Vancouver Day 5: Chinatown and Gastown

I'd reserved my last (part of a) day in Vancouver for Chinatown and Gastown, two districts that would keep me in close proximity to the bus that would take me back to the airport. As Gastown, the preserved historic district, is probably the most touristy destination in Vancouver, I think it's funny that it's the last thing I explored during my trip.

These photos accompany my narrative for the day. Many events described in picture captions I won't bother mentioning this post. Also, I apologize but I don't have a route map for the day.

After a quick breakfast of toast (once again), I headed out to explore Chinatown. En route, I passed what appeared to be a small theater district. It was surprisingly non-ornate compared to other towns'. I also passed some homeless people, which made me a little uncomfortable because it was still early enough in the day that there were few other people on the street. As I entered and moved east through Chinatown, homeless people disappeared -- this could be because it got later in the day but also buildings got nicer.

I explored Chinatown by following the walking tour printed in a Chinatown brochure I'd acquired. It was fun, leading me to many interesting plaques. Although Vancouver's Chinatown is supposedly one of the largest in North America, it didn't seem that big to me. It is sizable, just not huge. But then, maybe I didn't walk far enough east into it. Or maybe Vancouver, like San Francisco, has its Chinatown spread into different parts of the city. For instance, Richmond, the borough with the night market, had a large Chinese community as well.

I spent a good fraction of my time in Chinatown in gardens, of which it has two adjacent ones. One was free and casual. The other had an entry fee and tour. It was the latter, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, because of the detail the builders and designers put into everything, where I spent the majority of my time. The garden was built with traditional materials: no power tools, screws, or nails. The tour guide was great because she knew lots. The virtual tour and other online exhibits includes some of this information.

The third park I visited, Andy Livingstone Park, is a block south of the other two. It's a reasonably nice urban park, certainly not as ugly as those plain square block parks in San Jose.

Sometime while in Chinatown, I happened upon the 7th Annual Vancouver Chinatown Festival. I'm glad I didn't know it was happening, else I would've planned part of my trip around it. But this festival was small, perhaps one of the smallest to which I've gone, and pretty boring and thus certainly not worth planning around.

There was a place at which I wanted to eat before I left Vancouver but I wasn't sure if it was open on Sunday. It didn't answer its phone when I called (and had no recording!), leading me to believe it was closed. Instead, I grabbed lunch in a packed steam table joint in Chinatown. On the quality versus quantity scale, it was clearly on the far right. I threw most of it away.

Gastown is Vancouver's historic district. It started in the 1860s when "Gassy Jack" arrived with a barrel of whiskey and told people if they built him a saloon, he'd served them alcohol. It was built within twenty-four hours. Gastown grew until the depression, at which point it became Vancouver's skid row. By the 1960s it was blighted and parts were scheduled for demolition. But some people rallied to save it and had it renovated to make it the tourist destination it is today. As I walked around, I could feel its skid row nature hadn't entirely disappeared. Indeed, most of the housing in Gastown is subsidized.

Although I didn't have time for a full walking tour of Gastown, soon after I arrived I spotted a tour already in progress and tagged along. I didn't feel bad about joining without paying, knowing I was entering late and would be leaving before it was finished. I learned later the Gastown tours are free.

The tour guide was great! (That's two good tour guides in one day!) She shared many fun facts, some of which are available online at and The former has the text of all plaques in Gastown, the first time I've seen a city/neighborhood do that. I liked reading the downtown plaques but they're much less exciting online because the online versions don't have pictures of the nearby buildings. They only have the plaque text. The latter web site links to a walking tour with many details online, likely the one I took. (It also has walking tours for other neighborhoods -- too bad I didn't find the site until after I returned from Vancouver.)

I learned cool facts, such as:

  • Water Street was so named because the north side used to be next to water. People would row up in canoes to load and unload groceries. Land filled in over time, just as it did in Manhattan and many other cities, and the shoreline is now several hundred feet away, enough room for buildings and train tracks.
  • In the 1800s, in the middle of a land speculation boom, a fire spread, burning all Vancouver within 45 minutes. (I wonder what it did to real estate prices?) Then, of course, they rebuilt with brick.
  • Vancouver's skid row was so named originally because it was on a slope that mills used to roll logs down to the water.
  • I saw the first Old Spaghetti Factory (Canadian company). The building looked apropos for the name.
The tour guide called Gastown an example of successful redevelopment. I'm not so sure. It kept some of its historic charm, its brick streets, and its old buildings. But a good fraction of the stores and restaurants that moved in are tacky, targeting tourists. And it's clear that success hasn't reached all Gastown's denizens.

Heading Home
After Gastown, I stuck my head in the Pacific Center Mall. It was much like the International Building Mall, described in the photos, but much more happening. Then I picked up my luggage from my hotel and caught my bus back to the airport. The bus was slightly delayed due to having to go slowly around the gay pride parade. While watching Vancouver pass by the window on the way to the airport, I noshed on a taro bun cake I picked up in Chinatown. mmmmmm...

No comments: