Among Vancouver’s top “must see” attractions, Chinatown holds a lofty position. Not only is this an excellent neighborhood to go for great food and to shop for fun souvenirs, it’s one of the most historically significant areas in the city. The entire neighborhood can be explored on foot, allowing you to take in all the sights, sounds, and smells of this culturally vibrant area.
As designated by the City of Vancouver, Chinatown encompasses everything from the alley between Pender and Hastings Streets, Georgia Street, Gore Avenue, and Taylor Street. The majority of the shops and restaurants can be found on Main, Pender, and Keefer Streets.
Chinatown is just south of Gastown and just to the west of the Downtown Eastside. It is easily accessible by car but you can save yourself the traffic and the parking by simply jumping on the Skytrain and getting off at Stadium-Chinatown station. Since the entire neighborhood is walkable, you won’t need your car to get around anyways.
Vancouver’s Chinatown dates back to the late 1800s and started to form when Chinese immigrants began arriving and looking for work. Some were lured by the gold rush but many came here to seek employment in the construction of the Canadian Pacific railway. Vancouver’s Chinatown is the largest in Canada and it is currently one of the oldest existing Chinatowns in all of North America. In 2011 it was named a National Historic Site of Canada and within its limits are many old heritage buildings, every one of them filled with their own interesting stories and priceless histories.
A walk around Chinatown will take you to many incredible historical landmarks, the most iconic of which being the Chinatown Millenium Gate. The Millennium Gate features 3 traditional Chinese tile-roofed arches and it marks the western boundary of Chinatown. In Chinese characters there is an inscription reading “Remember the past and look forward to the future.”
In your tour of Chinatown you’ll also come across the Chinese Freemasons Building which was built in 1920 by the Chee Kung Tong, a traditional Chinese fraternal organization. The organization later changed their name to the Chinese Freemasons in order to create a connection to the European Freemasons.
One of the most visited and beloved sites in Chinatown is the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, named for the philosopher, physician, and politician, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, who played a large role in overthrowing the Qing dynasty and served as the first president of the Republic of China. This garden was the first classical Chinese garden outside of China and it opened in 1986, just in time for the 1986 World’s Fair, Expo ‘86.
You’ll also want to head over to the Chinese Cultural Centre, the first museum in Canada dedicated to Chinese history and culture. It was founded in 1973 through community support from 53 different Chinese organizations in Greater Vancouver. Here you’ll find an archive and a small museum with exhibitions showcasing the works of Chinese-Canadian artists from all around the Lower Mainland.
Another notable stop along your tour is the Sam Kee building. Built in 1913, it currently holds the Guinness World Record for the narrowest building in the world, measuring in at only 4 feet and 11 inches wide. Check out the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s Chinatown Guide for even more historical landmarks and interesting tidbits about the city.
History isn’t the only thing you’ll find on the streets of Chinatown, there is plenty of shopping as well. A good deal of the shopping in the area consists of Chinese goods and imports such as Chinese antiques, souvenirs, home furnishings, and Chinese fashion. You’ll also find markets and apocatheries selling hard to find Chinese ingredients and specialty items.
At Ming Wo Cookware, a kitchen supply store which was originally opened in 1917, you’ll find all kinds of housewares, appliances, bakeware, and other necessities for the kitchen. For high-end Chinese antiques, traditional furniture, and home accessories, check out Décor of China. At Ochi you’ll find dresses and other pieces of traditional Chinese fashion made from high quality, beautifully coloured fabrics. Bamboo Village is always an interesting stop, with their large collection of Chinese handicrafts, antique furniture, gifts, and housewares handpicked from all over China.
You might want to visit Chinatown for the food alone. The BBQ and roasted meat shops are an integral part of the culture in Chinatown and while the streets used to be filled with them in the past, a few still remain. Check out Chinatown BBQ for their roasted rack of crispy pork, soy sauce chicken, BBQ duck, or any of their delectable side dishes. If you’re in the mood for noodles you can dine at Fat Mao Noodles, a contemporary Asian noodle bar featuring Thai-Chinese dishes.
Sai Woo and the Union are the best spots to go for Pan Asian cuisine within a chic setting. For the best seafood and dim sum, you’ll want to head to Floata, or you can try Kam Wai Dim Sum if you only want a quick bite or you’d like to pick up some frozen dim sum for later. Bao Bei is an excellent choice for an intimate meal or some small plates to share, accompanied by a cocktail or some sake.
Chinatown dates back to the earliest times in Vancouver’s history, and much of that past is still very much alive when you visit this neighborhood, but there is a hip and contemporary side to the area as well. When you’ve finished brushing up on the local lore, kick back at the Keefer Bar and treat yourself to some tasty libations in this exotic watering hole. The ambiance here is dark and inviting, with some old world apothecary vibes.
The Fortune Sound Club is a chic and lively dance club featuring a state-of-the-art sound system and regular events that keep the bodies moving. Friday nights are home to Happy Ending Fridays, Fortune’s weekly flagship event, while Saturday nights are reserved for Sup Fu? Saturdays, Fortune’s premier weekly hip-hop night. Check their events page for other special guests and musical features.
If you want to see everything Vancouver has to offer and get a true understanding of its history and people, don’t skip a visit to the historical site of Chinatown. Much of what this city is comes from the labor, culture, and influence of the Chinese immigrants who came to Vancouver and built their legacies here. Chinatown’s old buildings have many stories to tell while the new businesses that have come into the area keep the neighborhood alive and vibrant. Spend some time here, taste some of the exotic flavors, peruse the markets, and grab a unique souvenir before you go.