October 26thHistorian John Atkin takes us to the Alleys of Carrall Street

October 26th, 2010 Review
Written by: Samantha Knopp

For today’s Walking Home Carrall Street session local civic historian and author, John Atkin, once again treated us to the “off-the-record” account of Vancouver’s past. Last week, John had given us an overview of Carrall Street, but the agenda for today took us off our usual route and brought us to two very different alleys. We again began at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, and quickly walked west to Carrall Street to start our investigation in Shanghai Alley.

John Atkin pointing out some local history (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

Despite the name, this alley seemed more like a quiet side street than a replica of Shanghai, China. John explained that the lane did at one time have a much stronger presence in the neighbourhood, although the extent of its influence is often overstated. This alley is often cited as the beginning of Vancouver’s Chinatown, but as we remembered from last week, this used to be the site of the Royal City Planing Mill! The early Chinese community started along Carrall and Pender Streets, and it was only after the Great Vancouver Fire of 1886 – when the mill (and most of Vancouver) was burnt to the ground – that this enclave slowly became recognized as a part of Chinatown. Amazingly, the alley was never more than a few apartments, shops, and for a brief period, a Chinese Opera House. John told us that he suspects the hyped up history that’s been given to the alley is a tourism initiative given to this place because of its evocative name.

Shanghai Alley is pretty quiet (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

John went on to point out how many of the restoration efforts in Chinatown, including Shanghai Alley, came with an intention to heighten the ambiance and celebrate the heritage of this neighbourhood. In doing so, the neighbourhood is perhaps a more attractive tourist destination, but the historical authenticity is diminished. John pointed out examples like the new lamp posts adorned with Chinese dragons, which seemed to better reflect the Hollywood notion of Chinatown than anything of this particular neighbourhood’s past. In fact, many residents of Chinatown feel that there are too many dragons, believing that they create an imbalance of yang energy based on Feng Shui traditions. Having established that this street didn’t offer the best representation of the neighbourhood’s past, the group was thirsty for something more authentic.

Pointing out history in Chinatown (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

It was as though John read our minds! As we crossed Pender and walked up Carrall, we found ourselves in a very different type of alley. Unlike the clean, bland atmosphere of Shanghai Alley we suddenly found ourselves face-to-face with the archetypal “sketchy back alley”. Each of us ignored our inner mother’s voice and followed John along the derelict back route inhabited by some of Vancouver’s most destitute. Now unmarked and unnoticed, John surprised us all by telling us that this former street, Market Alley, was once the hub of much commercial activity for Chinatown and Vancouver! He explained that in Vancouver’s early years, many of the first buildings lining Pender Street – which backs onto Market Alley – were the Chinese Associations. Their buildings acted both as businesses (the side facing Pender) and as accommodations for newcomers and visitors (the side facing Market Alley). With the traffic from these lodgings, the public market and City Hall (both located at the end of Market Alley along Main Street) many of the buildings also decided to open small shops in the back (on Market Alley) and a prosperous business community quickly blossomed. John even showed us some visual evidence that these shops once existed: doors with numbers above them, barred behind steel gates, as well as bricked over store windows. As many of us began to imagine ourselves in that not-so-distant past, we were snapped back into the present when a police car slowly rolled by, checking the alley for suspicious activity. John was quick to explain that what seemed like a dramatic transition from the past bustling market place to the present unfortunate uses of the alley, in fact was a lengthy process that began with the relocation of City Hall in 1929, followed by the closure of the public market, and then, finally, the end of BC Electric and the Interurban Railway in 1958.

One view of Market Alley (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

As we moved further east along Market Alley, John stopped at the Wing Sang building, the oldest building in Chinatown and now home to Rennie Marketing and the Rennie Collection. Built by Yip Sang in 1889, the building served two functions like many buildings along Pender Street and Market Alley: with Wing Sang Company at the front and lodgings, as well as a small opium factory, at the back. John explained that at the beginning of the 20th century, racism and anti-Asiatic sentiment in particular, was rampant in Vancouver, eventually fueling the formation of an Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL). In 1907, after an AEL meeting at City Hall, men stormed through the alley and other parts of Chinatown and Japantown, damaging and looting shops and residences in an event now known as the Vancouver Riot of 1907. A later investigation into the riot headed by William Lyon Mackenzie led to the discovery of the opium factory at #34 Market Alley in the Yue Shan Society (just west of the Wing Sang Building), and ultimately, Canada’s first drug legislation (it outlawed opium). It’s amazing that legislation from so long ago that was inspired by this area continues to have a profound impact on the neighbourhood to this day. Just as it was a century ago, the prohibition and criminalization of drugs is a hot topic, and the decisions made by government are a major factor in the drug addiction problems plaguing the Downtown Eastside.

34 Market Alley (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

Next, we crossed Columbia Street and headed into a different stretch of Market Alley. John explained that the many early businesses along Hastings Street were hotels, and that many of those had accompanying beer parlours and pool halls with their own separate entrances here on Market Alley. John explained that the next businesses to arrive were eateries, one of which, The Green Door, was the last business to close in the alley, finally closing its doors for good in 1987. Another notable building John made sure to point out was the Pantages Theatre. Despite its shabby exterior, the theatre built in 1907, is the oldest surviving vaudeville theatre in Canada! Unfortunately, it has fallen into disrepair through years of mismanagement and despite its obvious historic value, is currently on the chopping block for demolition! After learning some of the fantastical restoration projects near Shanghai Alley earlier in the day, there was a shared sense of frustration that a very real relic of Vancouver’s past seemed to garner no respect.

The back of Pantages Theatre on the left and famed illicit restaurants such as the Orange Door, on the right (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

Finally, we made our way to the end of Market Alley near Carnegie Community Centre, which is next to the old City Hall and public market, the former epicentre of this lane. John talked about the former Carnegie Library, at the intersection of Main and Hastings Streets, originally being Vancouver’s first public library, has since transitioned into the busiest Community Centre in Vancouver. Listen to the podcast below to hear how the Carnegie Library was built.

Group admiring the inside of the Carnegie Community Centre (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

We spent our last hour slowly making our way down Hastings Street back to the Garden. As we walked, John continued to enlighten us about the history of Hastings Street where architecturally, the buildings revealed the economic record of the 2oth century. We saw a distinct sawtooth pattern in building heights showing how an intended development of mid rise buildings, meant to be 5-6 stories, remains 1-4 stories because construction stopped as developers ran out of money.

Sawtooth pattern on Hastings Street (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

Today I started reflecting on how preserving history is no easy task. Depending on the curation, certain insignificant details can easily become exaggerated and immortalized, while the more poignant stories can just as easily be forgotten and lost. John pointed out the facades of buildings, some embellished, some branded with Heritage plaques. It’s striking how meaningful and alive history becomes through these walks. We see tremendous beauty or dereliction at first glance, and then learn there are innumerable secrets in Vancouver for those willing to dig a little bit deeper.

Sam Knopp

Some history on Hastings Street (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

The Map of Where We Went – Oct 26, 2010:

Youth Reviews

Jordan Isobel D.                                                                                          October 26, 2010
The speakers keep getting better every time. John Atkin is a very intelligent historian who adds his personal views about society, which I like to hear. I never thought we would get to do a tour of the alleys in the Downtown Eastside, but we did and it was awesome (besides the freezing cold – I should have dressed warmer). It was good to hear about the opium factories, and how drug use has affected the community through the decades. The prohibition and criminalization of drugs has led to the petty crimes, negative perspectives, and generalizations about that particular neighbourhood. I was happy with the way John addressed all the issues, and how he explained them to those of us who weren’t previously informed.

(photo credit: Gina Hetland)

Freya C.                                                                                                    October 26, 2010
Lime Green, Lime Green and Tangerine

(sickly sweet colors of the snakes I’m seeing)

Burn Red, Burn Red, Burn Red and Gold

(the deep dark colours of the snakes I hold)

“Wrong Number”, The Cure

Hmm, or maybe “Alley Cat” would have been more appropriate. I’m not a huge fan of The Cure but I must say, some of their songs really strike home; home like the city I live in, home like the state of mind I have, home like the reality I’m comfortable with? Home, like the city in this case. I find myself quite at home in the Downtown East Side. I like its colours and the music it evokes. There was so much green this time around, and so much orange, all framed with that insistent red. All the alleys and the streets seemed vibrant and thrilling.

Starting our tour I could just tell it was going to be beautiful. Our guide, the affable, witty, and informative John Atkin, was engaging right off the bat, and he had the most wonderful green coat. I’ve already looked through some of the photos and I must say that none of them can quite capture that colour. It was great, and it really set the tone for the rest of the walk. We were introduced to two alleys and both of them had that beautiful “natural’ feel. Not in that “look at how naturally everything works here” way, it was more in that “You let this place be for a couple decades and I want it back, signed: Mother Nature” sort of way. Trees growing out of walls, and moss and ferns, and beautiful green climbing its way through everything, and the birds all just felt so perfect. Disrepair can be beautiful.

While green things grew all around us, it was not possible to miss the built things. Buildings are beautiful as well. Old crumbling brick seemed to be holding the alleys up around us in most places. Crumbling brick and dumpsters, and all throughout a colour unexpected: Orange. It appeared in the strangest places: a wall, a door, a sign, a jacket, speckled all about with no logic, like colours in a city usually are. Orange would have not been noticed if not for its consistency in appearing illogically.

And last but certainly not least I shall mention the red and gold. Everywhere. Without fail. Chinatown is beautiful to my eyes, really, it’s just great. But after a while I get this strange peripheral impression that my eyes are bleeding. Honestly. Everything that’s built by the City seems to be red, and everything that is red apparently has to be accented by gold. Why? To make it all look authentic? I guess so. In the mix of buildings, everything had its frame. A squat building is framed by taller buildings, an alley is framed by walls and sky, and everything you see are framed by little bits of red, leaning in from all sides.

The scene that stuck out the most socially, aesthetically, emotionally, (for me) was one of the last facades we looked at. I looked past John’s green jacket to this new-looking building, and it was grey and black. I listened to him speaking about it, and I learned that it was a “purely modern facade”, that it was a piece of restoration work and important for the development of the area. I looked into its glass door and saw my face reflected back, and the faces of my peers. Behind us a green sports car rolled by. And next to the door is slumped a woman. She wears a bright orange windbreaker. A look at her face reveals she’s quite beautiful, but her expression leaves you with the impression that she’s not all there. The hypo on the street, leaning against her leg also gives that impression. The building doesn’t fit in on this street, but she seems to. I wonder what the facade will look like in fifty years. Will it still shine, all black and grey and glass? I don’t think so.

Lime green and tangerine.

Off the Record,

On the QT,


Very Hush-Hush

Uncovering old facades in the neighbourhood (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

Evan C.                                                                                                             October 26, 2010
Yesterday we went through the alleys in Chinatown. It was very interesting to learn that once Market Alley was a main business street, but later converted into an alley. I was very intrigued because most of the walls in there are new and there used to be more windows.

I noticed that there were a lot of people who were poverty stricken and heavily addicted to drugs. I found it interesting that we were in right beside them. I thought it was very insightful to see that while we live in such a high class place, there are people dealing with addictions that have to live on the street. It was an eye opening experience.

I enjoyed the fact that we are facing reality, and making it an educational experience and I thank you and the rest of the people in the group for supporting this!

Used needle return box (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

Lauren A.                                                                                                     October 26, 2010
On October 26th, Walking Home Projects took our school on a tour with John Atkin around the alleys of the downtown eastside and Chinatown. The first alley we ventured into was named Shanghai Alley. There is very little of this historical alley left – at the end of the alley there used to be a Chinese Opera House!

One of the very first things John mentioned really caught my attention; he told us that Chinatown is contemporarily built by the City, not the Chinese Community, in a way that is pleasing to the eye. One of the main problems this causes the Chinese community is, first of all, there are too many dragons to keep spiritual balance, and second, the dragons are facing the buildings. The dragons are all supposed to face outward in order to direct negative energy AWAY from the buildings. When they are facing the buildings, it directs all of the negative energy INTO the buildings, which makes the dragons pointless decorations. That, to me, is people being rude, and not respecting the Chinese culture.

The second alley we walked through was Market Alley, which, although it was full of garbage, homeless people, and drug addicts, had beautiful aged buildings. I have always desired to walk through the alleys of the Downtown Eastside to explore, and I finally got the privilege to do so yesterday. I had an incredible time; this program seems to get even better every single week!

History story boards in the cul-de-sac (photo credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

Nakiah S.                                                                                                     October 26, 2010
Walking Home Carrall St. Journal #5
Once again John Atkin has given us an amazing tour of Vancouver and its past. This time we walked through two of the most prominent alleys in Vancouver’s history, Shanghai Alley and Market Alley.

While waiting for John in the courtyard outside of the Classical Chinese Garden, we saw a monument to the Chinese soldiers in WWII. We later learned that the Chinese at one point weren’t allowed to fight for Canada, which was so crazy because in school we learn so much about the mistreatment of Native people, but nothing about the mistreatment of the Chinese.

As we walked across the street to Shanghai Alley we saw a paved brick road, clean streets, and history story boards in the roundabout at the end. The funny thing is, the old Shanghai Alley never had a paved brick road, instead it had wooden blocks. When the alley was being updated for the public, the City builders decided that even though the wood was still good, they wanted the alley to look pleasing and clean – so they installed concrete bricks instead.

While walking through Market Alley the smells were over powering, graffiti was on the walls, garbage was strewn everywhere and it had a general sense of being neglected. But only a few decades ago it was a bustling market with storefronts on both sides and many popular restaurants as well, such as the famous Green Door. Once the Interurban Railway stopped going through Vancouver, and cocaine and meth were introduced to the Downtown Eastside, people stopped coming to the markets and shops, which resulted in the downfall of Market Alley.

Click below to hear John Atkin talk about the Chinese Opera House, Pantages Theatre, the Wing Sang building and Carnegie Community Centre: