Chinatown stands just east of downtown Vancouver, beyond the iconic Millennium Gate. Ornate decorations, inscriptions in Chinese characters, and a pagoda-style roof serve as a grand welcome, and hint at the colorful neighborhood lying beyond. Visitors can freely explore the principle streets -- Pender, Keefer, Gore, and Main, to find a mix of herbalists, teahouses, restaurants, and import shops.
History of Vancouver's Chinatown:
Many Chinese workers came to Vancouver in the late 1800s to help build the trans-Canada railroad and work in dangerous mines. A community of Chinese workers and immigrants settled in this area, close to the city center in Gastown, and grew to encompass everything from laundries and family homes to opium dens.
Today, the neighborhood is a place to browse small shops, visit a traditional Chinese garden, and eat dim sum at local restaurants. If you're lucky, your visit will coincide with Chinese New Year.
Things to Do in Chinatown:
Chief among Chinatown's attractions is the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. In 2011, the book Secret Journeys from National Geographic named the 0.13-hectare walled garden as the world's best city garden. And with a strict adherence to Chinese landscaping techniques (most of what you see was brought directly from China), the garden shines in a serene balance of water, stone, and blossoms. If you love gardens, allow plenty of time for a guided tour.
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park neighbors the classical garden. It's less intricate, but still a wonderful spot to see fish ponds, greenery, and a small pagoda. Plus the park is free to visit.
People in Chinatown mark the lunar New Year (usually in late January or early February) with parades, dancing, music, and lion dances. There are festivities throughout the city, but the entrancing Chinese New Year Parade is one of the largest. It's certainly the best time of year to visit the neighborhood. For more Chinese New Year events, you'll want to visit Richmond -- a predominantly Chinese city to the south.
3. Shopping and Night Markets
Everyday, tiny shops display a range of imported goods, from faux silk dresses and painted trinkets to dried shrimp and candies. Most items are colorful and inexpensive. Other shops in Chinatown display food items and herbal remedies, all within easy sight of the sidewalk. The varying smells are as intense as the colors.
On summer weekends, Keefer Street becomes the open-air Chinatown Night Market. Stalls of clothes, plants, movies, and jewelry line both sides of the street each weekend evening. Prices are up for debate. The night market runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from mid-May to early September, and it's one of three Chinese-style night markets in Vancouver.
4. Heritage Buildings
Dozens of heritage buildings line the streets in Vancouver's Chinatown. Noted as the world's narrowest building, the Sam Kee Building at 8 W. Pender St. stands at only six feet deep. Look for the glass sidewalk tiles that allow light into the basement and the bay windows that make the resident insurance company a fish bowl.
Other iconic heritage buildings include the Chinese Benevolent Association at 108 E. Pender St., the Kuomintang Building at 525 Gore Ave., as well as the neighborhood's tiny alleyways like Shanghai Alley and Canton Alley.
5. Museums in Chinatown
The Chinese Cultural Centre Museum and Archives (555 Columbia St.) is a central source for information about Chinatown, but it's not a destination museum. Just wandering the streets or visiting the classical Chinese garden is far more interesting.
Also within Chinatown, there's a the new Vancouver location of the Royal BC Museum. Located in the historic Wing Sang Building, the museum opened in June, 2011 as a satellite branch of the main provincial museum in Victoria. Exhibits tend to focus more broadly on British Columbia life.
The Vancouver Police Museum sits just outside Chinatown and doesn't touch on Chinatown history, but it does reveal the grim side of Vancouver life. In a way, the museum makes a fitting visit, since Chinatown abuts the Downtown Eastside -- the site of much poverty, drug-use, and homelessness.
6. Chinatown Restaurants and Nightlife
Although typically small, busy, and brightly lit with florescent lights, Chinatown restaurants have expanded their offerings in recent years beyond traditional Dim Sum, barbecued duck, fried rice, and pastries.
The giant Floata Seafood Restaurant (180 Keefer St.; 604-602-0368) is massive and central to the neighborhood. Smaller eateries like Hon's Wonton House (268 Keefer St.; 604-685-0871) and Jade Dynasty Restaurant (137 E. Pender St.; 604-683-8816) have been long-standing dining choices, especially for family groups. For trendier takes on Chinese food, there's the widely lauded restaurant Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie (163 Keefer St.; 604-688-0876) and Wild Rice (117 W. Pender St.; 604-642-2882).
Chinatown also has a fun, casual nightlife, with bars like The Keefer (which uses Chinese-style ingredients for a huge list of original cocktails) and The Union (with its inventive food menu).