Chinatown · History

There are no Tunnels in Chinatown

I get a lot of e-mails asking about underground Vancouver and specifically Chinatown.

Tunnel myths are found in almost every Chinatown in North America and their origin would seem to coincide with the rising tide of anti-Asian feeling in the late 19th century. In the popular press three common vices always ascribed to the Chinese community were gambling, opium and prostitution–activities that suited our view of the “wily celestial.” But since we could never find the evidence of such activity, they obviously did it somewhere in secret, maybe underground.

Reinforcing the popular stereotypes were articles such as a 1911 Chamber’s magazine article which described a police raid in Victoria’s Chinatown where the Chinese disappeared behind secret panels and trap doors – great copy but in fact the writer made the entire thing up.

Adding to the myth was a sideshow attraction at the 1915 San Francisco/Pan American exhibition purporting to show what really went on in the unseen Chinatown. Visitors to the Underground saw an opium den, the beds of which are occupied by comatose Caucasian women addicts in peril at the hands of some leering long-finger-nailed fellow in a robe. This reinforced the images seen in early film and the stories told by tour guides in various cities. This imagery continues to influence Hollywood’s view of Chinatown right through to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner to today.

In Vancouver there were only two opium factories–both legal until the federal drug laws were changed in 1908. Most opium was manufactured for export, though it was consumed locally. Most of the stories about the “evils” of Chinatown came from people with racist agendas.

Chinatown was on the edge of False Creek, it once came up to Pender Street and much of the surrounding area was marsh and swamp–not great tunnel-building material. Once the area developed permanent buildings began to appear and their basements were lit by glass prisms set in the sidewalks out front. The hollow sound of the sidewalk led people to believe there was something else going on other than just a space for a light well.

And it goes on. Guidebooks today still talk about the tunnels as something real and point to the entrance of the basement of the Sam Kee building as an entrance to the tunnel system but it’s just a basement.

2 thoughts on “There are no Tunnels in Chinatown

    1. I’d be interested to know if this is just goes under the sidewalk or if it connects to some other space on the block. Many older buildings had areaways, an extension of the basement under the sidewalk, for extra storage.

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