Old and new Chinatown meet in the 200-block of East Georgia

It’s a mix of traditional Chinatown retailers and modern bars and restaurants — the street where the Fresh Egg Mart meets Fat Mao.

Chinese Vancouverites come from across the Lower Mainland to shop at classic Chinatown businesses like Carley B.B.Q. and Hot Pot Supplies, Gar Lock Seafood and Tin Lee Supermarket. Many are so old-school, the people working there don’t use English.

A new wave of hipsters can be found at the London Hotel pub, Mamie Taylor’s restaurant and the Ramen Butcher, which had instant lineups when it opened last year.

The old-meets-new theme continues in the architecture, which includes several handsome old brick buildings and one of the city’s most striking new condos, the nine-storey Flats on Georgia.

The block has grit, it has character, and it has street life.

And it all just kind of happened, without any grand plan.

“You’ve got everything that new urbanists strive for,” said heritage expert John Atkin. “You have your interesting and quirky restaurants; you have existing kind-of-cool Chinese vegetable retailers; you’ve got your tea shop; you’ve got art galleries; you’ve got your dentist’s (office).

“It is a street that people strive to create, and it has managed to evolve into that (on its own).”

How much longer it will retain its unique blend is a matter for debate. The city has rezoned the street for structures that could go up to 120 feet, which may spell doom for the one- and two-storey buildings currently there.

But for now, it’s happening.

“It’s almost like a little microcosm of the city,” said Sirish Rao, artistic director of Indian Summer Festival.

“It’s dense with all my favourite places. There’s Phnom Penh (Cambodian restaurant), Fat Mao (noodle house), Access Gallery, Centre A (art gallery), some wonderful fruit and vegetable markets.”

“There’s lots going on here,” said Olivia Cheung of the Treasure Green Tea Company, which has been on the block since 1981. “It’s vibrant from the morning all the way to midnight. We have a pub and a restaurant right in the middle.”

That restaurant is Mamie Taylor’s, which took over a space formerly occupied by the Keefer Bakery.

Co-owner Simon Kaulback said he decided to open in Chinatown three years ago because it was close to downtown and offered a chance to get a big space with lots of character.

“We were a couple of foolish white guys opening a restaurant in Chinatown — a lot of people thought we were kind of crazy,” he said. “(But) we absolutely love the neighbourhood. We love the uniqueness of it, we love the sense of community that we’ve been welcomed into.

“When we were reaching the end of our construction, the owners from Phnom Penh came over and said, ‘Hey, come with us.’ (The owner) took us around the neighbourhood and introduced us to the owners of Gar Lok Seafood, to the owners of Carley B.B.Q, to the owners of Tin Lee Supermarket, and said, ‘These are good guys, they’re opening up, let’s do business with them.’

“And ever since then, every single chicken we’ve sold in the restaurant has come from next door at Carley B.B.Q. A lot of our seafood comes from across the street, and a lot of our produce comes from across the street.”

Carley B.B.Q.’s manager Ken Su welcomes the new businesses.

“Change is better,” said Su. “Lots of different people are coming (to the block).”

That said, most of his customers last week were older Chinese, not young hipsters.

“They come from Coquitlam, Surrey, Richmond,” said Su. “We know the customers for a long time.”

The 200-block East Georgia is a one-block wonder: Georgia ends at Main to the west and at Gore to the east. This is because the entrance to the first Georgia Viaduct used to be at Main and Georgia, and the Maclean Park social housing project was built on the 300-block East Georgia in the 1960s.

It was originally called Harris Street, becoming East Georgia in 1911. Houses started popping up on the street in the late 1880s (you can still see the top of one peeking above the storefront of Kwong Hing Herbal Products at 275 East Georgia).

The modest house may have been built in 1889, but isn’t on the city’s heritage register. Neither is the teal green art deco building that used to house Ho Sun Hing Printers at 259 East Georgia, which may date to 1909.

The 200-block is in Chinatown, which was designated a provincial heritage district in 1971 and a federal National Historic District in 2011. But the protected part of Chinatown is limited to Pender Street, which leaves many old buildings on Georgia ripe for redevelopment.

An 1892 house at 245 East Georgia was recently torn down for a nine-storey, 40-unit condo building. Atkin said most of the street’s small buildings may meet a similar fate.

“We’ll probably lose those, just because they’re underbuilt,” he said. “Once the code guys were finished with you (during a restoration) you’d have nothing left (of the original building) anyway.

“But I think it’s the rhythm of the street that’s most important.”

The rhythm of the street comes from its 25-foot-wide lots, which make for a jumble of storefronts. Atkin said it is tricky to build a tower on such a small footprint, which may slow development.

The one condo that has been completed is the Flats on Georgia, which went up on a parking lot at 219 East Georgia. It’s tall and thin, and features yellow shutters on the front that evoke historic Chinatown, without being cheesy.

“One of the things I like about that is that it is very much a Chinatown building, in that it references all of the ideas around what you might think of as Asian architecture, but doesn’t fall back on a cliché,” said Atkin.

“So you’ve got the shutters that you would find on shop houses in Southeast Asia, rendered in a way that makes them very, very modern.”

Even if a bunch of condos go up, the 200-block will have a mix of housing. The Lore Krill Housing Co-op takes up about half the north side of the street, and the city protects SRO spaces at Georgia’s London and Argo Hotels.

There are more low-cost rooms above the Yee Fung Toy Society at 226 East Georgia. Walking into the society’s storefront is like walking into Chinatown in the 1960s — the décor is vintage, and so are the society members.

“People just pass time in here, play mahjong,” said the society’s Wayne Yee, a “70-something” who was born in China and lived in Hong Kong and Saskatchewan before coming to Vancouver in 1964.

Societies like this have long formed the backbone of Chinatown.

“Before Chinese people came (to Canada), they didn’t speak English,” explained Yee. “There were a lot of things they didn’t understand, so they joined together and discussed it, and asked for information from each other.”

But times have changed.

“I would say that (the old) Chinatown is changing, it’s almost finished,” said Yee. “But some new blood is coming in. How the future is going to look, I don’t know. ... The generation is changing, the younger people don’t have interest in (societies like) this anymore.

“They have their own families to take care of. They have a different type of lifestyle.”

The changes don’t always sit well with fans of old Chinatown like Michael Chow, who has been going there for four decades.

“Once they change things, we won’t have any more Chinatown,” he said. “There is room to improve it. But one day there may be no more Chinese-owned shops around here, or very few.”

Chow was interviewed at the Treasure Green Tea Company, a specialty shop which offers “premium” traditional Chinese teas.

Treasure Green’s Olivia Cheung said Chinatown is retaining its Chinese character “at the moment.” But she would like to see more Chinese restaurants opening in the area.

“Right now, it’s more fusion (restaurants), which is very good for people to get into,” she said. “But we’d like to see authentic Chinese restaurants open in Chinatown.”

The City of Vancouver has come under fire for some nearby developments on Main that are spread over several lots, and don’t reflect Chinatown’s architectural character. So the city may make some small changes to Georgia’s zoning, such as limiting new developments to 25 or 50 feet in width.

“We have heard from the community that they are concerned with losing Chinatown character if this pace of redevelopment continues,” said Kevin McNaney, Vancouver’s assistant director of planning.

“We are looking into making some tweaks to the zoning and rezoning policy to better address that concern.”

Atkin said the city has to tread carefully.

“A street like Georgia has kind of always worked, because it has been off the grid,” he said. “It hasn’t been improved, it’s never had its sidewalks done over. It’s attracting people because of the type of street it is. And you can just see the city waking up one morning going, ‘Oh my goodness, that street’s popular, we should do something.’ And they’ll come up with their sidewalk treatments and suddenly it becomes a parody of itself.

“They should just really stay away from it. We have so few spots in the city that are a little rough around the edges. East Georgia is just a nice, ‘rough around the edges’ street.”


Some of the highlights of the 200-block East Georgia:

• London Hotel, 700 Main at Georgia. Restored brick building built in two stages between 1907 and 1910. The corner building is three storeys and houses a large and popular pub on the main floor and SRO rooms upstairs. The second building at 212 East Georgia is four storeys, with the Caffe Brixton (sandwiches, pastries) on the main floor and SRO rooms above. Rated a Heritage C on Vancouver’s Heritage Register, as a building that “contributes to the historic character of an area or streetscape.

• Matchstick Coffee Roasters, 213 East Georgia. Trendy coffee shop packed with hipsters. Located in a strange building that has six storeys of strata-titled retail and commercial spaces in front, and a seven storey parking lot in back. The lot was originally the site of Charles Woodward’s first department store, which opened on the northeast corner of Main and Georgia in 1892, when Main was called Westminster and Georgia was Harris.

• Fat Mao, 217 East Georgia. Groovy Asian fusion noodle house. Open a year, popular.

• Liang You Book Store, 218 East Georgia. Chinese-language book/convenience store.

• The Flats on Georgia, 219 East Georgia. Nine-storey, 28-unit condo development that was built on a 25-foot-wide lot.

• 221A gallery, 221 East Georgia. One of three art contemporary art galleries in the block, along with the Access Gallery (222 East Georgia) and Centre A (229 East Georgia).

• Ramen Butcher, 223 East Georgia. Its website boasts it has “the best ramen in Vancouver,” and customers seem to agree: it often has lineups. Open a year.

• Yee Fung Toy Society, 226 East Georgia. One of Chinatown’s famous “society” buildings, tending to Yee family members. Housed in a 1911 white brick building that is rated a Heritage C.

• Treasure Green Tea Company, 227 East Georgia. Traditional Chinese tea house, housed in a very elegant space.

• Lore Krill Co-Op, 239 East Georgia. Built as a nine-storey condo, it was converted to a 97-unit housing co-op after it was completed in 2002. Many units are large and house families. Sits on the site of the old Keefer Laundry.

• Phnom Penh Restaurant, 244 East Georgia. Long-time favourite of fans of Cambodian and Vietnamese cuisine. Customers huddle together outside for a smoke. Often has big lineups for lunch and dinner.

• 245 East Georgia. Nine-storey, 40-unit condo, now under construction. On a 25-foot lot.

• Mamie Taylor’s, 251 East Georgia. Popular three-year-old restaurant/bar. Décor includes lots of taxidermy, much of it donated by customers.

• Carley B.B.Q. and Hot Pot Supplies, 255 East Georgia. Long-time Chinatown meat shop.

• 252-260 East Georgia. Two-storey brick building built in 1910 that stretches over three lots and houses several businesses. For many years, it was a warehouse for the wholesale grocers H.Y. Louie Company. In the ‘90s the Banana Room booze can (an illegal after-hours bar) operated in the building’s vast second-storey space. Heritage C.

• Gar Lok Seafood, 252 East Georgia. Classic Chinatown seafood shop where you can pick up live lobster, live crab and a mysterious fish called “fresh thornyhead.”

• Tin Lee Supermarket, 260 East Georgia. Long-time Chinatown grocer, giant space.

• 259 East Georgia. Art deco building that was the long-time home of Ho Sun Hing Printers, which was Canada’s oldest Chinese print shop before it closed last year. Currently empty.

• Fresh Egg Mart, 269 East Georgia. Funky business that sells fresh eggs and flowers, and has a big fish tank in the front. The exterior is painted electric tangerine, which makes for a colourful combo with the teal green of the former Ho Sun Hing Printers building next door.

• Kwong Hing Herbal Products, 275 East Georgia. Retail on main floor of an old house that was first hooked up to the city’s water supply way back in 1889.

• Jiamei Market, 293 East Georgia. One of Chinatown’s largest fruit and vegetable stores. Located on the main floor of a four-storey building that houses the Argo Hotel upstairs. The building dates to 1911, and is rated a Heritage B, which means it has “significant” importance.
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