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Bootleggers and brothels: the Vancouver you won’t find in guidebooks

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.

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"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.

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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

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About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More


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