Spend an afternoon on Pender Street with Larry Wong and you’ll never look at Vancouver’s Chinatown the same way again.
I met the salt-and-pepper-haired community historian at the New Town café, a hard-to-miss restaurant with a giant steam bun on its awning. Larry swears New Town has the best egg tarts in Vancouver. As I scraped the last bit of flaky tart shell off my plate I was hard-pressed to disagree. They are objectively good.
“For a very long time, particularly in my teens, I hated being Chinese,” he told me. “Growing up as a member of a minority group in a Caucasian world was overwhelming.”
Larry was born on Pender Street in 1938. At the time, B.C. was in many ways a hostile place for Chinese Canadians. The racist “head tax” that targeted them had only recently been abolished (1923). And they had yet to win back the right to vote or hold public office – rights denied them at Confederation, rights they won back in 1947.
Once ashamed of his culture, Larry’s since become a voracious chronicler – and celebrator – of Chinese Canadian stories. In addition to co-founding the Chinese Canadian Historical Society and writing a book about his childhood in Chinatown, he volunteers much of his time to community work.
“It wasn't until I matured that I began to appreciate my heritage. I regretted ignoring the Chinese language but I made up for it by learning as much as I can about the history of my family and of Chinatown and of China.”
Wong family portrait (Larry's the baby).
I met Larry at New Town because I was looking for stories, local stories about B.C.’s Chinese Canadian community, to complement the documentaries we’ll be airing over the next 27 weeks exploring the birth of modern China. Much like China catapulted to superpower status in just under a century, B.C.’s Chinese Canadian community has grown significantly – both in numbers and influence. By 2011, Chinese Canadians made up nearly 15 per cent of British Columbians, according to figures from the provincial government.
Larry’s old Chinatown stomping grounds remain a central part of the community. The second biggest Chinatown in North America (next to San Francisco’s), every building has a story, every lamppost a logic. Larry remembers it in its 1960 heydays.
“On a Saturday night it was impossible to park in Chinatown because it was such a vibrant place. We had the neon signs. The restaurants used to be open until two in the morning.”
He said the whole dynamic of the neighbourhood started to change about 20 years ago. "Part of the problem was when the drug scene overspilled from East Hastings Street."
In the dim stairwell at New Town café, Larry points out vintage photos he shot or curated. Images of “chop suey” in neon, pioneering teenage plane builders, and people celebrating the end of World War II line the walls. His reverent enthusiasm for the people and the places is contagious. Down the block, at the corner of Carrell and Pender, he points out poster boards with community stories, hanging in the windows of a beautiful heritage building. He tells me that behind the drawn shades, Bill Wong, “Chinatown’s last tailor”, is still making suits at 92.
“I bought my suit from him when I graduated from high school in 1957,” Larry said. “It was really kind of a thrill… would you like three buttons or two buttons? Centre vent or pinched waist?”
I asked him if he still has the suit.
“Are you kidding?” he laughed. “But it was a wonderful suit.”
Larry knows the people who built this community from scratch: the silk purveyors, the restauranteurs, the advocates and the business tycoons. He told me about the original owner of the restored brick heritage building at 51 East Pender, which is now home to Bob Rennie’s collection of contemporary art.
“Yip Sang had four families… 23 children. Each family had their own floor in that building. He also had a private tutor because he believed that all his children should be educated."
I tilted my head back to read the message Rennie installed at the top of the building in 2009. The modern all caps, subtle and silvery by day and neon by night, are a sampling of Martin Creed's artwork. EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT, it reads.
“There is a very conscious effort to revitalize Chinatown,” Larry said.
Larry Wong at the corner of Pender and Carrall streets.
What do you love most about the Chinatown in your community? Share your favourite spot or story below.