British Columbia

Exploring Chinatown: 5 things you may not know about Vancouver's historic district

Founded in the 1800's, Vancouver's Chinatown has a rich history — and its the subject of a walking tour featured in the 13th annual Heart of the City festival.

It's one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city — and home to some local legends

Vancouver's Chinatown is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city and a nationally-recognized historic site. (Photo by: Judy Lam Maxwell)

If you take a walk around Vancouver's Chinatown, there are a lot of things that might catch your attention.

For one, it's the only neighbourhood in Vancouver with red lamp posts.

But there's a lot more to Chinatown than meets the eye — in fact, its rich history is the subject of a walking tour taking place at this year's Heart of the City festival.

If you don't have time to take the tour, here are five fascinating facts about the historic neighbourhood.

1. It's considered the largest Chinatown in Canada

There are Chinatowns in many of Canada's major cities, including Ottawa, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal.

But Vancouver's is considered the largest in the country — and the second largest in North America (next to San Francisco's), according to the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Area Society.

Vancouver's Chinese New Year parade is famous for its lion and dragon dances. (Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver)

2. It's a designated national historic site

In Canada, there are 976 national historic sites, or places of "profound importance to Canada."

Vancouver's Chinatown is one of them.

It was added to the list in October 2011, by virtue of being the largest, and one of the oldest, Chinatowns in the country. The population has grown to support thousands since its humble beginnings in the late 1800s, when there were only ninety residents,

Modernize Tailors at the Chinese Freemasons Building on the corner of Pender and Carrall streets. The store moved locations in the 1960s, but it recently returned to the original location at 5 West Pender. (Courtesy Maurice Wong)

3. It's the home of 93 year-old tailor Bill Wong

Perhaps no one knows the history of Chinatown better than Bill Wong — the neighbourhood's legendary 93 year-old tailor.

Wong has spent all his life in the neighbourhood. His family business, Modernize Tailors, was established more than 100 years ago on the corner of Pender and Carrall streets. His father passed it on to him in the 1950s.

The shop was the subject of a documentary, and it continues to be a cornerstone in a community that has undergone many changes.

"We're the only tailor left here," said Wong, who is still the shop's head tailor.

"There used to be a dozens."

4. It has a century-old restaurant

Modernize Tailors isn't the only century-old business in the neighbourhood.

Sai Woo is a local restaurant that originally opened its doors in 1925 and was a hit for several decades. It reopened last year under its original name, and its menu is a modern take on traditional Chinese cuisine.

Judy Lam Maxwell stands in front of the century-old Sai Woo restaurant in Vancouver's Chinatown. (Christine Coulter/CBC)

5. Concerns are mounting over new developments

Some members of the community are concerned that new developments are going to take away from the neighbourhood's heritage.

"There's a lot of new construction in Chinatown, like condos," said Chinatown historian Judy Lam Maxwell. "The concern is to lose Chinatown completely."

Rising costs of leasing commercial space in the neighbourhood are threatening some of the current businesses, said Maxwell, adding that there are only two barbecued meat shops left in Chinatown.

"A lot of these places are disappearing," she added.

Steven Wong — son of the famed tailor — says a new condo development that he feels is threatening the public view of a historic mural perfectly exemplifies the tension and uncertainty.

"This picture really shows the pressure on the history and culture of Chinatown," he said. "When that [condo] is completed ... that original mural will be behind the building — still there, but invisible."

The mural on East Pender will be invisible once a new development is completed, says Steven Wong. (Christine Coulter/CBC)

With files from Christine Coulter and CBC's North by Northwest

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Heart of the city: a walking tour of Vancouver's Chinatown