Tour organizer Carmel Tanaka at one of the tours last stops. (photo by Kayla Isomura)
The first Jewish neighbourhood in Vancouver was in Strathcona, which also served as the first home for many, if not most, cultural communities that make up the diverse fabric of the city. The neighbourhood welcomed wave after wave of immigrants of different backgrounds and continues to do so today. The rich multicultural history of this area – too often overlooked amid the social challenges of the larger Downtown Eastside – was given its due in a series of walking tours this spring.
Carmel Tanaka organized the tours, bringing together almost two dozen community organizations. Tanaka is chair of the human rights committee of the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association and an active member of the Jewish community, but the tour is an ad hoc, grassroots project with no umbrella organizing agency. Partnering agencies include Heritage Vancouver, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre, Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society, the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia and the Jewish Independent. The Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tour took place each Sunday in May, with two tours each day. Tanaka said she hopes to make the tour an annual event.
Tanaka came up with the idea after participating in a walk of Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver’s historic black neighbourhood, as part of Jane’s Walks, a global festival of citizen-led walking tours inspired by the late visionary urbanist Jane Jacobs. A week after her exploration of the neighbourhood’s black history, Tanaka took the Jewish Museum’s walking tour of Strathcona.
“We were walking similar streets and even talking about places that are right across the road from each other and I started to think, well, there must have been interaction between our communities,” she told the Independent. “Why not bring the guides, the experts, the archivists and the know-alls into one room and see if we can do something together. What started as a small group of four to five guides, who do existing tours, blossomed into 20-plus participating organizations, including community organizations, heritage organizations, the Vancouver School Board and more. We’ve been told there have been attempts to do something like this before, but not to this degree. It’s very exciting that we’re all working together.”
The tour, which took in Hogan’s Alley, Jewish Strathcona, former Japantown and Chinatown, was intended to build awareness of the contributions of immigrant communities then and now. It took place in May as part of the celebration of Vancouver Asian Heritage Month and Canada’s Jewish Heritage Month.
The theme of the walking tour this year was education and the starting point of the two-and-a-half-hour adventure was Lord Strathcona Elementary School, the city’s oldest. Referred to as the “League of Nations” for its diversity, the school remains one of the most multicultural in the country.
One former Strathcona student, Elder Larry Grant of the Musqueam Nation and Chinese-Canadian communities, recalled the experience of growing up in the area and the impact the cultural mosaic had on him and others.
Opened in March 1891 as East School, it was renamed in 1909 in honour of Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona, who drove the last spike in Canada’s first transcontinental railway. To get a sense of the extraordinary range of ethnicities, a survey in 1940 indicated that the students included 650 of Japanese descent, 300 Chinese, 150 Italian, about 150 Yugoslavian, Ukrainian and Polish students, about 100 of British descent, several from India and a scattering from other European countries. After the regular school day, many of the students would have proceeded to after-school programs in their heritage language at, for example, the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall, a 1906 building on Alexander Street where the tour finished.
Jewish kids would have made their way down the block from Strathcona elementary to the B’nei Yehuda synagogue, since converted to condos but, at the time, the spiritual and figurative centre of Jewish life in the city. The synagogue opened in November 1911, with an after-school program in Jewish tradition. A full-time day school, Talmud Torah, opened there in 1921 and moved to its current location on Oak Street in 1948.
In 1942, when the Canadian government instituted a wartime policy against Japanese and Japanese-Canadians, about half of Strathcona school’s population disappeared, forcibly relocated to camps in the British Columbia interior and elsewhere east.
The tour featured different community guides at each destination along the route, bringing together a patchwork of knowledge about different communities to help participants form an impression about how different communities maintained their distinctiveness while interacting with the variety of cultures and languages around them.
Not far from the industrial waterfront, Strathcona grew, in part, from the maritime trade, especially the 1858 discovery of gold in the Fraser Canyon. But, as guides noted, the area has probably been a gathering place for thousands of years, initially as a summer campsite for the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. The 1858 gold rush, and successive ones further north, brought merchants from China and Jewish provisioners from San Francisco. Indentured labourers from China, who worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway, helped launch the beginnings of Chinatown in the area around Pender Street. Japanese, Portuguese and Italian immigrants followed, with many working in the Hastings Sawmill and other resource-related industries.
The tour passed the National Council of Jewish Women Neighbourhood House on Jackson Street, a locus of Jewish social activity that is seen as a precursor to the Jewish Community Centre. The Vancouver chapter of NCJW was founded in 1924 and helped new immigrants settle, learn English and find jobs. One of their landmark programs was the Well Baby Clinic, which immunized kids and helped new parents care for their families. National Council remains active today, providing services especially for families and youth, educational and advocacy programs around human trafficking and spreading awareness about Jewish genetic diseases.
Later, the tour passed Oppenheimer Park, named for the city’s first – and so far only – Jewish mayor, David Oppenheimer.
An important part of the tour was Hogan’s Alley. The creation of the Georgia Viaduct destroyed a large part of the historic black neighbourhood but Fountain Chapel, a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal church, still exists, though it is now a private residence.
From Hogan’s Alley, the old Canadian National Railway station looms large to the south, and it was the profession of Pullman porter, made up almost exclusively of African-American and black Canadians, that was a launchpad to the middle class for many black families. The development of the black neighbourhood in this location owed its origins to the proximity to the train station.
From there, the tour proceeded into Chinatown and the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. A sawmill at the foot of Carrall Street, constructed in 1886, provided employment for many Chinese men and set in motion the establishment of Vancouver’s Chinatown on this block.
In 1947, the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed, rescinding a racist law and opening the door to more Asian newcomers and establishing equal rights, including the right to vote, for Chinese-Canadians. The tour also recalled how, in 1907, a group calling itself the Asiatic Exclusion League incited a mob of about 9,000 rioters who rampaged through Chinatown and Powell Street, smashing windows and destroying properties. This led to the federal government reducing immigration from East Asia.
The tour continued to the Mon Keang School in the Wongs’ Benevolent Association building, an example of a Chinatown clan society. These societies supported extended family members as they migrated, serving as housing agency, employment office, post office and bank for new arrivals. Chinese men could borrow money here to pay Canada’s discriminatory head tax and to send money home to their families in China.
Mon Keang School provided a classical Cantonese education to the first generation of local-born children and, in the 1930s, was just one of 10 such Chinese schools in the area. By the 1970s, Chinese families were living throughout the city and Chinese-Canadian kids were choosing sports and other extracurricular activities over Chinese school. Mon Keang School closed in 2011 but reopened in 2016 with a grassroots community program taking a different approach to Chinese language learning.
The history of Christian social action in the neighbourhood is demonstrated powerfully at the corner of Hastings and Gore, where the Salvation Army citadel, now boarded up, stands across from First United Church, a hub of social programs in the Downtown Eastside, and nearby Saint James Anglican, which also has a long activist history. While plenty of good work has emanated from these institutions, during the era of Indian residential schools in Canada, from 1883 to 1996, churches were complicit with the federal government in the genocide of indigenous Canadians through the deliberate and brutal attempts to exterminate indigenous cultures and languages.
The walking tour tries to highlight the main aspects of the area’s history, without romanticizing it.
“This is a grassroots initiative led by myself and a bunch of amazing, dedicated team members,” Tanaka said. “We’re really hoping that this will become an annual event and will be able to include even more communities next year. We’ll see what this turns into.”