Yip Sang et al at 51 Dupont Street, 1900
The Wing Sang building is Chinatown’s oldest building. Yip Sang was probably the most successful business men in Chinatown, largely through providing Chinese labourers to the Canadian Pacific Railway. Through this store he was a retailer, wholesaler, and importer of Chinese goods, including opium.
Source: Photo by A Milne, City of Vancouver Archives #689-52
Chinatown Opium Dens, Saturday 22 June 1901
When the Royal Commission to Investigate Chinese and Japanese Immigration came to Vancouver in 1901, the commissioners wanted to see Chinatown opium dens first hand. They hired a photographer and went on a tour led by Detective Wylie, who was supposedly “learned in the ways of the Chinese.” The World newspaper used the photos to describe the opium dens in detail:
[The commissioners] visited the “dope” dives in the rear of No. 6 Dupont [East Pender] street, which is just around the corner from Carrall, and in the rear of No. 96, as nearly as can be judged from the position of the numberless shacks on the alley. Police supervision is too strict in Vancouver to make it possible to have anything like recognized opium parlors, furnished with swell fittings as can be seen in San Francisco, for instance. But the Chinese have small rooms off their living apartments where they lie in numbers and smoke dope to their hearts content, though the surroundings are not very up to date, even for a dope joint.
They engaged a photographer, one of the Edwards Bros., and the result of their trip is as fine a collection of flashlight photos as could possibly be secured even in San Francisco, where the Chinese abound in such large numbers. There are whole rooms of the Chinese, lying stretched out on beds, with the opium apparatus laid out before them – all unmindful that their attitudes and surrounding conditions are being taken note of to assist in keeping the remainder of their countrymen entirely out of Canada. There are some delightful postures, by the way. There are big Chinese and little; some sitting, some lying down, one is stretched his full length, while another fellow is lying all doubled up, as if it hurt him to smoke or make any kind of an effort …
The photographs show Chinamen in all stages of coma and semi-consciousness. Some pictures show them lying in a row, with the gambling paraphernalia around them. The work done in obtaining these photographs is exceedingly creditable, when it is considered how shy the Chinese generally are of such intrusion. Beyond the lower grade of the demi-monde, and a few men who are confirmed fiends, the police say that the number of whites who smoke opium in Vancouver is extremely small and that to all practical purposes the habit is not growing among the whites.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the opium den photos in question (the above image of a Chinatown rooming house was taken a year later). It’s possible the photos are languishing somewhere at Library & Archives Canada, though it’s more likely they were tossed out at some point.
Photos made extremely persuasive evidence for social reform campaigners, beginning with Jacob Riis, who pioneered the use of flash photography to document slum conditions in New York’s infamous Five Points. That neighbourhood no longer exists, thanks largely to Riis’ efforts. In this case, the photos were used to bolster the case for excluding Chinese immigrants. The chief recommendation of the Commission was to raise the head tax to $500. A complete ban on Chinese immigration came in 1923.
Also worth noting is that opium wasn’t outlawed until 1908, but that didn’t stop the police from harassing drug users in Chinatown and “supervising” drug dens.
Source: Photo “Vancouver Chinatown - Sleeping quarters for 16,” December 1902, British Columbia Archives #D-00335
Anti-Asian Riots, Saturday 7 September 1907
An angry white mob organized by the Asiatic Exclusion League rampaged through Chinatown and Japantown to protest against Asian immigration and for a “White Canada,” causing thousands of dollars worth of damage. By the time they reached Powell Street, the Japanese were ready with broken bottles, sticks, and knives and managed to chase off the thousands of rioters with shouts of "Bonzai!"
Local Asians responded by going on strike the following week, arming themselves with guns and ammo, and installing gates in Shanghai Alley in case of future trouble. The incident was a diplomatic pain in the butt for Ottawa and England, which were in the process of trying to develop friendly relations with Japan.
Source: Harper’s Weekly, via OldMagazineArticles.com