Chinese-Canadian landmark in Vancouver holds the Guinness Book of Records title of the world’s ‘shallowest commercial building.’
Heritage building a symbol of endurance for Chinese Canadians. Common cents in early Canada. Japanese-influenced Inuit art. Residential school legacy on display.
After passing through the gateway entrance to Vancouver’s historic Chinatown district, one of the most striking sights is the Sam Kee Building, with its bright-red bay windows projecting over the sidewalk.
Built in 1913, these windows were not just decorative flourishes — they were an act of defiance against systemic discrimination towards the Chinese community.
During the early 1900s, Vancouver’s Chinatown was the largest Chinese community in Canada. But their high numbers did not protect Chinese Canadians against discrimination.
In 1907 the Vancouver Asiatic Exclusion League (VAEL) was formed with the goal of deporting Asian immigrants from Canada. VAEL garnered both political and popular support. The league succeeded in having the width of Pender Street increased in the hope of rendering the adjacent land useless to Chinese merchants who might wish to set up shop there.
But one local landowner, a successful businessman named Chang Toy (the Caucasian community called him Sam Kee), refused to be pushed aside.
Toy hired architects Bryan and Gillam to build a sixfoot-wide (1.8-metre) shop with projecting bay windows to overcome the limitations of the tiny footprint.
The building remains a symbol of perseverance for the growing Chinese community. — Stephanie Mah
Provided by the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada and Carleton University’s History and Theory of Architecture program.
The Sam Kee Building, Vancouver, circa 1937.