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Vancouver Neighbourhoods: Chinatown

Vancouver’s Chinatown, one of the largest in North America, dates back to 1885 and is among the city’s oldest communities.

Roughly bounded by Gore and Abbott Streets (east to west) and East Hastings to Expo Boulevard (north to south), this bustling and slightly gritty neighbourhood was in decline for many decades as Vancouver’s surging Asian population moved to nearby suburbs.

Today the City of Richmond, near Vancouver International Airport, arguably offers a more authentic view of modern Asian-Canadian life.

But downtown’s Chinatown is enjoying a resurgence thanks to the efforts of local business and cultural associations. It’s still a sentimental favourite of residents and tourists alike, and is a great place to shop, eat and learn about Chinese culture in Canada.

You can easily take in Chinatown’s highlights in just a few hours on foot. Start your explorations at the Stadium/Chinatown SkyTrain station and follow the exit signs for  “International Village.”

Come down the steps into the cul de sac where you’ll see the immensely popular Asian grocery chain, T&T, across the plaza. There are several of these stores in Vancouver, all busy with shoppers stocking up on rice, noodles, ready-made dim sum, and all manner of well-priced and exotic ingredients for South Asian recipes. It’s definitely worth a poke-around.

At the end of the cul de sac, turn left on Abbott and walk one block to W. Pender St. Turn right and you’ll see the Chinatown Millennium Gate ahead.

As you walk toward the gate, look for the Chinatown Heritage Alley sign on your right. Between 1890 and 1920, early Chinese immigrants settled in Shanghai Alley and Canton Alley. There was nothing romantic about their living conditions, a fact reinforced by the information panels lining the now-gentrified site of the original alleys. A few minutes here will give you a helpful overview of the important contributions of the Chinese community in Canada.

Walk the few steps back to Pender and turn right; you’ll pass the Sam Kee Building at 8 W. Pender. Just six feet wide, it is among the world’s narrowest buildings and has been recognized by Ripley’s Believe It or Not. There’s a lot of vintage architecture along this stretch–stop at any local store and pick up the free explanatory map prepared by the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Society.

Further along on your right is the China Gate, part of the China Pavilion at Expo 86 in Vancouver. Through the gate you’ll see the wall of the Dr. Sun Yet Sen Classical Chinese Garden (a good place to rest and regroup) and the backside of the Chinese Cultural Centres Museum and Archives, dedicated to preserving and promoting the history of Chinese Canadians.

At Main Street, turn right and spend as much time as you like exploring the shops and eateries in and around that intersection. If you need a snack, try The Boss bakery at 532 Main for a delicious cocktail bun (3 for $1.40) or pick up a Vietnamese meatball sandwich (about $4) from Golden Garden at 509 Main. For a tea break, try Ten Ren, under the green awaning at 550 Main.

You could also try the BBQ duck from one of several butchers in the area, or tuck into a mid-day meal of dim sum (try Floata–Canada’s largest Chinese restaurant–at 180 Keefer). And if you’re looking for something a little more upscale, Bao Bei at 163 Keefer, serves delicious small plates that blend Asian flavours with French bistro flair.

When you’re finished exploring, head west on Keefer, past Andy Livingstone Park where soccer enthusiasts of all ages play all day and well into the evenings on the pitches.

Keefer will take you back to the SkyTrain station, or if you like, you can pick up a #50 False Creek bus at a stop near Taylor St. that will take you directly to Granville Island. You could easily explore both Chinatown and Granville Island in a single day. In the summertime, you might want to start at Granville Island and finish the day in Chinatown to enjoy the traditional night market.

>>Related link: Guide to Vancouver

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Photo: Tom Ryan, Tourism Vancouver