Vancouver Centennial Plaque #2 – Shanghai Alley


Shanghai Alley, Chinatown (Pender & Carrall)


On the end of the Sam Kee Building


Missing, but other plaques displayed



For four decades, this was a centre of activity for Vancouver's Chinese community. Stores, restaurants, a pawnshop, a public bath and Vancouver's first Chinese theatre building, The Sing Kew Playhouse, were crowded into this lane. A parallel venue, Canton Alley, was located west of here. It was demolished in 1949.”

Credit: Vancouver Centennial Commission, Historic Plaque Program – list and documentation plaques 1-49 (June 18, 1986). Courtesy of Vancouver Archives


If you read about the early history of Chinatown, you’ll often hear the fact that Shanghai Alley (and Canton Alley nearby) were at the heart of the community in the 1880-90s. But that might not be entirely true! The 1889 insurance map shows nothing built in the location, the 1901 map shows a handful of buildings and freight sheds, and it’s only in the 1911 map that the alley actually appears.

The first mention of Shanghai Alley that I can find is in 1905 when the Canadian Pacific Railway was charged with causing a menace to public health by the filthy nature of the alley. CPR’s defence was that they’d sold all the property to “Chinamen” and didn’t own it anymore. They said it was “only a private walk on private property”, but they’d be willing to have it dedicated as a public street, so the city could deal with the mess!

Like the embellished history of Gastown, with the focus on “historic” items that were actually only installed in the 1970s (steam clock, I’m looking at you!), I think efforts to promote Chinatown have tried to conjure up an image of a bustling historic thoroughfare, which wasn’t necessarily true.

And it doesn’t help that there are basically no good photos of the alley! There is, however, a lovely short film from 1956 called ‘Summer Afternoon’ that shows two boys exploring Chinatown, including a brief walk down Shanghai Alley. You can watch it here – the Shanghai Alley part starts around 17:30.

The alley is now the Chinatown Heritage Alley and there’s a display of several interpretative panels at the south end, plus the Western Han Dynasty Bell – a replica of one unearthed in Guangzhou, China, that was presented to the people of Vancouver to celebrate 15 years of the two cities being twins.

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