Skip to main content
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track on the Olympic Games
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track onthe Olympics Games
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Catherine Rose leads the Sins of the City walking tour past various Chinatown buildings in Vancouver once housing gambling and drug dens a century ago.

Guy Dixon/The Globe and Mail

Back in Prohibition, kids in Vancouver's Chinatown had a game. They would stand on the sidewalk across from the brothels and gambling houses. When the police raided the joints, they'd count the clientele being pulled out and hauled away.

The total was said to have once run up to 180, according to tour guide Catherine Rose. The trouble was, the paddy wagons could only cart off a dozen at a time. So when the last of the patrons were taken away, new customers would be filling the place up again.

Looking at the unassuming, early last-century buildings today, it takes some imagination to picture the molls and drug dens, the overcrowding and stagnation of Chinatown built on swampy land, all punctuated by vice and sharp racism.

Story continues below advertisement

"Vancouver was a horrifically racist city for a very, very long time," says Rose, who is a crime analyst by day and a data mine of Vancouver history as a guide for Sins of the City, a walking tour organized Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings by the Vancouver Police Museum.

Chinatown today is quiet and homey. Grocery stores and tea shops still abound, but its vibrancy is dying, drained by businesses moving to Richmond and its proximity to the concentrated crime of the neighbouring Downtown Eastside.

Starting at the museum on East Cordova, the tour continues two blocks over to Chinatown, bypassing the rougher streets of the Downtown Eastside altogether, through which previous versions of the tour used to cross.

"The original Sins of the City tour was very much focused on crime only," said Wil Rust, associate museum programmer. The walk now focuses on how the city's vices fed off racial discrimination and the concentration of labourers from China. The rampant police corruption under long-serving Mayor L.D. Taylor and the bold insouciance of brothel boss Joe Celona (Vancouver's Public Enemy No. 1) make for an entertaining frontier history, invisible in Chinatown's gentle facades today.

At one point entering a store owned by Jing Feng, a gracious tea seller and photographer, the group exits into a back courtyard where an elderly resident looks on, smiling. The courtyards once served as shelter from the racism outside. Here the narrative shifts to the violence and riots springing from the treatment of Chinese workers, and the absolute segregation at the time. Segregated but for the opium dens and brothels.

"Everything is related to each other, all of the vices. It's not just a loose story of a gambling den here or a brothel over there," Rust says. "It's all connected with how the community was back then, with immigration rules, with certain key bosses like gambling ringleaders, bootleggers."

As the stories accumulate, such as the urban legend of underground tunnels linking the illicit dens, the tour winds its way to Shanghai Alley, a renovated little street that shows no sign of its illicit past, a place where prostitutes were kept and suffered.

Story continues below advertisement

But along a nearby, tree-lined footpath, something catches the eye. Two people are hunched over, peaceful but ill looking. Each is busy with cigarette lighters and heating some kind of paraphernalia, discretely trying not to be seen.

A quick glance and then a look away back to quietly aging Chinatown. Like the sins of the past, the sins of today, in this leisurely stroll, are better left to the imagination.

The Sins of the City tour meets at 240 E. Cordova Street, Wednesdays at 4 p.m. and Saturdays at 11 a.m. The tours runs until Oct. 23. Tickets are $20 and include museum entry. Must be over 18 to take the tour. For more details, call 604-665-3346 or visit vancouverpolicemuseum.ca.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies