What, No Opium Dens?

No secret tunnels, either, in Vancouver’s Chinatown. It’s exotic enough without the dime-novel trappings

CLYDE GILMOUR January 15 1949

What, No Opium Dens?

No secret tunnels, either, in Vancouver’s Chinatown. It’s exotic enough without the dime-novel trappings

CLYDE GILMOUR January 15 1949

What, No Opium Dens?

No secret tunnels, either, in Vancouver’s Chinatown. It’s exotic enough without the dime-novel trappings


MR. AND Mrs. Michael Palmer of Grand Rapids, Mich., were honeymooning in Vancouver a few weeks ago and I met them at a party. Right away Nancy started asking me questions about Vancouver’s Chinatown.

“It must be fascinating,” she said. “I understand it’s the biggest Chinatown in Canada and second only to San Francisco on this continent. An old aunt of mine visited here a long time ago. After listening to her talk about it, I’m just dying to see the place.”

I asked her what sort of stories her aunt had told her about Chinatown. At that Mike snickered sardonically.

“Secret tunnels,” he said, leering and whispering. “Opium dens. White slavery. Inscrutable celestials in pigtails, with knives hidden up their silk sleeves.” “Gorgeous slant-eyed beauties with bound feet,” Nancy cut in, grinning. “Shadowy, sinister door-

ways. Ancient love drugs. Medicines made from the tongues of wild serpents. It sounds wonderful and I believe every word of it, too.”

The upshot was that we arranged a tour of Chinatown for the next day Our guide was a highly intelligent young Vancouver-born businessman named Wong. When I call him “Wong” I am making him almost as anonymous as “a guy named Joe.” There are about 7,000 Chinese in Canada named Wong. There were five of us: the honeymooning Palmers from Michigan, a Vancouver girl named Joan, my friend Wong, and myself.

Wong gave us a briefing as we started out. “Chinatown,” he told us, “covers about 20 city blocks halfway between the CPR and CNR stations. The population is about 5,000 in summer or 6,000 in winter. Right now is the time when hundreds of Chinese return to the city from their summer jobs in logging camps, sawmills, and farms in the Fraser Valley.” The entire Chinese population of Vancouver sometimes rises as high as 10,000 in winter. That’s

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about one third of the Chinese total for all Canada. There are about 17,000 in B.C.

The next biggest Chinatown in this country is Toronto’s, with 3,500. Victoria has 3,000, and Montreal 2,000. There are also good-sized Chinatowns in Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton, in that order. It would take almost all of them put together to equal San Francisco’s, with a population variously estimated at. 20,000 to 27,000.

We cruised slowly east on Pender Street, main thoroughfare of Chinatown. At first glance, there was nothing to get excited about. The dull brick buildings were drab and squat

and dirty. Except for dozens of Chinese trade names in glittering neon and thousands of Chinese walking the streets or killing time watching the others from store windows, we could see little of anything resembling “Oriental atmosphere.”

The girls began noticing several interesting-looking stores they wanted to examine more closely. We dismissed our taxi in mid-Chinatown and headed for a little place called the Wah Sun Book Shop. Its windows held no books at all, but a collection of stock including soaps, hair cream, eyebrow tweezers, nail files, and cheap costume jewelry made in Montreal.

Inside, thousands of paper-backed Chinese books were arrayed on shelves reaching from the floor to the ceiling. A Chinese bobby-soxer behind the

counter told us the books were everything from dictionaries to love stories, and most of them sold at 25 cents each. There were also some Chinese magazines, mainly from Canton and Shanghai. In each case the “front” cover was on the back. Chinese printing or writing is read from back to front, top to bottom, right to left. One magazine contained illustrated stories labeled Sinkiang Folk Songs and Dances, Chinese Ballet, Wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Shanghai Athletic Meet, Chinese Symphony Orchestra, and Collective Farms in the Soviet Union.

At the back of the store, paying no attention to us, was a Chinese boy of about 15, reading “Jumbo Comics” and whistling “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” from “Oklahoma”!

“Most of our customers are Chinese,” the bobby-soxer told us, “but we sell a lot of Chinese-English dictionaries to white people.” Another best seller, mostly to the Chinese, is a two-dollar booklet in both languages of a set of questions and answers useful in confronting a naturalization court.

The store next door fascinated the two girls even more than the bookshop. It’s the Chong Hing Wah Kee Co. Ltd.—English title, “Chinese Curio Shop.” There Nancy Palmer bought for $1.25 an ivory back-scratcher—a small ivory hand fastened at the end of an 18-inch bamboo stick. Her husband asked challengingly, “What’s that gadget got that I haven’t got?”

The curio shop’s shelves, just like the presence of trolley buses on Pender Street and Montreal jewelry in the Chinese bookshop, reflected a bland mixture of modernity and Orientalism. There was a magnificent camphor chest, made in China, with wonderfully carved human and animal figures on the cover, and inside an unforgettable pungent odor. Alongside it was an electric orange squeezer, modern as a jet plane. Other specialties in the store were fat, laughing Buddhas hugging their porcelain navels, and a fine variety of chinaware.

There Are No Idols

I suggested to Wong that our guests might like to visit the plant of The Chinese Times, Chinatown’s Chineselanguage daily newspaper. Our host there was the assistant editor, Saunder Gee, who at birth in China was named Gee Soot Sung. At school in China he was known as Gee Kum Shek, and still goes by that among some of his oldcountry friends. In Canada, as a newspaperman and amateur tennis player, he put the “Gee” at the tail end and substituted “Saunder” for “Sung.”

The Chinese Times’ circulation of about 4,000 goes all over Canada, although there are other Chinese dailies in Toronto and Victoria. There are no typewriters, no Linotypes: all news and advertising copy is handwritten and hand-set. The printers work with 4,000 characters and they’re quite nimble at it. The average story of 200 words takes only 12 minutes to set in type.

One member of the Chinese Times staff is reputed to be the oldest paper boy in Canada: Eng Hon Wan, 75. Wearing a wide variety of headgear, including a tiny skullcap, he delivers papers and works as handyman around the shop.

Saunder Gee got us into a part of Chinatown rarely seen by visitors: the Chinese Freemasons’ Hall. It’s a big, draughty room, not spectacular except for the far end, where we saw an impressive, canopied statue of a fabulous Chinese warrior named Kwan Wun Chang, who died 2,000 years ago.

Mr. Gee told us some of the Chinese Freemasons are Christians, and some —a minority—are followers of Confucius, the great sage who died 479 years before the birth of Christ. “There is no ‘worship of idols’ in Chinatown,” the editor explained. “The statue of Kwan Wun Chang is not adored but merely venerated, as a remembrance of a great national hero.”

That got the visitors asking Wong about religions in Chinatown. He said most of the younger, Canadian-born Chinese are Christians, like himself. In Chinatown there are Anglican, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United churches, and a Good Supper Mission. Each church has its own kindergarten and Sunday school, financed by the congregations without any help from either the city or the province.

Wong suggested we visit the quarters of the Chinese Trades and Labor Association to meet his friend Foon Sien, the president. On our way there, Mike Palmer nudged his wife into asking Wong about those secret tunnels, opium dens and white-slave pits her old aunt had told her about. Wong chuckled.

“As far as I can learn, there never were secret tunnels or emergency trap doors here, and certainly there aren’t any now,” he said. “As to white slavery, a Chinese went to jail here in 1935 for running a brothel, but that’s the only case I’ve ever heard of. Today there are 10 men to one woman in Chinatown, but there is very little prostitution.”

Mike asked, “What about dope? I always picture old Chinese smoking opium, but maybe I’ve seen too many movies.”

“Could be,” Wong grinned. “Actually, the situation was quite bad here until about 10 years ago. And farther back, before the First World War, a lot of highly respectable Chinese used to smoke opium quite openly. Today the stuff costs at least $100 for a small tin on the black market, and besides that it’s very hard to get.”

Across the Color Line

At the Chinese Trades and Labor Association we received a cheery welcome from Foon Sien, president, one of Vancouver’s best-known Chinese. He has a white wife, the former Joan Bailey of Moncton, N.B., daughter of a Scots father and an English mother. Foon and his family don’t live in Chinatown but in the city’s gracious Kitsilano district, in a pleasant house on a leafy street. There are no other Chinese in the neighborhood, but Mr. and Mrs. Foon and their three children get along fine with everybody and have had no trouble.

Besides his full-time job as head of the labor group, Mr. Foon is one of three “presidents” of the big, busy Vancouver branch of the Chinase Benevolent Association. Rather than submit to the confusion caused by the existence of three presidents, he and another executive, Chin Yee Hand, voluntarily began calling themselves “vice-presidents” in favor of Yee Sheung Ping, an affable cafe owner. Mr. Yee is the unofficial “mayor of Chinatown.”

The most important businessmen in Chinatown are James Lim, formerly known as Lim Gim, who is said to be Canada’s only Chinese millionaire, and Tim Louie, head of a big wholesale grocery firm.

Foon Sien blandly answered a lot of questions from the girls about mixed marriages. He said there are about 60 of these interracial unions in Vancouver. In almost all cases the husband is Chinese and the wife white.

In his own household, his wife speaks and writes nothing but English, but the children all understand the rudiments of Cantonese and one of his daughters, 17-year-old Josie, is planning to study Mandarin, the dialect of the Chinese scholars and officials. Divorces, whether in all-Chinese or in mixed marriages, are rare among the Chinese: Mr. Foon could remember

only about a dozen in five years.

Wong had told us about the “Canada widowers,” the thousands of Chinese who have wives in China but can’t bring them to this country until they become naturalized Canadians. In British Columbia they can’t become Canadian citizens until they have mastered enough English—or French— to satisfy the judge in the naturalization court. In other provinces they may use an interpreter to answer the court’s questions.

They Can’t Practice Law

Mr. Foon introduced us to a notable example of the “Canada widower”— Chin Foo, a gentle old man of 72 who is still obviously very much in love with the woman he married, although he hasn’t seen her for 27 years. He is still hoping to bring her to Canada before he dies. Meanwhile, out of his take-home pay of $35 a week as a shingle-packer in a sawmill, he sends to his wife in Canton $200 in Canadian money a year—equivalent to several billions in the troubled, inflationary China of today.

Today old Chin feels almost like a man without a country. He has been away from his homeland so long that he’d be treated as a foreigner if he went back there; yet he has never established roots in Canada. He speaks a little English, but can’t read it or write it, and he’s too old to learn. His hopes of ever qualifying for Canadian citizenship are dim.

From Chin, Foon and others we learned that most of the old Chinese, lonely and bewildered though they are, still feel happier in Canada than they would be, for instance, in San Francisco. They think there is more money in the U. S., but more discrimination, too. In Vancouver, the progressive younger Chinese enjoy a wide variety of job opportunities and are welcomed socially in hotels, night clubs, theatres and dance halls. (No Chinese, however, has ever joined a Vancouver golf club. “We don’t even try,” one of them told me.)

Today in Vancouver, Chinese work in restaurants, laundries, greengroceries, confectioneries, rooming houses, truck gardens, sawmills and shingle mills, and as barbers, watchmakers, butchers, wholesalers, peddlers, and laborers. There are five Chinese doctors, and the health of Chinatown is slowly improving, although overcrowding and low living standards still cause enough tuberculosis there to worry civic officials.

The benchers of the provincial law society have always refused to let Orientals practice law in the province. No such restriction exists anywhere else in Çanada, but even now the only Chinese lawyer in the country is Dock Yip of Toronto.

Vancouver has 2,000 Chinese living in almost every part of the city besides Chinatown. However, they have not yet “crashed” the exclusive British Properties district, nor the rich Shaughnessy Heights area except in the one case of the Chinase consul general, Dr. Hsueh Chili Wei. Dr. Hsueh occupies a house owned by the Chinese Government.

The “Chinese Shaughnessy” is in South Cambie district on Twenty-fifth Avenue. About 30 wealthy Chinase

merchants live there in houses costing $25,OCX) or more.

We got talking again about false myths such as secret tunnels, and Wong told us about another one, “tong wars.” He said tongs have never existed in Vancouver in the way they used to in San Francisco. “We have family tongs or clan associations here,” he said, “such as the Wongs, the I/ees, the Chins, and the Mahs. But they’ve never been warlike. The last big Chinatown fight occurred in 1934, but it was just a sudden flare-up between the Freemasons and the Wongs. A man was shot and wounded, but nobody was killed. The last Vancouver case of a Chinese murdering a Chinese was away back in 1924.”

At this point somebody mentioned Christy McDevitt and Foon and Wong shared an affectionate, nostalgic chuckle. McDevitt, an affable Irish journalist and dead-pan kidder, now edits Harbour and Shipping, a monthly magazine, but at various times he has been a circus press agent, a newspaper reporter and a professional orator.

McDevitt ran a fabulous one-man tourist bureau in Chinatown for several months in 1938. He hired jobless Chinese to run yelling through the crowd holding rubber daggers dripping with ketchup, just as McDevitt and his paying sight-seers were turning the corner. McDevitt now insists that his bizarre excursions were conducted with the full knowledge and consent of Chinese leaders in the community.

Our party finished up the evening with late dinner in the Bamboo Terrace, one of t he more prosperous of Chinatown’s native restaurants.

Many of the best-known “Chinese dishes” are not Chinese at all, but pseudo-Chinese, blandly invented for the exclusive patronage of Occidentals. For example, the famous “chop suey,” according to Wong, was created on the spur of the moment about 50 years ago at a banquet in New York. The host was Li-Hung Chang, Chinese “ambassador - extraordinary to the world.” The chef was caught unawares with many extra guests and didn’t know what to serve. So he just cut everything in the icebox into hundreds of small pieces and mixed them all together and called the result “chop suey.” Wong, who reads the comics, says chop suey is “like a Chinese version of a Dagwood sandwich, all chopped up.”

Almond chicken, however, is an authentic Chinese dish, and so are curried chicken and lemon chicken. The Chinese eat chicken in hundreds of different ways, and even used to swear a court oath on the freshly cutoff head of a rooster.

At home, Vancouver’s Chinese eat rice every day; it takes the place of cereal, bread and potatoes. They eat soup made from the nests of South China swallows. They like water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, preserved or dried ginger, squid, octopuses, kites, dried scallops, fleur-de-lis bulbs, bean curd, sea cucumber, shad, flounders, and dog salmon. Soybean sauces and vegetables stand high on the list.

Dried abalone meat from Suchow is an imported item highly prized by gourmets, including many Occidentals. An abalone is a mollusk with an earshaped shell. It is served sliced or diced and boiled with chicken, and in Vancouver it sells for $17 a pound. Another exotic item: baby sharks’ fins, grated and dried in squares, at $16 for one small box.

Vancouver’s five Chinese doctors keep busy all the year round. A stalwart assistant in their battle for better health is Chinatown’s “herbalist extraordinary,” K. H. (“Ned”) Lee. He deals in such potent Chinese medicines as dried sea dragons (“for vitamins”), dried sea horses (“for the kidneys”), and horn of wild cow from South China (“for the fever”). The cow horn makes a brew and sells at $3 an ounce.

Mr. Lee also stocks such items as dehydrated and powdered serpents’ eggs, tincture of jellyfish, seaweed salve, and powdered deer horns. The last must come from one particular kind of deer which roams the hills of Kwangtung province in June—not in May or July, but in June, when the medicinal saps are rising fastest toward the beast’s head. The powder is sprinkled on food like pepper. A year’s supply costs $70, and comes with an almost ironclad guarantee that the elixir will cure the rheum, tone up the blood, add 10 years to the life span, and ward off creditors.

Nancy Palmer was so impressed when she heard about it that she wanted to get some—enough, say, for about two weeks. But Mike wouldn’t buy it for her. He said her old aunt always recommended sulphur and molasses, and it still sounded pretty good to him. ★