Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Origins of Chinatown

May 22, 2016


The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is one of Vancouver's feature attractions. Opened in 1986, it was built under the direction of master craftsmen from Suzhou and was the first garden of its type outside China.

Last week I paid the garden a visit, not I must admit to drink in its contemplative landscape but to view an exhibition by local historian John Atkin, "Sawmills and Opera Houses: A Brief History of Block 14 and the Origins of Chinatown." Block 14 is the designation for the chunk of land on which the garden stands and it turns out to have had a very significant history.

During the pre-World-War-One period this slice of Vancouver was home to two major industrial sites. The Royal City Planing Mills (photo above courtesy of Vancouver City Archives AM54-S4-MiP10) stood where Carrall Street met what was then the north shore of False Creek. It opened in 1886, about the same time the city was created. The great fire that occurred that June and wiped out most of the tiny settlement bypassed the new mill, which was then able to prosper by manufacturing lumber used to rebuild the city. By the late 1880s Royal City was the largest lumber operation in the province.

On the other side of Block 14, the Great Northern Railway (aka the Vancouver, Westminster and Yukon) had its tracks, depot and railyards. Until 1917 its passenger depot stood at the corner of Dupont (now Pender) and Columbia. Then it moved to Station Street where the inner False Creek mud flats had been filled in to create useable land for the railways.

As Atkin explains, at the end of the 1880s Block 14 was the original Chinatown, with many businesses, tenements and even a Chinese Opera House. Then, in the early 1900s the heart of the community shifted slightly west to "New Chinatown" centred on a couple of laneways known as Shanghai and Canton Alleys.

There is a lot more information compacted into Atkin's fascinating exhibition which remains on display at the Sun Yat-Sen Garden for another week. 


May 17, 2016

Not long ago I noted that one of the pleasant discoveries I made during the research for my new history of the District of North Vancouver was the enclave of West Coast modernist houses in the Edgemont Village area, just five minutes from my own home.

Now I've discovered an interesting online feature on the career of another practitioner of the West Coast Style, Judah Shumiachter, and other Jewish architects in...

May 13, 2016

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It may be Friday the 13th but it is a lucky day for me. My latest book, Where Mountains Meet the Sea, An Illustrated History of the District of North Vancouver, has gone to press. Now the waiting for final printed copies begins.

(This image from the book shows a Japanese logging crew at Rice Lake in the upper Lynn Canyon area...

May 2, 2016


A wonderful new book about The Ward neighbourhood in Toronto (The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto's First Immigrant Neighbourhood) from Coach House Books prompts me to wonder if non-historians are breathing new life into ...

April 14, 2016

I was working myself up to write something about the NDP and the Leapers and the incredibly smug, head-in-the-sand reaction of all the mainstream pundits to the notion that perhaps we should actually do something about climate change instead of just talking about it when Crawford Kilian over at The Tyee website beat me to it, and much more eruditely.

So, go read him here.

April 6, 2016


Today is the 130th anniversary of the incorporation of the City of Vancouver in 1886.

To mark the occasion, Jesse Donaldson has this piece at The Tyee reflecting on the influence that the Canadian Pacific Railway wielded in early Vancouver.