252 East Georgia Street

260 E Georgia

Our 1978 image shows two adjacent buildings that had fairly recently been renovated to match each other. The four window building closest to us was originally constructed in 1930, while the three bay building next door to the east possibly dates in part back to 1910. It’s possible that the earlier building was significantly altered in 1930 when the nearer structure was built; both got another make-over in 1974.

The smaller 1930 building was a residential and commercial building built by Chinese trader Hok Yat Louie. He arrived in Canada from the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong at the end of the 1890s, paying the head tax to be allowed to live in Victoria. Having been a farmer in China, he moved to Vancouver and worked in the Hastings Mill, and then as a market gardener on the north shore of the Fraser River. He learned English from a textbook while riding his cart to market in Vancouver, and in the early 1900s had saved enough money to open a grocery store and farm supply business on Westminster Avenue (today’s Main Street). He was supporting his wife and children he had left behind in China, but could also afford to have a second wife arrive from China. They would have eleven children together, and a few years later Hok Yat was sufficiently successful in business to acquire the A Urquhart Block on East Georgia (across from these buildings) where the family lived until he built this new property in 1930.

Journal-of-Commerce-Oct-23-1929-p1-252-E-Georgia-StThanks to Patrick Gunn’s research we know that when the 1930 building was constructed, the Journal of Commerce reported it, and so helped identify the designer. While he wasn’t allowed to call himself an architect (because he was Chinese, and so couldn’t register as an architect), W H Chow had designed many of Chinatown’s buildings and improvements over several decades.

Given the context of the time, the investment was pretty remarkable. The recession caused by the stock market crash of 1929 was in full swing. W H Malkin, a rival (and much larger) wholesaler had been elected mayor in 1929 and immediately moved to limit what he called ‘Oriental stores to fixed Oriental districts’. The three large food distribution companies in the city (including Malkin) did their best to ensure H Y Louie couldn’t easily buy from major suppliers, severely impacting the profit he could make as a wholesaler. Minimum wage legislation in the late 1920s had also had an unfortunate impact on the Chinese workforce who were Louie’s retail customers. If employers couldn’t pay their Chinese workers less, then many preferred not to employ them at all. At one point during the recession, it was estimated that 80% of Chinatown residents were jobless.

Hok Yat took his first and only trip back to China in 1934, where he visited his 92-year-old mother and saw his first family for the first time in nearly 40 years. He never returned to Vancouver, dying in Hong Kong on the return journey. The H Y Louie company passed into the control of his eldest sons, Tim, who was only 21, and Tong, a year younger. They nursed the company through the recession and into the middle of the century, expanding steadily, establishing the IGA brand in British Columbia in the 1950s and acquiring London Drugs in the 1970s.

While the older building to the east is said to have been altered and utilized by H Y Louie in 1930, we’re not so sure that the alterations were substantial. The building had originally been built by M O’Keefe for Champion and White, a building supply company whose main warehouse was round the corner on Westminster Avenue. They built a two-storey structure here as a stables, obtaining a permit in 1909 for a $12,000 investment. The 1930 insurance map shows it was two storeys, with a hay barn over and two automobiles parked at the back with access from the lane. W H Chow’s design in 1930 for H Y Louie’s building isn’t really contemporary, so we surmise that he took his design cue from the adjacent warehouse that H Y had also acquired (possibly some years earlier). It’s likely that the façade we see today was altered when the use switched from stables to warehouse. Champion and White had stopped using the stable some years earlier – the 1928 street directory referred to ‘Chinese stables’.

The family were still using the premises in the 1950s, although they no longer used the building across the street. Today Chinese retail businesses occupy both stores here, with a seafood market in the H Y Louie 1930 building and a produce and grocery store in the former stables next door.

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Posted September 5, 2016 by ChangingCity in Chinatown, Still Standing

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