A small tale of two Chinatowns

When I was a kid one of the very great family treats was a trip across the bridge, from the wilds of Lynn Valley in North Vancouver where we lived, to Chinatown, a fascinating collection of blocks sandwiched between the downtown eastside and Strathcona, for dinner at the Ho Ho Inn on Pender Street. I loved Chinese food, back in the day the only “ethnic” food available in my small white existence. My especial favorites were Mushroom Egg Foo Yung, Cashew Chicken and Chow Mein; these, to my small child’s taste buds, were foreign delicacies of a high order. The Ho Ho Inn had the requisite large circular tables, around which my family clustered, plastic tablecloths and arborite counters, de rigeur in those far-off days when the earth was still cooling.

Back then, Chinatown was hot; throngs of people visited to shop, eat and enjoy the vibe. I can remember the excitement of entering the shops there, their interiors dark and heavily scented with incense, and gazing at the rows and rows of objects for sale: small plastic dolls in red dresses, thin sheets of parchment paper, folding red paper lanterns, wooden lions and cats painted gold. Sometimes I’d actually buy something; most times I was content to just look and touch, immersed in the feel of a foreign culture.

These days that mystique is sadly gone; my Orientalist fantasies have faded, along with the allure of Chinatown itself, now a hollow husk of its former gold and red glory. I’m not sure when the exodus to Richmond began but it’s picked up lately; that the epicentre of the Chinese community is now Number 3 Road and Cambie rather than Pender and Main is testified to by the many shuttered storefronts, the remnants of their inventories left as dirty garbage or crumpled paper on the sidewalk in front.

The buildings themselves are still architecturally beautiful, their patterned rooflines silhouetted against the sky and their facades still colourful albeit faded. I understand that Bob Rennie intended for his private gallery, opened in 2009, to be an impetus for a revitalization of Chinatown but as yet I don’t see much evidence of that.

Rennie, the so-called Condo King reviled by many local artists and activists for “house-washing”, the gentrification of the downtown eastside that is continuing apace, purchased the Wing Sang building, built in 1889 by Yip Sang, a “Chinatown legend who made his fortune hiring the Chinese labourers that built the Canadian Pacific Railway”, for an office and private gallery space.

“The property at 51 East Pender is actually two structures, a three-storey building in front and a six-storey building in back. The front building held Yip Sang’s import-export business, the Wing Sang company. Originally two storeys, a third was added in 1901. In 1912, Yip added a six storey building in back, where he housed his large family – four wives and 23 children” (Vancouver Sun article).

This structure now holds the offices of the “Rennie Marketing System” and Rennie’s private art gallery, only open to the public occasionally. Read the Sun article about Rennie’s building here. Read about today’s Chinatown here.

In contrast to Vancouver’s waning scene, one of the most spectacular Chinatowns I have had occasion to visit is the one in Bangkok, a vast village within a vast city of teeming, screaming humanity.

Bangkok’s Chinatown is enormous, a gigantic rabbit warren of tiny alleyways criss-crossing one another, each jam packed with stalls and street vendors selling every conceivable product and potion. Pedestrians, bikes, trikes, tuk-tuks, trucks, and motorcycles all compete for room within the confines of this pulsing hydra-headed quarter. The smell of plastic and roasting meat competed with one another in my nostrils, while visions of fake flowers, hair doodads, and colourful shiny knic-knacs beguiled me in this frenzied environment of commerce and consumption.

I made sure that, as we pushed our way through the tiny streets, I was firmly attached to Ty’s backpack, because if we had ever become separated in there, I’m sure we’d still be looking for one another now.

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