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Chinatown in Colour, Before Condos and Coffee Bars

Paul Yee’s photographs take us back to the Vancouver neighbourhood in the 1970s and ’80s.

Christopher Cheung 27 Mar 2019TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

From sausage makers to seamstresses, a set of recently digitized photographs by Paul Yee reveal life in Vancouver’s Chinatown before the neighbourhood experienced a classic case of inner-city decline followed by, depending on who you ask, inner-city renewal or gentrification.

In 2008, Yee, 62, an author, archivist and historian who now lives in Toronto, donated a massive collection of photographs to the City of Vancouver Archives, where he worked from 1979 to 1987.

Thanks to funding from the Friends of the Vancouver City Archives society, Yee’s full collection of photographs has now been digitized.

Among the 3,700-plus photographs in the collection are photographs by Yee himself, photographs from his family’s collection, and photographs given to Yee by other families for his various projects.

In these colour selections from the archives’ latest batch of photographs, Yee shows us Chinatown streets of the 1970s and ’80s with their eye-popping signs and textures, and also the life inside shops, up staircases and down alleys.

Seniors, family society clubhouses and blue-collar workers are still present in today’s Chinatown, but they now share the neighbourhood with condos, creatives and consumption that often take advantage of the allure of the historic enclave.

For example, the 188 Keefer condos have an entry that mimics a moon gate, real estate marketer Bob Rennie turned Chinatown’s oldest building into his art museum, and a number of restaurants offer Asian-inspired food and beverages.

Here’s a look back at the neighbourhood Yee captured, which contain hints of the change to come.

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The Sam Kee Building, awarded the ‘shallowest commercial building in the world’ by the Guinness Book of Records, at 8 West Pender Street. It’s a popular tourist attraction. Photo by Paul Yee (1986), City of Vancouver AM1523-S6-F74-: 2008-010.0529.
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‘Closing out sale. Everything must go.’ Lin Bei-lian, owner of Wing Hing Dry Goods. Photo by Paul Yee (April 1981), City of Vancouver Archives AM1523-S6-F72-: 2008-010.0489.
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Lin at the cloth-cutting table in his shop. Photo by Paul Yee (April 1981), City of Vancouver Archives AM1523-S6-F70-: 2008-010.0461
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The front counter at Wing Hing. Photo by Paul Yee (April 1981), City of Vancouver Archives AM1523-S6-F72-: 2008-010.0498.
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A seamstress at work at Wing Hing. Photo by Paul Yee (April 1981), City of Vancouver Archives AM1523-S6-F70-: 2008-010.0463.
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200 block East Hastings Street. Photo by Paul Yee (1986), City of Vancouver Archives AM1523-S6-F73-: 2008-010.0522.
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Laundry on Market Alley, between Carrall and Main Streets, which was once home to businesses including pawnbrokers and restaurants. Photo by Paul Yee (1977), City of Vancouver Archives AM1523-S6-F63-: 2008-010.0329.
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At the time of this photograph, making Chinese sausages for 33 years and counting. Kam Yen Jan sausage makers at 223 Keefer Street. Photo by Paul Yee (1981), City of Vancouver Archives AM1523-S6-F72-: 2008-010.0505.
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A Cantonese opera rehearsal at the Ching Won Music Association. Photo by Paul Yee (1980), City of Vancouver Archives AM1523-S6-F70-: 2008-010.0456.
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The Stratford Hotel, built in 1912, now Fan Tower Apartments. Photo by Paul Yee (1986), City of Vancouver Archives AM1523-S6-F74-: 2008-010.0531.
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The Huynh family’s Phnom Penh, one of Chinatown’s legacy restaurants still around today. Photo by Paul Yee (1986), City of Vancouver AM1523-S6-F73-: 2008-010.0516.
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The Church of Vancouver at 539 Gore Avenue. Photo by Paul Yee (1986), City of Vancouver AM1523-S6-F73-: 2008-010.0520
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Chinatown Market on 200 block East Georgia Street. Photo by Paul Yee (1986), City of Vancouver AM1523-S6-F73-: 2008-010.0515.
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Golden Crown Centre in the works; still at Main and East Georgia today (and once home of The Tyee office). Designed by James Cheng of Vancouverism fame. Photo by Paul Yee (1986), City of Vancouver AM1523-S6-F73-: 2008-010.0510.
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‘Temple Shoppe, Chinese & Oriental Artcrafts & Gifts.’ 123 East Pender. Photo by Paul Yee (1975), City of Vancouver Archives AM1523-S6-F72-: 2008-010.0505.
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Hong Kong Cafe, with an ad for a film at the Golden Harvest Theatre at 319 Main, which showed chopsocky fare like Bruce Lee films. Photo by Paul Yee (1986), City of Vancouver AM1523-S6-F74-: 2008-010.0528.
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200 block East Hastings Street. Photo by Paul Yee (1986), City of Vancouver AM1523-S6-F73-: 2008-010.0523.
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The Mau Dan Gardens housing co-op, built in 1981, was the last of five projects built to serve residents whose homes were expropriated in the public urban renewal scheme in 1965. It was designed by the late Joe Wai and Spaceworks Architects. Photo by Paul Yee (1986), City of Vancouver AM1523-S6-F74-: 2008-010.0530.

You can read the City of Vancouver Archives’ summary of what’s available in the Paul Yee fonds here.  [Tyee]

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