Vancouver's Chinatown has seen good times and bad

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 April, 2013, 4:07pm

Vancouver's Chinatown has latterly been associated with crime and homelessness, but it has a history as one of the largest and most vibrant Chinatowns in North America.

Founded around the same time as the City of Vancouver itself in the late 1880s, the district on the eastern edge of the downtown core first attracted young Chinese men who were brought out to construct the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Upon the project's completion in 1885, scores stayed to create the Chinatown district.

The same year, the notorious head tax of C$50 (HK$381) to deter Chinese migration was introduced, but by the 1890s Chinatown was booming.

A Chinese theatre and opera house were opened, as well as a branch of the Chinese Benevolent Association. According to an overview provided by the City of Vancouver, Chinatown's population soared from about 90 in 1887 to 2,900 by 1900.

In 1903, rising tensions helped spur Canada to increase the head tax to a then-astronomical C$500, and four years later a white mob rampaged through Chinatown after a meeting of the Asiatic Exclusion League.

Nevertheless, Chinatown continued to assert its identity, with the construction of multi-storey society buildings that give the district its character to this day.

But in 1923, Chinese immigration to Vancouver and the rest of Canada was effectively halted by the Chinese Exclusion Act, and Chinatown stagnated with an ageing bachelor population and separated families. It was only with the act's repeal in 1947 that the 10-block district began to flourish again, with new immigrants.

However, the rise of the satellite city of Richmond as the favoured destination for Hong Kong migrants to Vancouver in the 1980s triggered another slow decline for Chinatown. Drug use and prostitution became rife, and the nearby streets of the Downtown Eastside became the hunting ground of serial killer Robert Pickton in the late 1990s. Its permanent population is now 1,277, according to the 2011 census.