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Accueil » Institut Pierre Renouvin » Les revues » Le bulletin de l'Institut Pierre Renouvin » Tous les bulletins » Bulletin n° 10, Canada » Sherry McKay, Chinatown, Vancouver and the Pacific Rim

Sherry McKay, Chinatown, Vancouver and the Pacific Rim

Chinatown, Vancouver and the Pacific Rim



Bulletin n° 10, automne 2000





Sherry McKay


 «The great world powers daily concentrate more and more on the Pacific [...] because [...] they concentrate more and more on China. Even one who has only the slightest knowledge of current affairs will have understood this. Since this is the case, he who can use this Pacific Ocean in order to dominate the world will be in a good position to treat China as he pleases. China cannot herself dominate the Pacific. How can I calmly talk of a «pacific» Ocean? Even if I cannot calmly discuss it, how can I make it pacific?»[1].

There has been much talk of the Pacific Rim, the Asian Pacific, the Asian Pacific Rim, a Rims-speaking that has re-charted the former South Seas (south of the Northwest passage) according to different navigators and diverse quests. Rather than a geographic feature, the Pacific Rim is a creation of trade patterns, an ideologically bound region, and a construct of human activity. It is of an unstable, even imagined, geography, plotted by economic and political vectors of inclusion and exclusion, defined by violable frontiers and anxiously tended borders. In many ways Vancouver's «Chinatown» is a microcosm of a similar human activity, of inclusions and exclusions.

 «Mother was involved in fundraisers, selling war bonds and collecting money, and volunteered to join the teams of women armed with pins and ribboned labels who trooped outside of Chinatown on tag days. They stood, rattling their tin donation cans, on the busiest corners in downtown Vancouver -low fan goai, on white people's street, such as Granville, near the Hudson's Bay, or on the hectic corner near the Bon Ton Shop and Capital Theater. Signs in some of the merchants front windows boasted: WE HIRE WHITE LABOUR ONLY»[2].


Orientations: Rim-travel, border-crossing

 One way of situating Vancouver's Chinatown geographically is to say that it is situated 6383 miles east of Hong Kong, 5318 of so miles from Quongdong province, from which most of the earliest residents of Chinatown in the 1880s originated, approximately 200 miles from the Pacific Ocean. A more finely grained map would locate it on the tidal flats bordering False Creek and its industrial infrastructure, east of genteel Vancouver and north of its earliest settlement, adjacent to the fledgling city, but demarcated from it. It is this demarcation, the making of a Chinese people visible and legible in this city that will be the focus of my paper. Chinatown is now a part of the old city core, surrounded by an urban reconfiguration, appended with satellite suburban «Chinatowns» offering alternative representations of Pacific Rim crossings. Chinatown can also be found inscribed within imaginary geographies. At the end of the nineteenth century, Chinatown, especially when bedecked with ornamental gateways and festooned with celebratory garlands, functioned as proof of Vancouver's position as the British Empire's Pacific Gateway to the East. It was also a sojourner's abode in the Brackish Water Port, Xianshuibu, part of a south China Diaspora that encircled the Pacific-Australia, San Francisco.... In this imaginary geography it was also a place of difference, and as such it spoke, as much about the fear of hybrid cultures as it did the security of distinctly bounded national entities, from China and of Canada.

 Today, Chinatown is a contested site, its topography reconfigured with memorabilia of fictitious and imported «traditions». There is now a pagoda of a design «modified from the Twin Pagodas in Kaiyuan Monastery in the City of Chauanzhou, Fujian Province, China». It is intended to act as an aesthetic focal point, and unlike its distant predecessor it will have a ground level teahouse and elevator access to an observation deck. Such an amenable and adjustable artifact is allowed, unlike the people from Fujiian Province arriving in British Columbia as economic and political refugees during the summer of 1999. Chinatown continues to inspire exotic fantasies of the inscrutable and foreign as the locale and protagonist in detective novels, such as «Shanghai Alley». Chinatown is also a reference in scholarly histories that locate the Chinese Diaspora within various spatial frames of reference: the Asian Pacific, Canada, and British Columbia. It is the site for theoretical interpretations of the discursive production of «place» and hence descriptions of Chinatown as a product of European cultural construction of race, legitimated by State practices and institutions[3]. Alternative histories and agents of cultural production are attributed to Chinatown in a growing number of autobiographies and personal accounts: Wayson Chow's Paper Shadows, Denise Chong's The Concubine's Children. Chinatown is a place of memories and the quotidian. I cite these varied and often contradictory representations of Chinatown to emphasize the fact that there is no one Chinatown, no essential «Chinese people» in Vancouver. As in the definition of the Pacific Rim, what Chinatown was and is depends upon who is speaking and from where. Four representations of Chinatown reveal this very well. They give four points of orientation. The first two are contemporaneous counterpoints. The third, by a Missionary in 1913, is clearly concerned with delineating a place of difference, of reifying a racial category constructed by Western discourses of race, progress and modernism. It works to produce a psychological frontier around «Chinatown». The fourth, a childhood reverie of the 1940s, speaks of a space defined by social practices.

 «They come from southern China [...] with customs, habits and modes of life fixed and unalterable, resulting from an ancient and effete civilization. They form, on their arrival, a community within a community, separate and apart, a foreign substance within but not of our body politic, with no love for our laws or institutions; a people that cannot assimilate and become an integral part of our race and nation. With their habits of overcrowding, and an utter disregard for all sanitary laws, they are a continual menace to health. From a moral and social point of view living as they do without home life, schools or churches and so nearly approaching a servile class, their effect upon the rest of the community is bad. [...] Upon this point there was entire unanimity»[4].

 «The members of our board are law-abiding citizens. Many of them have been residents of this country for a number of years and are large holders of real estate, payers of taxes and other civic assessments. The members [...] have been constantly annoyed by what we believe to be an unjustifiable intrusion of certain members of the Vancouver Police Force [...] in the habit of going into our stores and rooms where our families live, showing no warrant whatsoever, nor do they claim any business with us. [...]We are subjected to indignities and discriminating treatment to which no other class would submit and to which your laws, we are advised, we are not required to submit»[5].

 «A miniature Chinese town [has been built] by Chinese carpenters, without any regard for beauty, regularity, sanitation or comfort; a segregated group of individuals who realized that they were unloved and separated from their neighbors by an almost impassable gulf of race, colour, language and thought [...]. Within the unshapely structures of Chinatown were the parasites of the Chinese race, professional gamblers, opium eaters, and men of impurity. Chinatown became the carcass to attract the foul birds of Western vices, the dumping ground of those evils which the white man wishes removed from his own door»[6].

 «Shortly after we moved to that Keefer Street house, Mother took me to a family celebration held in the Wing Sang Block, a three storey, bay-windowed building fronting Pender Street, that belonged to one of the richest merchant families in Chinatown. It must have been a truly festive occasion, an anniversary of sorts, for almost all the Chinatown families were invited to attend. There were tables and tables of food, and colourful paper chains and lanterns hanging over everything. Incense was burned, and the children, me included, got red packages of lucky money»[7].

 Currently, cultural geographers have focused attention on the social construction of places such as «Chinatown». They have argued that Chinatown was, and in complex ways remains, «a locus, a place for a racial category»[8]. In other words, Chinatown was a product of a white cultural tradition and part of the process of racial classification. The purpose of this classification was to make clear distinctions between Eastern and Western cultures and to hence circumscribe membership in this anxiously British colony. Advocates of a model of space as a social construction maintain that Chinatown is not Chinatown because Chinese people live there, but because it was needed by a nativist, white community aiming to shore up their identity. Chinatown is not a biological product but rather the result of Western discursive practices such as those clearly at work in the quote from a Royal Commission of 1905 cited above. It was Vancouver's elected officials who refused to pave the streets or lay sidewalks in «Chinatown» not the Chinese who were «innately» uninterested in civic improvements, sanitation and moral conduct. It was government legislation that denied access to families and consequently created the «aberration» of a largely male population.

 Chinatown is a site of past colonial production and present post-colonial appropriation, a tourist site and a source of family genealogies. It was and is in constant mutation. While theoretical texts set out to define dominant culture's work in creating the place «Chinatown» what it was in practice was never as neatly circumscribed as the place proposed by western discourses of the «orient» and the «other». Just as «Chinese people» could be found outside the Bon Ton Shop on Granville Street, so too could «outsiders» be found «buying inexpensive fitted shirts from Mr.Wong's Modern Silk store near the corner of Main and Pender», at least by the 1940s[9].

There are two points that I would like to make. The first is that Chinatown was the product of processes of boundary formation. The second is that Chinatown was also a hybrid construction[10]. It calls into question the colonial fetishization of racial purity and its contemporary legacy. Hybridity points to contradictory social and discursive spaces, an unending process. 




Vancouver's Chinatown, was established in the 1880s on the perimeter of what was then the city core. Its marginal site betwixt mills, railway lines, industrial effluent and tidal debris registered physically and spatially the political, social, economic and legal status of its residents. In this it is not unlike Chinatowns found elsewhere in North America. Its geographical location is thus part of local spatial allocation and larger processes of economic production. Chinatown is also the product of an imaginary landscape and socialized seeing, as the different perceptions of Chinatown described above indicate. It is the result of local land ownership patterns but also industrial capital able to capture labour from the rural poor of south China for the needs of North American expansion and an immigrant merchant class willing to negotiate this labour exchange. Urban land economics demanded density, while the relationships between labourers and the merchants who contracted them determined its particular pattern of the human occupation. Chinatown is also a spatial topography and culturally segregated place manufactured by the essentializing racial politics of the municipal government and its acknowledged constituency. In Vancouver, Chinatown began on leased land acquired by Chinese labour contractors and merchants in exchange for clearing and improving the tidal flats and forest on the southeastern edge of the pioneer city. Here Chinese people were both segregated and scrutinized. Chinatown became through a process of sensationalized newspaper accounts, sanitation reports, missionary harangues and government initiatives, a marker of difference, it was its representations claimed, all that was not Vancouver, however intimately it was, in reality, linked to Vancouver's material development and national identity.

 The movement and occupation of the Chinese within abstract spaces of power and wealth were greatly delimited. Until the late 1940s, they could not participate in local political life, profit from the ownership of Crown Land or employment in Public Works, nor could they enter the country without indemnity (such as the payment of a head tax $100 in 1885, $500 in 1903). And, while initially dispersed throughout the city, they were forced by discriminatory and violent practices to withdraw to one circumscribed «place» by 1887, their demographic was controlled by outside legislation that first limited and then excluded (1923) Chinese immigration until 1947. The area centered on Dupont Street, between Carrall and Columbia Streets was thus transformed into Chinatown. It was a place that could, by defining what constituted Chinese, work to confirm who was Caucasian, who was from China and who of Canada. However, as much as its was a place for Western racial prejudices, Chinatown was also re-inscribed with everyday practices determined by associations of family, clan and village as well as labour and class. It was no more exclusively a category of Western thought than it was self-determining and self-sufficient.

 In 1887 the population of Vancouver was 2000, that of Chinatown about 90. By 1889 there were twenty-nine Chinese business concerns in Vancouver, all but three were located in Chinatown[11]. The businesses included ten merchandise and grocery stores, seven laundries, two opium importers; two labour contractors, two tailors, one butcher and one boot and shoemaker. By 1901, as a result of ships trafficking directly between Asia and Vancouver, the population rose to 2840. This population inhabited a segment of one main street, Dupont Street (now Pender Street). Alleys and numerous narrow lanes augmented it. Alleys, part of the Vancouver grid, had been envisioned for secondary, service activities. In Chinatown they were appropriated and intensively used, providing a finer grain of mixed use activities. Although the alleys, lanes and passages with their dense accommodation might seem eccentric to the normative grid and use of the city's property system, they were also part of its efficient functioning and economic exploitation. This was especially so of Market Alley, which acted as a short cut for anyone traveling from Gastown to Vancouver's Public Market, City Hall, Public Library and major banks congregated along Westminster Avenue (Main Street). In doing so Market Alley took prospective customers past Chinatown's barbers, bakeries and laundries. The alley was thus a shrewd investment developed by its owner, the merchant Yip Sang and his Wing Sang Company Limited.

 Chinatown was and is a hybrid. It shares a general typological similarity to Chinatowns in San Francisco and Los Angeles among a string of other Chinese communities along the Pacific Coast of America. It is therefore as much a product of international and national forces as it is of municipal politics alone. And while many of the features of the architecture in Vancouver's Chinatown are understood to refer to Chinese culture in general, many of these features are unprecedented in south China and are in fact invented. Both the buildings and the community occupying them are adaptive innovations.

The Chinese community arriving in Vancouver did not simply duplicate that in China. Even after the relaxing of immigration laws in 1947, the social structure of Chinatown was not that of China. It was a community that Chinese historians have found to be profoundly at odds with China's Confucian social hierarchy that privileged scholar officials and placed merchants in the lowest class. In North American Chinatowns the merchant class formed the elite[12]. Merchants formed Associations that negotiated across a wide spatial and political terrain: administering law within Chinatown, negotiating with the city at large and facilitating transactions with China. These Associations maintained both civil and cultural order; settling disputes as well as maintaining groupings based on shared clan, ancestral and linguistic traits. They also inscribed another, imagined topography on the normed grid of western urban development: lanes, alleyways and dense infill that not only supplied the necessities of life -residential hotels, laundries, restaurants, tailors, labour contracting offices-, but also provided cultural supports -theatres, an opera house, a hospital, recreational gaming-. These associations changed over time, with numerous, new and rival organizations forming to meet the changing needs of Chinatown residents. Obviously, «Chinatown» is not the product of «a mode of life fixed and unalterable» as the Royal Commissioners had unanimously opined.

 Just as the social structure of Chinatown was an adaptation of China and was different from that of China, so too was its architecture. Initially, the buildings in Chinatown were two storey wooden, false front structures, much like the rest of Vancouver in the early 1880s. By 1900 these buildings had been converted to brick, again like most of Vancouver. They rose to three and often four stories and sheltered a multiplicity of uses: business and commercial premises, residential accommodation and association meeting spaces. Light industry, temples, warehousing, and other activities were also fit in according to demand. Because Chinatown was located on land tightly circumscribed by municipal discriminatory land ownership policies; expansion was necessarily vertical or through subdivision. Proprietorship was eked out of adaptable spatial volumes, building bylaws, occupation codes and financial structures. These commercial buildings, in addition to being real estate investments, were also stored cultural capital. They were often the repositories for the aspirations of Associations, such as the Chinese Benevolent Society or the Chin Wing Chum Society Building. A symbolic system was adapted from the Courtyard house of China to the narrow vertical ascent of the single volume structure proscribed by city building regulations and zoning. A clear hierarchy of space was created whose ascending importance was made legible on the façade. Hence, at least ideally, commercial premises were on the ground floor, residential hotels in the middle floors and the Association at the summit; illicit uses were consigned to the basement while warehouses, small factories, temples and other uses filled in any unoccupied spaces. However, this was never so rigid as to preclude its compromise or modification by exigency. Thus the building eked out culturally supportive spaces within the policing spaces of building regulations and the realities of the local construction industry.

 Throughout the history of Chinatown the policing of its borders would seem to have been ineffective. Signage, dating from the 1940s, indicates that the English speaking, white population obviously transgressed the borders of Chinatown. Personal accounts of growing up in Chinatown describe trips to the cinema on Granville Street, and family album photos show a small child dressed up as a cowboy of the Wild West. These are instances of consumer and cultural border crossing. These everyday practices suggest that the psychological and physical borders that were erected around a configuration of streets and alleys in Vancouver and named «Chinatown» were not immutable. However, there are ways in which the endeavour to define Chinese by the construction of a place, Chinatown, by European society through western society's cognitive categories -of race, civilization, progress, sanitation and morality-, was effective and continues to have some force. Attempts to create such places continue to be replicated. The so-called «monster houses», a category of single family home identified in the Caucasian dominated media in the 1990s with Hong Kong wealth, is just one example[13]. For example, the following from Douglas Todd, the Vancouver Sun's religious and ethics reporter:

«[There has been an] unprecedented flow of Asian immigrants and others to Greater Vancouver, many of whom arrive with no tradition of keeping cities green. [...] Much of the controversy stems from groups within Canada's multi-cultural mosaic holding different attitudes to the urban forest. [...] Thousands of wealthy Chinese immigrants who can afford to tear down an old greater Vancouver house and build a larger replacement hold to feng shui, a system of geomancy which says, for example, an improperly placed tree could bring bad luck»[14].

 The discourses defining these «monsters'» rework and up-date the exclusionary practices of the past to characterize Chinese home owners as aliens in Vancouver's bucolic landscape, their houses were «freakish», non-conforming to the highly fabricated English landscape of the streetscape of Vancouver that was erroneously proposed as «natural». Although they were as much products of building codes and developer fantasy as they were imported cultural artifacts. The second and more complex instance of an attempt to construct a place is Richmond and especially its «Asian malls». Here there has also been the attempt by members of the media to categorize and contain, to differentiate as alien, to racialize something that is in effect a mall, that quintessential money making convenience and commercial venture; one that also served to underwrite one's eligibility for Canadian citizenship. As one editorial in the Seattle Times noted:

«This is Hong Kong's restless materialism translated to the Fraser River delta [...].For many owners, these small shops are a ticket into Canada. [...] Some small spaces are sold like condos, the price counting toward the investment Canada requires from «business class immigrants» in exchange for citizenship»[15].

 Clearly, the old stigmatizing characterizations -lack of sanitation, crowdedness, hidden spaces- that were used to create «Chinatown» no longer apply. But the press evokes others: the size, ostentation, and foreignness of products and language... All attempting to define the established population as more, indigenous, more landscape sensitive, more unpretentious, and more inconspicuous.

 In the contemporary context of the free-floating signifiers of an ersatz history and diverse attempts, some outmoded and some new, to control the cultural hybridity of today, what is the architect's role? What can the architect do to avoid a surrogate history or a culture claimed on the basis of some notion of essence? It was just such questions that an architectural student, who identifies himself as «China-born, Hong Kong and Canada educated», asked and set out to resolve. He did so by recovering from his Chinatown site the history, cultural attitudes and systems of spatial appropriation and use that had once animated it. The project was developed in dialogue with the site, its history and present day possibilities. It sought to recapture the useable processes of spatial occupation of the old Shanghai and Canton Alleys, not as stage sets of some romanticized oriental fiction, but as applicable to contemporary life. The project, a Library/Archive and Exhibition Gallery, signals the occupation of contradictory social and discursive spaces. It was an investigation that was directed toward the precedents and potentials for a hybrid architecture that might be garnered from attentiveness to this culturally diverse built environment.

 The student looked to and exploited the existing hybrid forms. The non-structural façade and recessed balcony became an expressive, dynamic and equally multi-functional street wall. The dual orientation to street and alley was re-instated and with it multiple urban scales and a re-animated alley. The façade, the alley and lane system would become once again of a scale and sociability consonant with cultural expectations. The Library/Archive is intended to foreground the processes of (self) representation, and the multiplicity of oral, visual, and written local histories. It is also concerned to balance the overarching and imperious history and cultural experience organized in the Chinese Cultural Center, and the Sun Yet Sen Gardens, Pagoda and other recent additions to Chinatown. The exhibition Gallery serves artists living in the neighbourhood. The project does not attempt to create a place called «Chinatown» but rather captures something of its uncanny presence, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Together the histories gathered at the site might act as Foucault intended when he claimed that it is history that ultimately saves us from nostalgia.




[1] Travel Journal of Liang Ch'i-ch' ao, 1903.

[2] CHOY(Wayson), Paper Shadows:A Chinatown Childhood, Toronto, Viking Press, 1999

[3] ANDERSON (Kay), «The Idea of Chinatown: The Power of Place and Institutional Practice in the Making of a Racial Category», Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1987, 77, p.580-598.

[4] Report of the Royal Commissioners in Canada Clute, 1902.

[5] Report of the The Chinese Board of Trade, 1905.

[6] HARTWELL (George E.), «Our Work among the Japanese and Chinese in British Columbia», Missionary Bulletin, 1913, 9, p.518.

[7] CHOY (Wayson), op.cit.

[8] ANDERSON (Kay), op.cit, p.580.

[9] CHOY (Wayson), op. cit., p.69.

[10] The study of boundary formations as a process is a current analytical strategy applied by Kay Anderson to Chinatown specifically and more generally by a number of cultural geographers and historians. For a discussion of the merits and possible drawbacks of this approach see John Rose, Immigration, Neighbourhood Change, and Racism: Immigrant Reception in Richmond, 1999. Looking to the processes of formation of a category, such as Chinatown, is intended to offset the dangers of objectifying or essentializing the subject of investigation. By using the term «hybrid» I do not intend to imply that there was some preceding pure species that became impure by mixing with another.

[11] LAI (David Chuyenyan), Chinatowns: Towns within Cities in Canada, Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, 1988, p.81

[12] YIP(Chrisotpher), «Association, Residence, and Shop:An Appropriation of Commercial Blocks in North American Chinatowns», in CROMLEY(Elizabeth Collins), HUDGINS (Carter) ed., Gender, Class, and Shelter: Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1995, p.110.

[13] WANG (Holman), The Monster House in Vancouver, Masters Thesis in Advanced Studies in Architecture, University of British Columbia, 1998, FAYERMAN (Pamela), «Monster Mash», Vancouver Sun, 15 February, 1991. APPLEBE (Alison), «Monster Mishmash», Vancouver Courier, 28 March, 1990. OHANNESIAN (Paul), «How we saved Shaughnessy from monsters», Vancouver Sun, 23 June, 1990. AIRD (Elizabeth), «There's a «monster problem» on the street where they live», Vancouver Sun, 2 October, 1993.

[14] TODD (Douglas), «The Tree Debate is about far more than Esthetics», Vancouver Sun, 31 August, 1996. WANG (Holman), op.cit., p.48.

[15] SIMON, The Seattle Times, 1997.