The Chinatown tour is definitely a must if you want to get a good sense of what Vancouver was really like.  Our tour guide’s name was John Atkin and he seemed to know a lot about everything.  I myself really enjoyed learning all these cool facts about Chinatown.  Did you know Vancouver’s Chinatown was built by Chinese people to reflect their culture and traditions?  That’s what makes it so unique.  Unlike San Francisco’s Chinatown which was built by their Chamber of Commerce to attract tourists.  Also setting Vancouver’s Chinatown apart is its predominantly Chinese population.  Other Chinatowns have been taken over by various ethnic groups like Vietnamese and Philippino.

What also helped to keep Vancouver’s Chinese people intact was their exclusion from other communities.  Sixty years ago my Dad’s uncle wasn’t allowed to move into the neighbourhood he wanted to live in.  As a rule Chinese people were not allowed to set up shops in other communities because of supposed health regulations.  Consequently Chinatown became a haven where they could run their businesses without being harassed.

Keep your eyes open for the narrowest commercial building in the world, and the Yip Sang Building.  Apparently Yip had 20 children, 15 boys and 5 girls.  The funny part is the door on the second floor.  It leads to nowhere.  What do you think Yip used that for?

Don’t mistaken Vancouver Chinatown’s no-frills look for the booming community that lies underneath.  It’s still growing.  John showed us some cool markets, and explained how people work there, the methods they use and stuff like that.  I remember him showing us the lizard on a stick, which is what it says, and fruits and vegetables that I’ve never seen in my life.  I thought Jen was going to scream when she saw the lizard.  She doesn’t like anything that’s slimy and wiggles in the grass.   I also remember looking at some of the shops which had huge racks of meat, and all you had to do was say how much you wanted and you would get it.  Or you could buy BBQ chickens, rice balls, even live eels and exotic fish.

The bakeries are interesting.  Have you ever tried Chinese sponge cake?  My Dad swears by it.  Anyway the bakeries are not Chinese, they’re Portuguese.  I bet you didn’t know that.  In fact, some of the buildings have a Portuguese flavour from South China.

If you decide to take the tour then really take time to look at the shops and see stuff that you like or that interests you.  John gave a very informative tour of the town and you feel like you leave with knowledge that you will never forget.  I like history so it was right up my alley, but I have to admit, Jen looked like she could’ve fallen asleep at any moment.  In other words, it’s not for everyone.  After John’s tour, Dad did his own tour and showed us the site of his old kindergarten on Dunlevy St., grandmother’s place at 43 E. Pender, and then where granddad’s family used to live at (255 E. Georgia).  I tried to imagine how they fit all the beds in one room at granddad’s place to house eleven kids (9 brothers and 2 sisters).


The tour starts at the Chinese Cultural Centre (578 Carrall Street).  For more information check John Atkin’s website,  Don’t forget, Chinese New Year is a fun time to visit Chinatown and see the festivities.  The date is different every year, but it usually comes around late January to early February.  Also starting in June are the night markets, which happen on weekend nights.  Our kids love the cheap buys on books, toys, cell phones, or whatever your heart fancies.