There are 43 heritage buildings in Vancouver’s Chinatown known as Historic Sites of Canada which are witness of the Chinese community's defiance to discrimination and its impact in the growth of British Columbia; the Sam Kee Building is one of them.
Vancouver’s Chinatown is the largest in Canada and one of the most important Chinese enclaves in North America. Located near downtown Vancouver, the clearly defined neighbourhood is closely linked to the development of the city of Vancouver since its beginning in the latter part of the 19th Century, and with the social, cultural and commercial activities of Chinese immigrants in British Columbia and Canada.
Chinese Immigration in British Columbia
Some of the first Chinese immigrants in British Columbia (BC) were carpenters that came from Macau in 1788 to work in the shipyards. Many also came in the second half of the 19th Century during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush and as laborers for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Since the last decade of the 1800s and the beginning of the 20th Century, about a thousand Chinese immigrants settled in what was known as Shanghai Alley and Canton Alley, which were narrow lanes connected to Pender Street in the east side of downtown Vancouver.
Concerns over what some local media called “the Oriental Menace”, motivated legislation passed in 1885 imposing a heavy “head tax” on all immigrants from China. Later on, in 1923, the “Chinese Immigration Act” was approved by the Parliament of Canada denying the right to vote to thousands of resident Chinese Canadians and banning Chinese immigration to Canada. At the time, immigration from most countries was restricted to some degree, but only the Chinese were completely prohibited from entering the country.
The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 was repealed in 1947, however, effective independent Chinese immigration was allowed only in 1967, after significant changes of the Canadian immigration policy. In June 2006, on the basis of Bill C-333, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a full apology to the Chinese community for the head tax and the unfair exclusion legislation.
Vancouver’s Historic Chinatown
Over the years, more than 400,000 people of Chinese origin (about 19.2 percent of the total population) have made Greater Vancouver their home, contributing to enrich the ethnic diversity and cultural life of the metropolis.
Most Chinese living in the lower mainland reside now in Richmond, BC, but Vancouver’s Chinatown remains a very important center of the social and cultural life of the Chinese community. The neighbourhood is a very active commercial center and has a distinct collection of designated heritage buildings telling the story of success and drama in the life of the early Chinese dwellers. Because of its heritage value, in June 2010, Vancouver’s Chinatown was designated a National Historic Site of Canada.
In addition to many historic buildings, Vancouver’ Chinatown has one of the most beautiful and authentic Chinese Gardens outside of China. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and Park were developed in Chinatown in 1985. The Gardens were built with the purpose of maintaining and enhancing “the bridge of understanding between Chinese and Western cultures, promote Chinese culture generally, and be an integral part of the local community”.
The structure of the garden is based on the harmony of four main elements: rock, water, plants, and architecture. The Classical Garden is a full-size replica of a scholar’s garden of the Ming Dynasty Period.
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and Park, is named in honor of the nationalist leader Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925). This was the first full-size Chinese garden built outside of China. It was built between 1985 and 1986, in time for Vancouver Expo 86.
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and Park. The structure of the garden is based on the harmony of four main elements: rock, water, plants, and architecture.
Chang Toy, a.k.a. Sam Kee
Vancouver’s historic Chinatown has one of the largest concentrations of heritage buildings in British Columbia. Forty three properties located within the area are designated among Canada’s historic sites. One of these properties, the subject of this article, is the Sam Kee Building, located at 8 West Pender Street.
The owner of the lot at 8 West Pender St. in Chinatown was Chang Toy, a Chinese immigrant who came to BC in 1874 from Guangdong province of China to work as a laborer in a fish cannery. Chang also worked and became a foreman at a saw-mill in New Westminster where he was able to save some money to buy an interest in a laundry business in Vancouver. He bought his partner out and converted the laundry into a wholesale shop for Chinese groceries.
Chang branched out as a charcoal maker and a labour contractor for land clearing, salmon canning, timber processing and sugar refining. In the early 1890s, Chang, known in the Caucasian community as Sam Kee, founded the “Sam Kee Company” which operated a wide-ranging business acting as an importer and wholesaler of rice and general merchandise from China and exporter of fisheries products, such as salmon and herring, from British Columbia to China and Japan. His company purchased real state in Chinatown, other sectors of Vancouver, and Vancouver Island. By the first decade of the 20th Century, Chang, who spoke little or no English, had become one of the wealthiest businessmen in Chinatown and a one of the leading merchants in British Columbia. He died in 1921.
The Sam Kee Building
The Sam Kee building is one of the main tourist attractions of Vancouver’s Chinatown. It was built in 1913 by architects Bryan and Gillam in a very narrow lot located near the entrance to Chinatown, where the arch known as The Millennium Gate was erected in 2002.
The original size of Chang’s lot in West Pender was larger, but the city expropriated a large portion of it (without compensation) to widen Pender Street. The very narrow piece of land remaining in his property was left nearly useless. However, Chang decided to build there anyway. His two-story building, completed in 1913, is only 1.5 metre deep (4 feet, 11 inches) at the base. The second floor is somewhat deeper because of the balconies and bay windows which bring the structure to a depth of 1.83 metre (6 feet). The main floor was used as offices and shops while the second floor was used as a residence. There is also a wider basement under the sidewalk which used to house public baths for Chinatown residents.
The very narrow proportions of the steel-framed structure make this construction “the shallowest commercial building in the world” according to the “Guinness Book of World Records”, while “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” calls it “the thinnest building in the world”.
The building was restored in 1986 by Jack Chow, its present owner. Chow operates a Vehicle and General Insurance office in the building which he calls the “World's Famous Building” and “The Most Unique Insurance Store in the World”. Although the building is so narrow it could be missed by a distracted passerby, the bright red balconies and projecting bay windows on the second floor, which are characteristic of many historic Chinatown buildings, are particularly eye-catching and cannot be overlooked.
Jack Chow's Insurance Office in the Sam Kee Building which he calls “The Most Unique Insurance Store in the World”.
The status of the Sam Kee Building as the shallowest commercial building in the world is, however, challenged. A 3-story, 1.8 metre-deep (6 feet) structure known as The Skinny Building, located at the corner of Forbes Ave. and Wood Street in Pittsburgh, Pa., claims to be the world’s narrowest commercial building. Nonetheless, the Sam Kee Building, now The Chow Building, still remains the record holder as the skinniest of them all.