Work: Businesses in Chinatown

Bamboo Terrace, Pender Street, Vancouver

Bamboo Terrace, Pender Street, Vancouver

“Buy meat here,” Mrs. Annah Chong advised her, pointing to the open counter of Chong Lung's Meat Market. “My cousin never cheat you.”

“Fresh vegetables,” Mrs. Sui Leong sang out, “best to buy in the morning at Keefer Market.”

Mrs. Pan Wong named the best tailors in town, but suggested how clothes were cheaper to buy at American Steam Cleaners. “Left-behind clothes best buy.”

The Chinatown clothing, dry goods, and grocery stores were often musty from ceiling-high bales of English cloth and China silks, or pungent with sharp odours of ginger root and herbs and dried shrimp. Carved hardwood-handled scoops crunched into eye-level barrels filled with rice and grains.”

from All That Matters, p. 45, by Wayson Choy


Chinatown not only served its own Chinese community with small service shops such as groceries, butchers, restaurants, and real estate and insurance brokers, Chinatown businesses also served the non-Chinese outside world with diverse stores such as tailors, shirt-makers, labour brokers, and Asian goods importers.

Chinatown produce wholesalers were also connected to suburban Chinese market gardeners. The kinds of employment for Chinatown residents included jobs in Chinatown itself. But Chinatown was also a retreat for those who worked in seasonal resource industry employment, living off-season in the Shanghai-Canton Alley complex. Chinatown was also a place for relaxation and entertainment for those with shops in white neighbourhoods who often operated laundries, produce shops, and convenience stores.

To give a snapshot of Chinatown in the 1930s, Chinatown had flourished with 133 greengrocers, twenty-six laundries, nine cafes, six Chinese schools, four Christian churches, six hotels, one theatre, six butcher shops, two authentic Chinese restaurants, eighteen tailor shops, twelve barber establishments, twenty-four variety shops, two gallery stores, one antique business, one physician's office, a Chinese-language branch of the Bank of Montreal, branches of the CPR and the Blue Funnel and Admiral lines servicing Chinese passengers, the office of the Chinese Times and two cabaret halls.

As Chinese in Canada developed their own social structures of voluntary associations and societies, a merchant class evolved making it possible for centralizedinfrastructure of businesses and entrepreneurial opportunities. Capitalism in Chinese Canada was alive and well with such firms as Sam Kee in Vancouver and Wing Chang in Victoria. They offered both old country and western goods to Chinese Canadian settlersand by extension to non-Chinese inhabitants as well.

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