The Dales House at 414 Alexander Street circa 1890 CVA Photo SGN 490

Friday, September 11, 2009

227 Union - An Encore

Shortly after I first posted my reflections on the history I knew of the little house that once stood at 227 Union, I received a number of e-mails regarding the house. It seems that the little blue house touched the hearts of a number of people. People seemed to really appreciate the fact that I had taken the time to study the house and post my findings.
One of the e-mails was from Vancouver poet, black community historian, and founding member of the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project (HAMP), Wayde Compton. He actually ended up interviewing me about 227 Union for an article in the online Seven Oaks Magazine. Here is the link to that interview:
Another of the messages I received was from a man who regularly visited the little house on his infrequent trips to Vancouver from Seattle. Here is what he wrote.
“Mr. Johnstone,

I was in Vancouver on Wednesday and Thursday for the Canucks/Flyers game on Weds. night. Thursday I had planned to visit my usual spots around Vancouver before driving back to Seattle. Among my usual activities is a walk from my hotel around downtown, down the eastside and ultimately includes stopping at 227 Union St. For some years, maybe seven, I have been drawn to that house. I always make it a point to drive by it or walk past it.

About 4 years ago, fearing it would be demolished I photographed the front and back of the house. I even on several occasions went up and knocked on the door so I could meet the occupants or owners. Nobody ever answered. I did a little research and came up empty. Today, I sat at my computer after returning from my trip and typed in the address and was blown away when your website came up. I have spent hours reading it and enjoying your work. I guess my questions have been answered by you and your hard work. Needless to say, I left Vancouver bothered that the house had been torn down. In the back of my mind, where my dreams and fantasies exist I envisioned buying the house and restoring it. I have also been drawn to other properties in Vancouver, the Bank of Montreal around the corner from 227 Union has always fascinated me because prior to the condo/apartment project a few years ago I always compared the BOM as a "Fort Apache", solid building in a decaying area. It is hard to explain my feeling for that building as well, other than, in the back of my mind I would have loved to have purchased it and renovated it as my home. Other homes that interest me are some of the homes that still exist downtown. I have spent a fair amount of time photographing homes and hotels on the eastside and downtown area. I am a novice compared to you. I just wanted my own little history of the way things were in Vancouver.

About me, I am a 37 year man who lives in Seattle. My interest in Vancouver began in 1977 when my grandparents took my sister and I to the zoo and Stanley Park. In the 1980's as a teenager my buddy and I would visit Exhibition Park and the bars. I attended Western Washington University and would frequent the city as much as possible. Beginning in the early 1990's I started to develop an interest in architecture and as I have gotten older I have become interested in the people who lived in these homes. I love Vancouver and Canada and want to become a citizen, a dual citizen, because I love Seattle also.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I will continue to enjoy your work. Hopefully one day I will hire you to research my Vancouver house. Though, my dream is to buy a loft in an historic building in Gastown or around Beatty/Pender. -John P.”

During the course of Wayde Compton’s interview, I found out that there was a picture of the back of 227 Union on the cover of Event Magazine. I tracked down the photographer, Byron Barrett, and he very kindly gave me a copy of his photo.

Later on though, I hit an even bigger jackpot. One of the biggest frustrations researching the histories of houses in the East End is the way the city directories gloss over, well, actually they virtually obliterate, the Asian presence in the neighbourhood. In the early 1900s there was a forced segregation of Chinese and Japanese listings in the directory. They were relegated to the back. It was only in the 1940s and 50s that the listings were integrated, but even then, there were entire decades where the majority of listings for Japanese and Chinese residents were listed by their “assumed” nationality, either just as Japanese or Chinese, and even worse, later they were all lumped together as “Orientals”. One can assume that this oversight is the result of the disinterest, if not outright racism or the directory canvassers in the neighbourhood, but after I read Wayson Choy’s stunningly beautiful novel The Jade Peony I realized part of the problem was no doubt due to language difficulties, and often an innate distrust of any official looking white man knocking at the door. I remember one scene where the family in the novel actually hid behind the couch and pretended they were not home when an unknown white man came knocking.

Either way, it is lost history that I intend to try to recover piece by piece by whatever means possible for my East End Neighbourhood History Mapping Project. But back to the Jackpot…

As a result of the article I posted on Chuck Davis’s website and the interview with Wayde Compton, several descendents on one of the Chinese residents of 227 Union contacted me with their family’s story. The Shuen family lived at 227 Union from 1945 to 1968. The original directory listings for 227 Union for the period of 1945 to 1950 just listed “Orientals” Thanks to information and images provided by Wah Shuen’s descendents Nora Wong, Deborah Fong, and Bettina Shuen, this discrepancy and many other gaps in the history of 227 Union has been filled. Wah Fong Shuen was born in Heung Shan, Kwangtung, China on November 15, 1875. He was a Canadian citizen by local naturalization as of Jan 13, 1905 and got his Canadian citizenship certificate on July 23, 1947. His wife's name on the certificate was Ng Chew Lin (also called Mrs. Chew Shee on another document and Sook Yee by her children). Wah Fong and Chew Shee Shuen had three children: George Shuen, born in Vancouver on September 27, 1919, Rose Shuen, born in China, and Johnny Shuen born in Vancouver.
Wah Fong Shuen was a martial arts master and owned a lumber sawmill company, apparently one of the first Chinese in Vancouver to do so. Even more interesting is that Wah Fong Shuen was a cousin of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the founder of the Republic of China, and played with him when he was a child back in China. Wah Fong "Johnny" Shuen and his brother George were among the first Chinese Canadian war veterans, and although these details have yet to be confirmed, they were most likely members of the elite corps of Chinese Canadians that trained to fight undercover behind Japanese lines.

The contact with Wah Fong Shuen’s granddaughters provided me with so many more interesting facts and stories, more than I can fit in this little article. Suffice it to say, they helped me to fill in so many blanks and restored the Shuen family’s history and the contributions its various members to their rightful place.

The internet is a wonderful thing. Online research may not provide all the answers immediately, but it puts us in contact with the people who have important pieces of the puzzle we are trying to solve. My experience with my research of this one little house, how it touched, and how its memory continues to touch so many lives, reminds me that every house has important stories to tell. It also reaffirms for me the fact that our built heritage is really important. That the often derelict old houses and buildings we see throughout this city are more than just tear downers and opportunities to make a buck building condos; that they are worth saving, restoring and preserving. They are important reminders of who we are and where we came from, and the struggles we went through to get to where we are today. It is these memories, locked inside our neighbourhoods’ old houses that give us a sense of neighbourhood pride and identity. When those things are in place, people tend to care more about their neighbourhood and their city. They tend to be engaged, excited and want to contribute. And that’s a good thing…

Thanks to Nora Wong, Deborah Fong, and Bettina Shuen for the information and photos regarding the Shuen family at 227 Union. Thanks also to Byron Barrett for the beautiful shot ofthe back of 227 Union.


  1. I grew up in chinatown and have been inside this house when I was in grade 6 as there was another classmate who's family lived there until we were in grade 10. They were not a part of the original family that lived there, but part of the 227 Union history nonetheless

  2. I guess I should note that this would be approximately early 1990 to 1996

  3. Jade Shuen In the Sun Yet Sen Garden at the front entrance you will see Johnny Shuen and George Shuen's name engraved among others that fought in the war.

  4. JS April 19, 2017 At the Sun Yet Sen Garden at the front entrance you will see Johnny Shuen and George Shuen's name engraved among others that were war veterans

  5. JS April 21, 2017 Thank you for writing about my house I once lived in with my sisters including Norah and my cousin Bettina Shuen. Even tho the house is gone... there is still a spirt of the house in China town still standing with many memories...

  6. My name is Fred John, I know this house and have photographed the front a number of times and it has the same color as the photo of the back of the house. I originally made a pen -ink drawing of this house and subsequently made it into a hand painted water color limited edition print. It is one of about 30 drawing of the houses in the Historic Strathcona area