None of the three buildings shown in this image (probably dating to early 1906) are still standing today. Indeed, we don’t think any of them lasted more than 10 years. We think the original brick building closest to us only stayed up for eight years, and was built in 1903. We’re pretty certain it was designed by W T Whiteway for Sam Kee, the company run by Chang Toy, described as ‘Brick & stone building’ and according to the permit, costing $12,000. The Sam Kee name can be seen on the building, and this is where the company was based for a while. Kwong Fat Yuen Co also had their name on the building; for a short while they operated as labour suppliers, and may have been related to a company of the same name in Shanghai.
The Daily World of June 19, 1903, confirms the building’s planning – with either a typo or price inflation: “Chinatown’s progress; A permit was taken out this morning for a building adjoining the tramway company’s property of Carrall Street for a Chinese firm. Mr. W. T. Whiteway is the architect. The building is to be two stories high and to be built of brick and stone. The cost is to be $13,000”. The building had a third storey added around 1907, but was demolished around 1910 and replaced by the BC Electric Railway Co’s building designed by W M Somervell, completed in 1911. That structure, still standing today as offices and a retail showroom, cost $350,000 and was built by McDonald and Wilson. No doubt Chang Toy made sure he was appropriately compensated for selling his property.
Beyond it to the south was the Chinese Methodist Mission fronting Pender Street. It was designed by Parr and Fee in 1899, and replaced only seven years later (soon after this picture) by the Chinese Freemasons Building constructed in 1906, for the Chee Kung Tong – a ‘secret society’ founded in the middle of the 19th Century by Chinese working in the BC gold fields. The permit, in summer 1906 was to Sing Sam, for a $20,000 3-storey brick and stone structure for stores & warehouse. Dr. Sun Yat Sen is reported to have stayed in the building, probably in 1911, while raising funds for his revolutionary Kuomintang party during his period of exile from China. It appears that the building may also have been mortgaged by the Tong in 1911 to support the revolution. In 1920 the organization changed their name to the Chinese Freemasons, although they are not associated with traditional freemasonry.
The original architect has not been identified; it could have been W T Whiteway who had several commissions in Chinatown. Alterations to the restaurant in the building costing $1,000 were designed by architect S B Birds in 1913; the owner was still Sing Sam. There was also a branch of the Bank of Vancouver on the ground floor. We don’t know a lot about Sam Sing, but we know he was wealthy enough to guarantee the $500 head tax for Fung Ying Quoy, and that he is buried in Mountain View Cemetery. He ran a store in the East Hotel (also designed by Samuel Birds), and in 1907 his business was based at 1 Canton Street, the address for which he received $335 in compensation for damage after that year’s anti-Asian riot.
The building was home to the Pekin Chop Suey House, whose slogan can still be seen today. The facades are all that remain of the original building; they were retained when the rest of the building was demolished in 1975, after a fire, and it was remodeled again in 2006 with architect Joe Wai restoring some of the lost heritage elements, and converting the upper floors to residential use.
Across Pender street was another Sam Kee property. We don’t know when he built this one, or who designed it, but it was 2 storeys, and already shows up on the 1901 insurance map – which was probably when it was built as before that the street directory suggests it was Cleeve Canning & Cold Storage Co and Bradbury & Brown’s stone cutting yard. This building lasted about 10 years, but in 1910 the city expropriated most of the land for road widening, leaving the company with a ‘useless’ (or so the City thought) six foot sliver. Chang Toy wasn’t too hard done by; the Sam Kee firm instructed its lawyer (W A Macdonald K C) to start negotiations for compensation of $70,000 to reach the desired value of $62,ooo. Then Bryan and Gillam were hired to design the $8,000 steel framed building that still stands there today on the shallow lot, completed in 1913, which added additional space under the sidewalk to squeeze in a barber’s store and bath house – but no secret tunnels.
Image source: City of Vancouver Archives CVA 677-522