Is Chinatown the next Yaletown? After skidding along in anonymity for much of the ’80s and ’90s, Chinatown is suddenly Vancouver’s most talked-about neighborhood (Just check out this recent Vancouver Sun article). Trendy new restaurants like Bao Bei are offering an updated take on Chinese cuisine, the boutique hotel Keefer is now open and Jay-Z himself was recently spotted at the new Fortune Sound Club.
To understand Chinatown’s past and present, I tagged along on a unique walking tour of the neighborhood called A Wok around Chinatown (Get it?). The four-hour tour ($90) looks at the gardens, shops and restaurants of Chinatown and uses food as a gateway to understanding Vancouver’s Chinese culture. Today, in the first installment of a three-part series, I look at the sacred places uncovered on A Wok around Chinatown.
The tour starts in Vancouver’s most recognizable Chinese landmark: the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Built in 1986 by 52 Chinese experts to commemorate Vancouver’s 100th birthday, the garden is dominated by a large pond of jade-colored water with brightly colored koi swimming inside. Rugged cliffs carved from limestone brought over from China rise behind the pond, and pine trees and bamboo are planted throughout the park. Surrounding it all are elegant pathways and buildings – including a formal reception hall built from rare Chinese woods and a towering “ting” (similar to a Japanese pagoda).
Inside, I caught a glimpse of a traditional wedding taking place on a pavilion suspended over the water. Dressed in bright red silk, the bride made her way to the center of the pavilion for the ceremony. According to Wok around Chinatown guide and fourth generation Vancouverite Bob Sung, the garden makes an ideal place for weddings because of its careful equilibrium between yin and yang, or the female and male elements. Light is balanced by dark, rugged rocks are balanced by flowing rivers and small details fit into a larger whole.
Across Chinatown, past blocks of historic buildings with ornate balconies and facades, is a very different kind of sacred space. Hidden on the upper floors of a commercial building near the corner of Keefer and Main Streets is the Evergreen Taoist Church of Canada. Taoism is a set of religious and philosophical principles from East Asia that dates back thousands of years and emphasizes harmony with nature and the relationship between humanity and the cosmos.
On the third floor of the building, in a humble office space lit by fluorescent lights, we found the main altar: a room of elaborately carved and painted wooden figures representing Taoism’s most revered deities. With the bustle of the Chinatown markets echoing from the streets below, we lit incense and performed a simple ritual. Tiny numbered sticks were shaken from a tin until one tumbled out. The numbers printed on the sticks correspond to specific fortunes, written on slips of paper kept in a chest of drawers.
My fortune read: “Be humble and patient; act according to your conscience and you will triumph. You should adapt to any situation.” As I headed back out to the busy street – filled with fruit and vegetable vendors – I thought that the same fortune could apply to Chinatown — finally triumphing after so many decades of patience and humility.