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

Thursday, September 10, 2009

History Walking Tours in Vancouver's Old East End

Some months back I was approached by Heritage Vancouver Society, to do a history walking tour of my neighbourhood, Vancouver's old East End, now known as Strathcona. Though I have researched hundreds of houses in the neighbourhood and have a background in tourism, at first I resisted. There were already a number of people and organizations offering tours in the neighbourhood: John Atkin, author of a number of great books, including Strathcona: Vancouver's First Neighbourhood, the UBC Department of Urban Geography, the Architectural Insitute of BC, the BC Jewish Museum and Archives, and even the Vancouver Police Museum. Ultimately, I realized that all of these people and groups have a different focus, and each of them show and talk about different aspects of this fascinating neighbourhood.

My route, first offered on August 15th to an oversold crowd of 44 people is the culmination of years of researching over 250 homes in the East End. Although architecture is a minor theme in the tour, my focus is more on the social history—the ebb and flow of different waves of immigrants who established themselves here before moving on to other parts of the city. Most people know about Little Italy, Hogan’s Alley, the East End’s early Jewish Community, and Japantown, but did you know that there were whole blocks of Newfoundlanders and a sizable Syrian colony here as well in the early 1900s?
The tour touches on the impact and influences of portside industries (BC Sugar, shipyards, etc.) prohibition, (the proliferation of bootlegging), the Oriental Exclusion Act (bachelor rooming houses, etc.), the Japanese Canadian internment, as well as the City Planning Department’s attempts to wipe out “urban blight”. It also gives participants the chance to see the locations of the previous homes of well-known East End residents, like pioneer female aviator Tosca Trasolini, premier Dave Barrett, champion boxers Jimmy McLarnin and Felice Di Palma (Di Palma boxed under the name Phil Palmer), Rabbi Nathan Meyer Pastinsky, award-winning authors Paul Yee and Wayson Choy, Ross and Nora Hendrix (Jimi’s grandparents), community activists Mary Lee Chan and Shirley Chan, and BC Supreme Court Judge, community leader Angelo Branca, and k.d. lang.

Even with 250 houses under my belt there is still so much I don't know and want to know about my neighbourhood. In an attempt to better prepare for a second set of tours offered on September 5th to two smaller groups I looked up some houses on a street I was researching in the census records and stumbled on a second house with a Hendrix family connection. Ross and Nora Hendrix don't actually appear in the directory listings for the year the census was taken so no one knew about this Hendrix house before. I introduced the house as a special surprise treat at the end of my tour.

I happen to know the owners of the house, and when I e-mailed them to let them know the exciting news, they were of course delighted, but more importantly, they told me another important pice of history associated with the house. The same house that the Hendrix family lived in earlier in the century was home to Charles Yip Quong and Nellie Towers, the first mixed Chinese/Caucasian married couple in Vancouver. Apparently Nellie was a well-known and much loved midwife in the neighbourhood. Here is a link to a Parks Canada page on Nellie Yip Quong.

So there you have it. Piece by piece, this neighbourhood's lost history gets revealed and shared by happenstance and amazing coincidences. And I am sure that there is so much more to discover.

For information about my upcoming History Walks in Vancouver click this link.
Private tours are also available in English, Japanese and Italian for groups of 5 people or more, or a minimum cost of $100 per tour for groups of smaller size. For more information on my History Walks or to book a tour, e-mail me at
Cost $20

Thanks to Lucille Mars, Gary McDonald, Emidio De Julius, and Norah McLaren respectively for the first, second, third and fifth photos above. The fourth photo is City of Vancouver Archives Photo Port N3.1 showing two portraits of Hogan's Alley resident Field William Spotts.

1 comment:

  1. HI James, this is fantastic,congratulations on getting the site going it looks great. cheers