Walking Tour 2: Gastown & Chinatown
Start: Canada Place.
Finish: Maple Tree Square.
Time: 2 to 4 hours, not including shopping, eating, and sightseeing stops.
Best Time: Any day during business hours, but Chinatown is particularly active in the mornings. If you arrive between noon and 2pm, you can enjoy dim sum at many of the restaurants.
Worst Time: Chinatown's dead after 6pm, except on weekends in the summer, when they close a few streets to traffic and hold a traditional Asian night market from 6:30 to 11pm.
Chinatown and Gastown are two of Vancouver's most fascinating neighborhoods. Gastown has history and the kind of old-fashioned architecture that no longer exists downtown or in the West End. Chinatown has brightly colored facades, street markets, and the buzz of modern-day Cantonese commerce. One small travel advisory, however: The two neighborhoods border on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a skid-row area troubled by alcoholism and drug use. While there's actually little danger for outsiders, there is a good chance you'll cross paths with a down-and-outer here and there, particularly around Pigeon Park at the corner of Carrall and Hastings or outside the Carnegie Community Centre at Hastings and Main streets. The tour route has been designed to avoid these areas.
1. Canada Place
With its five tall Teflon sails and bowsprit jutting out into Burrard Inlet, Canada Place is meant to resemble a giant sailing ship. Inside, it's a convention center and giant cruise-ship terminal, with the Pan Pacific Vancouver perched on top. Around the perimeter is a promenade with plaques at regular intervals explaining the sights or providing mostly shipping-related historical tidbits. During the summer months, this area is jammed with tourists and passengers arriving and departing from Alaskan cruises; the rest of the year, you'll have it pretty much to yourself. A huge expansion, completed in 2009, tripled the available convention space and added additional docking facilities. Look west from Canada Place to see the glassy, new building under its living roof.
To follow the promenade, start by the flag poles, likely flying Canadian flags, and head north along the walkway. On the roof toward the far end of the pier, a pair of leaping metal lions, which are ringed with lights at night, point up and out toward a pair of peaks on the North Shore called the Lions. The mountains are so named for their supposed resemblance to the bronze lions in Trafalgar Square. But rough-minded early settlers called them Sheba's Paps, and later The Sisters. Continue around the promenade, and you'll turn and look back toward the LEGO-block port containers and the city skyline: The low-rise older buildings just beyond the railway tracks are Gastown.
To continue the tour, walk back toward the shore along the promenade, go down the steps, turn left, and curve along the sidewalk until you pass the Aqua Riva restaurant. Then turn left and go up the steps, taking an indoor shortcut to an elevated plaza. You're now at:
2. Granville Square
Had some ill-advised politicians and developers had their way, all of Gastown and Chinatown would have been replaced by towers like the one you see here at 200 Granville Sq. In 1970, the plans were drawn up and the bulldozers were set to move when a coalition of hippies, heritage lovers, and Chinatown merchants took to the barricades in revolt. This undistinguished building was the only one ever built, and the plan was abandoned soon afterward. The Vancouver Harbour Control Tower sits at the top, ushering in buzzing floatplanes.
At the east end of the plaza a doorway leads into:
3. Waterfront Station
Though this Beaux Arts edifice at 601 W. Cordova St. was converted into the SeaBus terminal in the 1970s (SkyTrain service was first added in 1985 with the Canada Line, the newest route, opening in 2009), the building was originally the CPR's Vancouver passenger-rail terminal. Look up high on the walls, and you'll see oil paintings depicting scenes you might encounter if you took the train across Canada (much easier then than now). On the main floor are a Starbucks and some tourist shops. This is also where you can catch the SeaBus over to Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver.
Leave by the front doors, turn left, and proceed to cobblestoned Water St., Gastown's main thoroughfare. The Landing, at 375 Water St., is home to some high-end retail stores and offices. As you walk along, note the Magasin Building at 332 Water St. Each of the column capitals bears the bronze head of a Gastown notable, among them Ray Saunders, the man who designed the:
4. Steam Clock
A quirky urban timepiece, the Steam Clock at Water and Cambie streets gives a steamy rendition of the Westminster Chimes every 15 minutes, drawing its power from the city's underground steam-heat system. A plaque on the base of the clock explains the mechanics of it all. (Note: The chimes can be erratic.)
Continue down Water St., past Hill's Native Art (165 Water St.), where Bill Clinton picked up a little bear statuette as a gift for you-know-who. At Abbott St., cross over to the south side and continue on Water St. until you come to the Gaoler's Mews building (12 Water St.). Duck in through the passageway and cross Carrall St. to reach:
5. The Irish Heather
This old Vancouver favorite in a new (since 2009) location serves excellent beer and good pub food. Look for its evening Long Table Series dinners, which seat 40 folks at a communal table. 210 Carrall St. tel. 604/688-9779.
Once you leave the pub, continue down Carrall St. to:
6. Maple Tree Square
A historic spot, Maple Tree Square is where Vancouver first began. The statue by the maple tree (not the original tree, but a replacement planted in the same spot) is of Gassy Jack Deighton, a riverboat captain and innkeeper who in 1867 erected Vancouver's first significant structure -- a saloon built in 24 hours by local mill workers. Deighton got the nickname Gassy because of his propensity to jaw on at length (gassing, as it was known) about whatever topic happened to spring to mind. In 1870, when the town was officially incorporated as Granville, it was home to exactly six businesses: a hotel, two stores, and three saloons. Most folks called it Gastown, after Jack. More recent history: On August 7, 1971, some 1,500 hippies gathered in the square for the Grasstown Smoke-In & Street Jamboree. There were riots, arrests, and lots of stoned people.
Continue south on Carrall St. to W. Cordova St., turn right, and walk 1 block to Abbott St. Turn left and walk 2 blocks down Abbott St., crossing W. Hastings St. and stopping at W. Pender St., where you get a great view of the:
7. Sun Tower
At 500 Beatty St., it was the tallest building in the British Empire when it was built in 1911 to house the publishing empire of Louis D. Taylor, publisher of Vancouver World. Not only was the building tall, but it was also slightly scandalous, thanks to the nine half-nude caryatids that gracefully support the cornice halfway up the building. Three years after the building opened, Louis D. was forced to sell it.
Cross W. Pender St. and continue on Abbott St. until you come to the entrance at 179 Keefer Place of:
8. T&T Supermarket
Think you know supermarkets? Unless your hometown is Hong Kong or Singapore, you haven't seen one like this. Just have a gander at the seafood display inside the doors: king crab, scallops, three different kinds of oysters, lobster, and geoducks. Farther in is a host of other wondrous products, including strange Asian fruits like rambutan, lychee, and the pungent durian. Browse, maybe pick up something you don't recognize, and have an impromptu picnic in nearby Andy Livingstone Park.
Outside, walk 1 block east on Keefer St. to Taylor St. Andy Livingstone Park is just ahead to your right, but to continue the tour, turn left on Taylor St. and walk 1 block north to Pender St. Turn right on Pender St. and walk 1 block. Now, you're in one of North America's most populous Chinatowns. Our first Chinatown stop, at 8 W. Pender St., is the:
9. Sam Kee Building
The world's thinnest office building -- at its base just shy of 1.5m deep (4 ft. 11 in. to be exact) -- was Sam Kee's way of thumbing his nose at both the city and his greedy next-door neighbor. In 1912, the city expropriated most of Kee's land in order to widen Pender Street but refused to compensate him for the tiny leftover strip. Kee's neighbor, meanwhile, hoped to pick up the leftover sliver dirt-cheap. The building was Kee's response. Huge bay windows helped maximize the available space, as did the extension of the basement well out underneath the sidewalk (note the glass blocks in the pavement).
Just behind the Sam Kee Building is the Shanghai Alley, which just 40 years ago was jampacked with stores, restaurants, a pawnshop, a theater, rooming houses, and a public bath. It's been semi-revitalized with historical information boards and the hulking West Han Dynasty Bell. More interesting is the Chinese Freemason's building, just across the street at 1 W. Pender St. The building could be a metaphor for the Chinese experience in Canada. On predominantly Anglo Carrall Street, the building is the picture of Victorian conformity. On the Pender Street side, on the other hand, the structure is exuberantly Chinese.
Walk 1 block farther (east) on Pender St., and you'll come to the:
10. Chinese Cultural Centre/Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park & Chinese Classical Garden
A modern building with an impressive traditional gate, the cultural center provides services and programs for the neighborhood's thousands of Chinese-speaking residents. Straight ahead as you enter the courtyard, a door set within a wall leads into the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park, a small urban park with a pond, walkways, and a nice gift shop selling scaled-down replicas of the ancient terra-cotta warriors unearthed in the tomb of Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Admission to the park is free. Adjoining the park, and accessible through another small doorway to the right of it, is the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Modeled after a Ming period (1368–1644) scholar's retreat in the Chinese city of Suzhou, this garden is definitely worth a visit. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, for whom the park and garden are named, is known as the father of modern China.
Exit the public park by the gate on the east side, turn left on Columbia St., and you'll find the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum and Archives at 555 Columbia St. From here, continue on Columbia St. up to Pender St., turn right and continue east, peeking in here and there to explore Chinese herbalist shops like Vitality Enterprises at 126 E. Pender St. At Main St., turn right and walk south 1 block to Keefer St. and:
11. Floata Seafood Restaurant
Though it's Canada's largest Chinese restaurant, it isn't easy to find. In classic Hong Kong–restaurant style, it's on the third floor of a bright red shopping plaza/parking garage. Time your arrival for midmorning dim sum (a kind of moving Chinese smorgasbord) if you can. 0 Keefer St. tel. 604/602-0368. www.floata.com.
To continue the tour, stroll east on Keefer St., lined with sometimes pungent sidewalk markets selling fresh fish, fruit, and vegetables. Turn left on Gore Ave., and walk 1 block north to Pender St. On your left, at 296 E. Pender St., is the:
12. Kuomintang Building
Though often a mystery to outsiders, politics was and remains an important part of life in Chinatown. Vancouver was long a stronghold of the Chinese Nationalist League, or Kuomintang (KMT), whose founder, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, stayed in Vancouver for a time raising funds. In 1920, the party erected this building to serve as its western Canadian headquarters. When the rival Chinese Communist party emerged victorious from the 1949 Chinese civil war, KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan. Note the Taiwanese flag on the roof.
Continue north on Gore Ave. for 2 blocks, crossing Pender and Hastings streets. At the corner of Gore Ave. and Cordova St. (303 E. Cordova St.) stands:
13. St. James Anglican Church
Just before getting this commission, architect Adrian Gilbert Scott had designed a cathedral in Cairo -- and it shows. Cater-corner to the church, the Firehall Arts Centre presents a range of performing and visual arts in an old fire station.
Walking a half block further west on Cordova St. brings you to the:
14. Vancouver Police Museum
Located in the former Coroner's Court at 240 E. Cordova St., the Vancouver Police Museum is worth a visit if you're in a macabre mood. Among other displays, the museum has the autopsy report of Errol Flynn, who died in Vancouver in 1959 in the arms of his 17-year-old girlfriend.
Back on Gore Ave., walk north 2 blocks to Alexander St. Turn left and walk 1 block west on Alexander St. to the:
15. Crab Park Overpass
City Hall calls it Portside Park, and that's how it appears on the map. But to everyone else, it's Crab Park. It was created after long and vigorous lobbying by eastside activists, who reasoned that poor downtown residents had as much right to beach access as anyone else. The park is pleasant, though for those on a tight schedule it's not worth the trouble of walking all the way up and over the overpass. What is worthwhile, however, is walking halfway up to where two stone Chinese lions stand guard. From here, you can look back at Canada Place -- where the tour started -- or at the container port and fish plant to your right.
To bring the tour to an end, return to Alexander St. and walk 2 blocks west back to Maple Tree Sq. (stop 6).