Chi­nese-Canadian land­mark in Van­cou­ver holds the Guin­ness Book of Records ti­tle of the world’s ‘shal­low­est com­mer­cial build­ing.’

Canada's History - - CONTENTS -

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.

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