Chinatown · History · Vancouver

Poking Around Shanghai Alley

“By the 1890s there were more than a thousand people living in Shanghai Alley, a block-long dirt laneway bustling with activity. Restaurants, laundries and stores operated at street level while small apartments were located in the tenements and rooming houses above. One block to the west there was a second short laneway, called Canton Alley. Together they comprised the heart of Vancouver’s Chinatown before its expansion down Pender Street.”

The above statement is incorrect. Shanghai Alley did not exist in 1890 and Canton Alley was not built until 1903. I don’t know where the statement originates from, though a version of it is on the interpretive panels at the southern end of Shanghai Alley, and is repeated on many web sites including the UBC Library’s Chinese in BC site.

A search of relevant works on Chinatown’s history finds that the alley is rarely mentioned; Paul Yee’s Saltwater City makes no reference to the alley except to note the damage done in the 1907 riot; Kay Anderson’s extensive writing on Chinatown mentions the alley only in passing when discussing the problem of prostitution migrating to it; Quene Yip’s booklet for the City’s Jubilee in 1936 makes no special mention of the alley; and Major Matthew’s seven volumes of collected notes make only a passing reference to the alley.

Unfortunately, in recent years various well meaning efforts have elevated Shanghai Alley to an importance it did not have during its active life.

Some history.

In 1887, a local newspaper noted the establishment of a “China-town” at the south end of Carrall Street at Dupont Street near the edge of False Creek. As the community grew it expanded east on Dupont Street (today’s Pender) from Carrall to Westminster Avenue (today’s Main Street). Along the creek’s edge on Carrall a number of temporary cabins and crude tenements served a variety of men working at the nearby Royal City sawmill.

The 1891 directory for example, list the following residents and businesses on Carrall Street:

East side:
516 Opera Resort saloon (at the corner of Pender and Carrall), John Sparrow, proprietor
518 occupied
526 vacant
532 Mrs. Legrand
Mrs. Mary Novis
534 Central Wood and Coal yard, John McDowell prop
538 vacant
540 Jim Kee laundry
Vacant cabin
542 stable
550 James Woodworth & Co.
556 vacant
558 vacant
566 Royal City Planing Mills Co.

West side:
Nothing listed. This matches information found on fire insurance maps.

The same 1891 directory listing for Dupont Street shows the extent of the early Chinese district between Carrall and Main Street. Sixteen Chinese businesses could be found on the north side of the street and thirty one on the south side.

In 1900, the health inspector counted 1500 men living on Dupont Street, by the time the count was conducted in 1901, the Dupont Street population had jumped to over 2000 men along with 27 women and 26 children.

In the same period the site of Shanghai Alley was occupied by a machine and moulding shop belonging to the Ross and Howard Foundry and an ice house belonging to the Cleeve Canning and Cold Storage Company. Development on the west side of Carrall Street dates from 1900 with buildings at the corner of Dupont Street for the Sam Kee Company followed by a three lot development to the south in 1901. The Chinese Reform Association built their new building in 1903 next door which was followed by a 1904 structure at the end of the street.

The development of Shanghai Alley dates from the construction of the Wing Sang Company’s huge five building Canton Alley tenement in 1903/4 which established the western edge of Shanghai Alley. Building owners on Carrall Street then extended their buildings to provide a frontage on the alley beginning in 1904. The street appears in city directories for the first time in 1905.

The 1905 Chinese business directory section of Henderson’s Directory lists just one business on Shanghai Alley, though a small number of businesses are listed on Canton Alley. By 1907 there were only six businesses listed on the alley and the compensation report for damages resulting from the riot of the same year list the same six businesses as receiving money.

So Shanghai Alley is a late development in Chinatown and certainly not the birthplace it is portrayed to be.

Early Development of Shanghai Alley

The Sing Kew Theatre is often referenced to support the early existence of the alley and has been noted as being in Shanghai Alley as early as 1898 – in 1947 the city’s archivist recalled a visit to a theatre in Chinatown at this time though he doesn’t give a location but it is taken as the Sing Kew. But evidence doesn’t support the original Sing Kew theatre being in the alley since its location was occupied by the Ross and Howard foundry buildings.

A glance at the 1897 fire insurance map shows a “Chinese Theatre” on the edge of False Creek behind a tenement building. It’s a two storey building which would fit Matthew’s brief description and it is the original Sing Kew. The old Hart’s Opera House on Carrall was rented by a group of Chinese businessmen in the mid-1890s as a venue for Cantonese Opera and the venture proved to be successful enough that they decided on building their own theatre. Tenders were called in 1897 and the theatre opened shortly there after.

Located at roughly the location of the entrance to the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Classical Garden the Sing Kew Opera House became a popular venue for all sorts of performances and even political meetings – the original cross-cultural meeting place. The lane at the rear of the buildings on Pender Street became known as Chinese Opera House Alley. However redevelopment of the block for the Great Northern train station and freight yards in 1905 resulted in the theatre moving into Shanghai Alley.

A 1907 photo of Shanghai Alley shows a sign indicating an upstairs theatre in a building that was constructed in 1904. Building permits show W.H. Chow working on alterations to a building at 5441/2 noted as the address of the Sing Kew theatre in 1904 and again in 1914 when significant renovations were carried out. Plans exist in the Vancouver Archives.

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