Jonathan Rogers

Jonathan Rogers was born at Plas-Onn, near Llangollen in Denbighshire, North Wales, and grew up speaking only Welsh. At 16 he moved to Liverpool where he worked at various jobs while perfecting his English. In May 1887, aged  22, armed with a legacy left to him by an aunt, Jonathan sailed for Montreal and crossed Canada on the first transcontinental train to Vancouver. Soon after he arrived, Jonathan attended the first public auction of parcels of CPR land within the newly created city. He bought four lots outside the area built at that time, although now located in the heart of downtown. He started work as a painter, and then became a construction contractor.

The massive speculation that had accompanied the arrival of the railway in 1887 was soon halted when the economic realities of building a new city set in, coupled with a collapse in lumber prices south of the border. Jonathan Rogers held on to his land through this depression and in 1893 partnered with the Hunter Brothers (James and Thomas) to build a 2-storey building on Columbia Street, near Powell Street known as the Commercial Block.

In 1894 he announced that rather than leave the city (as many were preparing to do) he would be constructing a new building on Hastings Street. The first half of this development was designed by William Blackmore, who occupied it for his own offices once it was completed. The large windows used cast iron mullions to maximise the area of glazing. Four years later the gold rush in the Klondike ensured the city’s renewed growth, and Rogers engaged Parr and Fee to add a second half to the building. While almost identical to the first building, the window dimensions are just slightly different. Jonathan Rogers would almost certainly be unhappy with the current use of his buildings. These days they house the offices of the Marijuana Party and the Amsterdam Cafe. In 1916 Jonathan Rogers was the main organiser in Vancouver of the People’s Prohibition Association who successfully lobbied for the introduction of Prohibition in British Columbia (which lasted from 1917 to 1921).

In 1898 Jonathan built the second Rogers Block on Hastings Street. He also must have acquired the adjacent corner site to the east, as in 1903 he built the Royal Bank of Canada, one of the earliest buildings in the city to use reinforced concrete, in this case for the foundations and vaults that were over half a metre thick. He had been similarly innovative on his block in 1898 – to ensure construction could complete by spring 1899 he erected a huge umbrella over the entire building site.

The Royal Bank of Canada and Rogers Block not too long after they were built.

152&156 W HastingsJonathan continued as a contractor and builder and soon became involved in all kinds of construction work – offices, manufacturing plants, hotels, banks, even an electricity-generating station in the city’s significant building and real-estate boom. Although aged 35, the 1901 census found him living in rooms as a lodger – the Street Directory seems to record him as a painter and decorator living on Homer Street. In 1902 he married Elisabeth, a girl from Oswestry, a town near his ancestral home in Wales. They lived close to Stanley Park at 2050 Nelson Street in a large, elegant house named Argoed, (Welsh for beside the wood). Elisabeth became heavily involved in civic life as one of the founders and early benefactors of the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Symphony Society. In 1901 Jonathan had built a building at 156 West Hastings, designed by Parr and Fee. In 1904 the adjaccent site was developed by Elizabeth with a similarly designed building using William Blackmore & Son as architect. (In 1940 the building was altered so both halves took on Blackmore’s design).Seeking to join in the new boom as a significant developer rather than just building other people’s project, Jonathan turned to a Seattle firm of architects, Gould and Champney to design one of the most expensive buildings the city had seen.

Initially announced as ‘The Glyn Building’, although on completion it would bear the Rogers name, Jonathan spared no expense on his state-of-the-art reinforced concrete structure (the biggest the city had seen). The fifteen carloads of enamelled terra cotta came from Chicago. The ornamental iron was purchased in Minneapolis and St. Paul and five of the most up-to-date elevators were bought in Toronto. Nearly 60,000 feet of cork flooring and 60,000 feet of linoleum came from England and 8,000 barrels of California cement were used. During construction The BC Saturday Sunset said “The building is designed along the lines of the modern French Renaissance (with an) exterior of polished Glasgow granite, in combination with cream-colored terra cotta facing . . . All the interior finish woodwork is to be of hardwood with white Italian marble corridors and stairs throughout… The building will be a monument to Alderman Rogers, whose faith in the future of this city is exemplified in the erection of a building which, when completed, will represent an expenditure of nearly $600,000.”

In commissioning the building, Jonathan had been involved in a uniquely hands-on manner. The Engineering and Contract Record reported “The architect, A. Warren Gould, of the firm of Gould & Champney, and the owner, Jonathan Rogers, are at present visiting Chicago, New York and Toronto, their object being to interview the various manufacturing plans and dealers in high-class finish. The trip will probably include a visit to England, as it is possible they may purchase the terra cotta and special plumbing fixtures abroad.”

The same report noted “One wing of the building will be fitted up for doctors and dentists, for whose convenience special electrical and compressed air appliances will be introduced. They continued “the basement will contain a large cafe and kitchen, barber shop, etc., as well as heating and power plants, electric generators, and refrigeration machines for the cafe.”

Jonathan Rogers in 1916. City of Vancouver Archives photograph

By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Jonathan Rogers was a very wealthy man and a prominent public figure in Vancouver. He was elected an Alderman twice, served for 26 years on the Parks Board, 9 of them as Chairman, and was Chairman of the Board of Trade as well as being involved in a variety of charitable enterprises.

Rogers sold the 1912 building in September of 1927 to General F. A. ‘One Arm’ Sutton for a sum “exceeding $1 million” – the largest real estate transaction in the city to that time. Around 1940 he bought it back – although by then his wife Elizabeth was managing their interests.

Jonathan Rogers died in 1945 and left what at that time was a very large sum of money, a quarter of a million dollars, to various causes in Vancouver. The largest single bequest of $100,000 was given to the City of Vancouver to create a neighbourhood park in a poorer part of the city. After several delays, a park bearing the name Jonathan Rogers Park was finally opened in 1958 on 8th Avenue in Mount Pleasant.

Chang Toy

Chang Toy was the developer of a number of important Chinatown buildings, although only a few of them now remain. The founder of the Sam Kee Company, Chang Toy rose from having virtually nothing to become almost certainly the wealthiest man in Chinatown.

Chang Toy – City of Vancouver Archives photograph

Born in Guangdong Province in 1857, his father died when he was aged three, but still Chang Toy was able to go to school and was married as a child (so his mother would have a servant). He came to Canada in 1874 as a labourer, initially working in Victoria, then in a New Westminster sawmill before moving to Granville around 1876 and buying a share in a laundry, (probably Wah Chong’s). He added a small grocery business and started labour contracting other Hakka speaking Chinese workers. Over the years, among other businesses he was involved in he added charcoal burning, an import and export business, steamship ticket sales and real estate. Initially goods were shipped from a more established Victoria merchant, the Wing Chong Company. Chang Toy’s company were known as the Sam Kee Company as if there were such a person, although it is an entirely made up name.

After the 1886 fire (which presumably wiped out his business) Chang Toy moved to Steveston, but by 1888 he was back in business in the newly named Vancouver. Retail sales rose steadily, and in addition the company acted as wholesalers, importing goods from Hong Kong and then shipping on to other stores elsewhere in BC’s interior. In the early 1900s the store was on the south side of Pender, backing on to False Creek (which was much bigger in those days). Sam Kee also acted as a clearing-house for Chinese sending money back to China. By 1908 trade in goods like rice had grown hugely, with Chinese sourced rice being shipped to major Vancouver wholesalers like Kelly-Douglas and W H Malkin. On the export side the main product was salted fish, initially to Hong Kong but later to Shanghai as well. As the trade expanded, the company developed complex relationships with Japanese fishing concerns. As sources of fish declined, Sam Kee developed new connections in Nanaimo, and added a wharf, fish tanks and a saltery which were in turn leased to Japanese companies who supplied the fish that Sam Kee exported.

Although the different traders in Chinatown were rivals, they co-operated more than might be expected. In 1893 Won Alexander Cumyow (another Vancouver merchant) and Chang Toy pooled funds to buy property that they then leased to Wing Sang and other merchants for two years, before selling.

By 1904 the company were based in a 2-storey building at 433 Carrall Street. This was probably the 1903 commission for the Sam Kee company building by W T Whiteway. Soon after it appears to have had a third storey added. The extraordinary pace of development in the early years of the 20th Century can be seen on this site – by 1911 the site had been sold and the new BC Electric depot and offices were being built here.

Carrall St, probably around 1905. The building on the right was 433 Carrall, beyond it was the Methodist Mission, then another building across Pender Street also owned by Sam Kee that would be expropriated by the City.     City of Vancouver Archives photo

Altogether the company held 10 lots in Chinatown, but also land in Gastown, and at the corner of Pender and Richards Streets as well as on Burrard and Hastings Streets. Residential hotels or apartments were built here, either turned over to white hotel operators or non-Chinese management. In total Chang Toy owned five hotels, and built two others on leased land. Overall there were greater land holdings outside Chinatown than within the area.

In 1910 the company moved to 111 East Pender Street (built in 1903 by Victoria merchant Chu Lai and designed by W T Whiteway, later the home of the Green Door Restaurant), and by 1920 they were based at 147 Keefer Street, a building with a confusing pedigree – the building permit being issued to Kennerley Bryan for Sam Kee in 1911 but plans attributed to Fred Townley for the Wing Kee Rice Mills (probably a Sam Kee related company) existing from 1912. It’s possible the final version was a revisit of Bryan’s initial design.

In 1910 Sam Kee Company employed W F Gardiner to design a $55,000 addition to an existing building on Powell Street. That was the City Hotel, on Powell Street at the other end of the block from the iconic Europe Hotel. In 1911 the Oriental Hotel on Water Street was required to be demolished by the City Health Inspectors, despite Chang Toy’s protest. However, the same year he built a new hotel on Main Street, designed by Perry and Nicholais. Two of the pieces of land the Sam Kee Company acquired on Burrard Street these days have office buildings on top – one site underneath Park Place next to the Cathedral.

Oriental Hotel 1889 (City of Vancouver archives)

Chang Toy’s private life expanded as much as his business; in the Chinese custom of the time he accumulated five wives, and several children by at least two of them. He never really learned to speak English, and retained traditional Chinese dress until his death in 1920.

Like the other Chinese merchants Chang was sometimes willing to take risks and start new ventures. For a short while starting in 1893 he had a 25% stake in a gambling syndicate called Hop Lee Word Flowers, a word-guessing lottery. The Sam Kee Company sometimes imported opium when they had a customer who needed it. Chang operated a theatre, the Sing Ping, located on Columbia Street (but addressed on Keefer) which he had built in 1914 by architect W H Chow, and he invested in the troop who performed there between 1915 and 1918, although it appears that this was not a money-making proposition.

The four buildings still standing that are probably Sam Kee developments are somewhat different in character. The first is on Pender Street, and these days is more often called the Chinese Freemasons Building. It was completed at some point early in the 1900s, but records are sketchy. It was almost certainly complete by 1906, as there is a picture dated to that year, but before that we’re relying on business directories which were less interested in the businesses in this part of town, particularly those that were Chinese or Japanese owned. In about 1907 the building was bought by the Chee Kung Tong, an organisation for Chinese workers first established in Vancouver in 1892 that renamed itself the Chinese Freemasons in 1920. Active in Chinese politics, the organisation later took a position critical of both the Nationalists and the Communist Party.

The second building is something of a surprise; it’s almost certainly one of the apartment buildings that Sam Kee built on lots around the growing city, and somehow it has survived to today. Sam Kee acquired two 25 foot lots at the corner of Pender and Richards in 1904, and the building still there today, the Empress Rooms, were completed in 1906. The architect has yet to be identified. These days it’s the home of MacLeods Books.

The third building is the one that is most associated with the Sam Kee name. In 1912 the city expropriated Sam Kee’s building to widen Pender Street, leaving the company with a strip only 6 feet wide. Although this has been characterised as an attack on the Chinese community, it was a normal business transaction for Chang Toy, who instructed his lawyers to seek $70,000 compensation for the land in expectation of receiving the $62,000 that was the final settlement. Unwilling to have a potentially utilised plot sit vacant – albeit only 6 feet deep, Bryan and Gillam were hired to design a 3-storey steel frame building that overhangs the sidewalk to add a slightly greater depth, with a basement incorporating public baths. The building permit said the work was worth only $8,000 and the architects also carried out the building work. This is generally accepted as the narrowest building in the world.

In the same year Sam Kee also had a residential building permit at 145-149 Keefer Street designed by Kennerley Bryan, to be built by R P Forshaw at a cost of $16,000. It is more likely that the drawings prepared for Sam Kee’s Wing Kee Rice Mills by Fred Townley in 1912 were associated with the design and commercial use of the building.

Ben Springer and James Van Bramer

Springer and Van Bramer (sometimes written as Van Braemer or Van Bremer) were two of Vancouver’s earlier developers, known to have partnered to build the Springer-Van Bramer Block, sometimes referred to as the Masonic Hall, on West Cordova Street in 1888. In fact they pre-date Vancouver, both having been active in Granville, the township that preceded the renamed city, and the block we know today was their third real estate project.

Benjamin Springer was born in Melbourne, (or London) Ontario in 1841, started out in civil engineering and came to BC to join the Cariboo gold rush in 1862, after a year looking for gold in California with his brother-in-law, Jonathan Miller. He remained in Cariboo engaged in mining for nine years and during that time he developed claims on Williams, Antler, Lowhee, Keithley and Mosquito creeks. He headed to the small town of Granville in 1872, and became book-keeper for the Moodyville sawmill on the north shore of Burrard Inlet in 1874, marrying in that year and becoming mill Manager in 1882, moving to ‘the big house’ and retiring in 1890. Springer partnered Van Bramer in his steamship business, and as well as the Vancouver buildings they developed. They also shared ownership of the BC District Telegraph and Delivery Company, obtaining a 50 year franchise for the operation of district telegraph systems in Vancouver and Victoria. Initially, the company provided the transmission and delivery of telegrams to its customers. This service soon evolved into the provision of signal boxes for watchmen and guards, by which the individual could signal his well being at specific intervals to the central office.

Ben Springer c1895. City of Vancouver archives

On retiring from the sawmill Springer partnered in a new company with Captain Mellon, handling merchandise consignments. Ben’s role as Vice-consul for Sweden and Norway was useful in this new venture. They also acted as agents for Fire Insurance companies based in Britain, and marine insurers in the US. An 1890 portrait of Ben Springer said “Mr. Springer owns considerable property and has erected a number of pretentious buildings in the city, among which is the Masonic Temple block and also the Leland block on Hastings street.” As this was otherwise a glowingly positive piece, presumably pretension was acceptable or even admired in the late 19th Century. Ben was both a Mason and a member of the Ancient Order of United Workmen, was a Justice of the Peace and also acted as School Trustee for over ten years.

The most likely candidate for the first Springer-Van Bramer block is a two-storey brick building at 320 Cordova Street (opposite the building today known as the Springer Van-Bramer Block). It is clearly an early building (although it is possible that the facade has been changed some time after construction). In the 1887 Elector’s list the owner of the lot that the building sits on was T C Sorby – the only parcel of land that he owned in Vancouver. In August 1886 architect Thomas C Sorby placed a notice in the Colonist newspaper “Parties desirous of tendering for a two-storey Brick Block to be erected in Cordova Street, Vancouver, for Messrs Springer and Van Bremer can see the drawings in my office. The proprietors reserve the liberty of declining any or all tenders”.

There was a second Springer-Van Bramer block built a year after the first block, in 1887. This time the architect was N S Hoffar, and the building was said to be located on Hastings Street opposite the Leland Hotel. It was altered again in 1889. The Leland Hotel was located on the south side of the 600 block of Hastings, between Granville and Seymour Streets. There’s some confusion asbout the use of the name ‘Leland Block’, (rather than the Hotel) In the Major Matthews archives The Leland Block is described as either the first, or perhaps the second brick-built structure in the city, and on Cordova Street, but an 1890 Daily World profile puts it (probably wrongly) on Hastings.

The second Springer Van Bramer block is almost certainly the two-storey building, as Ben Springer owned the land in 1887. City of Vancouver archives

James Van Bramer is something of a man of mystery – although he was an American, and was frequently called ‘Captain Van Bramer’, we don’t know where or when he was born, and there are no identified images of him, although there is one description of him as “a little man with a beard“. We know he arrived in BC around 1860 and was part of a syndicate formed by Sewell Prescott Moody to build a steam powered sawmill in New Westminster in 1862; a project that didn’t last long as the first boat to load lumber got stuck on a Fraser river sandbar for six weeks, dissuading other ships from taking the mill’s lumber. The same group incorporated the British Columbia Coal Mining Company in 1865 to expolit the coal in Coal Harbour, but nothing came of that venture either. In 1863 Moody and Van Bramer joined the Masonic Union Lodge No. 899 ER on the north shore, and in 1865 Van Bramer was a member of the group who bought the mill on the north shore, selling out his share a year later.

In 1866 the Sea Foam – a steam tug owned by Van Bramer began regular ferry service between Brighton and Moodyville across the Burrard Inlet. It is described as “quite a nice. comfortable and airy conveyance“. Joseph Mannion recalled the service in an article in the Province in 1909 “The waterfrontage extended from the Sunnyside hotel to the Methodist parsonage, and consisted of a beach which, when the tide was high, was very shallow, for a considerable distance from the shore. To allow passengers landing from the ferry a long floating wharf about four feet wide, and consisting of two-inch planks nailed to logs which crossed them at intervals of ten or twelve feet, extended out to sufficiently deep water to allow of the little steamer mooring alongside. The ferry was owned by James Van Bramer, who carried on a regular service on the inlet as follows: leaving Moodyville at 7.30 a.m., the steamer came across to Gasstown, and leaving there called at the Hastings Mill, picked up the medical officer of the milling companies and returned to Moodyville. Then it ran over to Hastings and met Lewis’ stage from New Westminster which brought in a daily mail from New Westminster.” Captain Van Bramer, despite the title, employed a crew to operate the ferry.

In November 1867 the Sea Foam blew up, fortunately causing no serious injuries. It was joined (or replaced) by the Chinaman and the Lily.

In 1869 he appears to have partnered George Black, the local butcher, in purchasing cattle and sheep. In 1871 Van Bramer is listed as a resident of Granville; later he moved to the north shore, probably with his wife and family. In 1873 he took over mail delivery across the Inlet, receiving $300 a year from the postmaster general. In 1876 he had the Leonora built in Victoria as a mail and ferry boat. Bill Nahanee, in a conversation with Major Matthews of the Vancouver archives recalls “In his cottage on the hill there lived with him an Indian woman, her name was Lizzie, her Indian name Ka-ak-sala; she belonged to the Katzie Indian Reserve up the Fraser River. She was a young woman, and they had three children. There was Louisa, Leonora, and the youngest one whose name I don’t recall. I don’t know if he named the tug Leonora after his second daughter, or not, but it would seem so”.

He lived in Moodyville rather than Granville, and was recorded there in 1882, described as a steamboat captain. In 1888 the Senator was launched. (Captain Van Bramer may of course be in the picture below). Later, when we sold the launches to the Union Steamship Co and went to the US, his older daughters apparently went with him, and his wife took the youngest back to the Katzie reserve.

At some point in the early 1870s he acquired an interest in a silver mine, the Victoria Mine, near Hope, and was partners in the 1880s with Hugh Nelson, in a mine on Texada Island.

S.S. Senator at City Wharf c1889. City of Vancouver Archives

The third building that we know the men partnered to build is a flatiron building on West Cordova Street, designed by N S Hoffar, and completed in 1888, with 5 stores, second floor offices and the Masonic Temple and Oddfellows’ Hall on the third floor.

Springer Van Bramer block in 1888 – City of Vancouver archives

The building still stands today, relatively unscathed, although the elaborate cornice and Masonic Insignia have been removed for safety reasons.

Van Bramer had a more exciting retirement. He relocated to California on or before 1888, although he visited Victoria as late as 1894. In 1892 a San Diego dispatch to the Post Intelligencer reported: “The steam schooner Eliza Edward was today fined $1,400 for landing and taking on cargo at Santa Barbara without complying with the customs regulations. Captain Van Bremer paid the fine cheerfully, and took out clearance papers for hunting and fishing. He plans to leave this port Monday. The charges of smuggling were dismissed for want of actual proof.” In explanation, the Seattle paper adds: “The sealer Eliza Edwards of Vancouver was supposed to be in the smuggling business. When she sailed from the home port recently she announced her destination as Cocos Island off Costa Rica to hunt for $6,000,000 buried by pirates. She hove too off Victoria and, it is supposed, took out a cargo of Chinese and opium. She slipped into the port of Santa Barbara, Cal., and was off again before the customs officers knew it, and it is supposed she landed her cargo. When the Edwards left Victoria she announced her destination as Valdivia, Chili; at San Diego, he said he was bound for the Hawaiian Islands”. (Victoria Daily Colonist Tuesday July 11th1892). The story was widely reported.

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The New York Times made several attempts at identifying the Captain, none very accurately. Because the same story appeared in other papers, including the Colonist in Victoria, we know it is James Van Bramer.

The Captain died in Santa Barbara in 1895 not long after returning a further mysterious voyage to the Cocos Islands to search for the buried treasue he believed was there.  In a curious postscript to the story, an edition of the Victoria paper three months after his death claimed that “Captain Van Bremer’s Dream Proven a Reality – Millions Recovered From Their Hiding Place”.

Yip Sang

Yip Sang was the head of the Wing Sang Company, an important Vancouver Chinese trading company from 1888 onwards. Yip Sang was born in Guangdong Province in 1845, and came to San Francisco on a sailing junk from Hong Kong in 1864. He earned enough by washing dishes, cooking in a restaurant and panning gold on his trip to the United States to be able to return to China and identify the woman he intended to marry. He returned to the US, among other jobs cooking for cowboys in Montana, allowing him to return again to China to marry and have two children. His first wife died, but he had already married another to look after her and his children. On a further trip back he married again, so now had two wives to look after his three children.

In North America he passed through Vancouver, headed for the Cariboo gold fields, but with no luck there ended up selling coal door-to-door in New Westminster. Finally his luck was in when he impressed Andrew Onderdonk, the contractor building the CPR line from Port Moody to Kamloops, becoming bookeeper, timekeeper and paymaster for the Chinese work gangs building the line. He then started supplying the CPR with work gangs, recruiting in the Pearl River Delta and while there marrying a fourth wife.

Yip Sang, UBC Chung Collection

Once the railway construction was completed Yip Sang returned to Vancouver, establishing the Wing Sang Company (it means ‘everlasting’) in 1888. He built what was probably the first brick building in Chinatown on Pender Street, enlarging the building in 1901 to three storeys to allow him to bring his entire family from China (using a design from T E Julian) and then building an even larger 6-storey family and stores block in 1912 at the back of his lot on Market Alley, this time using Edward Stanley Mitton as architect.

Wing Sang’s building in 1900. City of Vancouver Archives photograph

By 1908 Yip Sang was one of the four largest Chinese owned companies in the city with real estate worth over $200,000. Yip Sang’s family grew as successfully as his businesses, with 19 sons and 4 daughters all living with their father and three wives and other family members including numerous cousins. The growing family moved to the new building at the back, leaving space for the expanding businesses covered by the Wing Sang company, including labour supply to the railway, rice, silk and clothing imports, salt herring export and steamer ticket brokerage.

Like several other Vancouver traders (although far fewer than in Victoria) the Wing Sang Company imported and processed opium. Although the government changed the rules after the McKenzie inquiry into the riot of 1908, Henderson’s Directory hadn’t caught up with those changes in 1909. (Market Alley runs behind the Wing Sang building)

Yip Sang never learned English well, but employed two secretaries, one English speaking and one Chinese who could also speak English. In 1911 when Sun Yat-Sen and his followers toppled the Manchu Dynasty, Wing Sang cut off his queue and adopted western dress.

He owned at least 16 lots in the city, including the 11-lot Canton Alley tenament district of homes and businesses which saw construction on Pender Street in 1903 ans 5 more buildings that cost $50,000 to develop in 1904. A 1912 building replaced the 1903 building with a substantial 7-storey apartment block.

While those buildings were cleared away many decades ago, two other buildings developed by the Wing Sang Company are still standing. The Chinese Times Building was completed in 1902 to designs by W T Whiteway, working with Chinese architect W H Chow – even though in theory the Chinese were prevented from working as professionals in the city. The building sits on the corner of Pender and Carrall, and on the back half of the lot (so on Carrall Street) J G Price designed the West Hotel for Yip Sang in 1913.

As with several of his Chinese competitors, Yip Sang didn’t only invest in Chinatown. In 1912 J G Price designed the Fraser Hall for Wing Sang, located at Fraser and 46th Avenue. It’s still there today, 100 years later.

Yip Sang died in 1927, his death being marked by the longest funeral procession Vancouver had ever seen. Unusually, he opted to be buried in Vancouver rather than having his bones returned to China, as normal custom would have indicated. The buildings on Pender Street stayed in the family until 2001. In 2004 Bob Rennie acquired them and undertook a massive restoration project, moving his realty company to the Pender Street building and installing his extensive art collection and a gallery for curated works into the gutted six-storey family block on Market Alley.

Loo Gee Wing

Yip Sang and Chang Toy, probably the two best-known Chinese merchants trading in Vancouver at the start of the 20th Century have been extensively written about, but far less has been published about Loo Gee Wing. His story is just as interesting, and there are still several buildings standing today that he had built. The references to Loo Gee Wing appear in a variety of contexts – as a merchant with losses as a result of the 1907 riots, as the owner of one of two theatres playing Cantonese Opera, and in a series of sensational court cases that eventually fizzled out. The various pieces have been assembled here in roughly chronological order.

Loo Gee SF 1878

It’s not entirely clear when Loo Gee Wing arrived in BC, most likely in 1887 when he acquired Kwong Lee and Co. In 1878 he was in San Francisco, while his father visited Victoria, so there were earlier connections, and Mr. Wing was an experienced and successful merchant long before he arrived here. He bought some land in Victoria in 1890 on Fisgard Street that he then sold to another Chinese merchant, Loo Tai Cho, in 1893. He was certainly living in Victoria in 1892.

Loo Gee Wing was reported in the 1901 census to have been born on 23 December 1861. He was living in Fisgard Street with his wife, Mong Wing born in 1864 and sons Chang Shong born in 1886, Chung Key, born 1890 and his brother, Chu Lung born in 1874. He was still living in Victoria in 1907, the Times Colonist reporting “April 25, 1907 Breaking through a wooden wall a brave young Chinaman, Leon Loo, elder son of Loo Gee Wing, a wealthy Chinaman property owner, residing on Fisguard street, at great risk to his life saved his mother, brother and cousin from a horrible death by fire which broke out about four o’clock this morning.”

There don’t seem to be any images of Loo Gee Wing, but In 1897 he gave evidence in a forgery case in Victoria. The Colonist reported “Loo Gee Wing, whose mild countenance beamed behind a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, was the next witness. He is a prosperous merchant and speaks English particularly well.”

We also know from the 1907 McKenzie King hearings into the riots earlier that year how he dressed. The Province newspaper described him as “dressed like a tailor’s model in the suit of a prosperous Englishman down to his patent leathers“. (He was paid $153 compensation for the damage to his 45 Dupont Street property). Whether it’s accurate or not, the Province, claimed Loo Gee Wing was one of the two wealthiest men in Chinatown.

Many recent published sources repeat the statement “Loo had made his fortune in the Cariboo Gold Rush”, but there is little evidence of this. There’s no question that somewhat later (the earliest record seems to be in 1912) Loo Gee Wing had interests in Barkerville in mining – up to this date all references to his business dealings relate to property, court cases (some involving gambling), or trading.

An early reference to a Loo Gee Wing – likely to be the same person – is a complex case of 20 pounds of opium (valued at over $20,000) found in a rowboat in San Francisco harbour in 1881. The case was referred to as “Three Thousand Eight Hundred and Eighty Boxes of Opium v. United States”. It was reported to be ‘faked’ to look as if it was of Hong Kong origin but said to be actually manufactured in the US of Turkish opium. Loo Gee Wing of Hop Kee & Co gave evidence about supplying Turkish sourced gum opium, manufactured at Hop Kee’s factory in New Jersey (not in any way illegally as far as the case details appear to suggest). It was reported in the trial that Hop Kee had stopped dealing in opium in San Francisco in 1881. The judge seems to have had issues with some of Loo Gee Wing’s testimony, and concluded it really was imported opium.

(Hop Kee and Co were large enough to have stores in New Orleans and Sydney, as well as Baker City, Oregon and an opium factory in New Jersey. The company had links with BC going back to 1858, when they paid $3,500 to Allan, Lowe & Co to ship 300 Chinese workers on the Caribbean from San Francisco, soon after gold was discovered on the Fraser River – thought to be the first Chinese to arrive in British Columbia.)

The first reference to Loo Gee Wing in Victoria is in the British Colonist from August 21 1887

In 1862 the Kwong Lee Company was said to be the second largest landowner in the city of Victoria after the Hudson’s Bay Company. Kwong Lee also legitimately operated one of the 15 opium refining factories in Victoria in the years between 1860 and 1908.

(Kwong Lee had operated from the 1860s or earlier, (Mrs Chong Lee arrived in 1860 to join her husband) operated by Lee Chong and Tong Fat, (also associated with Tai Soong & Co) and was described as the biggest Chinese import/export company (including, of course, opium) in Victoria. They also had a notable store in Barkerville. Kwong Lee had interests in gold mining; an 1861 report says “Jeffray’s Fraser River Express is transporting gold from a Chinese mining company called Kwong Lee & Co. from Fort Yale to Victoria, B.C”.)

The notice reprinted here says Loo Gee Wing was buying Kwong Lee in receivership. The company’s owners were Loo Chock Fan and Lew Chew Fan – Loo Gee Wing’s father (Loo and Lew are obviously interchangeable in western records). They were the largest Chinese import/export business in British Columbia, and the brothers also operated Kwong U Shing in Guangzhou, Kwong Man Fung in Hong Kong and Hop Kee & Co in San Francisco. They had five other branches in BC, including Yale and Barkerville. It was Loo Chock Fan who arranged the arrival of the first 265 Chinese labourers, and many worked in his gold mine. It is said that due to heavy borrowing and family disputes the company’s assets were sold off in the mid 1880s – in this case to the son of one of the founder’s. No doubt the long drawn out ‘great opium case’ had an impact on company finances (and a lucrative source of revenue) as well.

Loo Gee Wing was no stranger to the courts. In 1903, Betty Keller’s ‘On the Shady Side’ details the biggest police raid to that point in Vancouver’s history on a gambling joint, operated by Peter Sass, (who was white), at 516 Carrall St (in Chinatown). He was said to be a recently opened rival to Loo Gee Wing’s equally elaborate (and illegal) operation at 70 Dupont Street. With Sass’s opening, Loo Gee Wing added female dealers, but there was still too little business for two large scale gambling operations. It is suggested that Mr Loo arranged the police raid on Mr Sass – Mr Sass certainly thought so, and a week later 15 men with axes effectively closed 70 Dupont. A month later Gin Lin Chung, aka Charlie Sing, a professional gambler said to be the original tipster for the raid on Mr Sass was found nastily dead in Steveston. A complex case ensued for perjury when one Li Ping was found guilty after admitting that Chan Toy had paid to say he had seen a Japanese man leaving Charlie Sing’s room after the murder.

A year later in 1904 the case almost repeated itself in a different context. This time Loo Gee Wing was charged with conspiracy in Victoria, accused of setting up two Chinese men on a murder charge. The murder had occurred in Victoria – theatre owner Man Quan was killed in a fight, and two men were accused, tried and sentenced to death. The case was successfully appealed on a technicality, allowing their defence to introduce new evidence that the two accused murderers had not even been present, but that witnesses had been bribed to say they were present by Loo Gee Wing. His motive was said to be revenge for evidence that the accused murderers had given against a gambling operation (in a case that had never come to trial). The conspiracy case apparently collapsed when the judge found that Loo Gee Wing should have been accused of bribery rather than conspiracy.

Loo Gee Wing is known to have built at least five buildings that are still standing today. The first was designed by Emil Guenther in 1904, and cost $21,000 to build. It has been significantly repaired over the years, but sits on the corner of Columbia and Dupont (these days called East Pender Street.

Loo Gee Wing announced plans for a theatre back in 1905, but nothing came of this. On August 3 the Colonist reported “Loo Gee Wing, a wealthy Victoria Chinese, has finally signed the contract for a hotel and theatre at Vancouver. E W Houghton of Seattle is the architect and A P Gillies & Co of Seattle, the builders. E. R. Ricketts of Vancouver, manager of the Vancouver Opera House has a ten year lease on the new building which will be part of the Northwest Theatrical Association circuit.” He clearly changed his mind about the 12 storey theatre and hotel, to be built on Hastings Street, and Mr Gillies sued for damages. Mr Gillies was clearly unhappy at the turn of the case having discovered that the lawyer he thought was representing him was now representing Loo Gee Wing. In July Mr Gillies attempted to have the lawyer dis-barred, and the case for damages was dismissed in August of 1906. If the theatre had been built the debate about ‘taller buildings’ in the Downtown Eastside might have had quite a different context.

The next building we know to have been built by Loo Gee Wing is built on adjacent lots, and located on Hastings Street in a part of town not really identified with Chinese ownership. The designers of what got called The Loo Building were prolific Vancouver architects Hooper and Watkins, working for Song Mong Lim Co. (his wife was sometimes called Mong Lin), and it cost $80,000 to build. The contractors, the National Construction Company, got into financial difficulties, and their subcontractors, Coughlin Brothers, went after the owners to get the $1,700 they were owed. Except the property had changed hands, and Loo Gee Wing was now the owner, and he argued the builders lien didn’t apply to him. The judge was not sympathetic to this view

“The facts are that the defendant Mong Lin, wife of Leo Gee Wing, was the registered owner of the property at the time the contract was entered into by her with the codefendant, and she so continues to the present time. I strongly suspect that the transfer of the property to her husband was a piece of Oriental jugglery perpetuated in order to embarrass lien holders.”

It was leased as office space, and was a prominent building, as this City of Vancouver Archives panorama from around 1909 by Richard Broadbridge shows.

These days the building still marks an important corner, although the restoration of Woodwards on the diagonal corner makes it look a little tired. Today it’s called Abbott Mansions, and as with many of the earliest office buildings it’s now used as a Single Room Occupancy hotel. In 1912 Loo Gee Wing spent $2,000 on repairs to the building.

The building next door – these days known as the Grand Union Hotel, and also completed in 1909, was also developed by Loo Gee Wing.

We can’t be sure when Loo Gee Wing built his Vancouver theatre, known as the Ko Sing Opera House at 124 East Pender Street, but it also seems to be around 1909. In 1914 we find him signing a contract with a Hong Kong performer, using a local booking agent, to appear at the theatre. He also spent $2,700 in repairs on the building that year. We know that Loo Gee Wing also had a theatre in Victoria. (It’s suggested he also owned a boat factory, store, laundry and hotel there).

The main rival for patrons in Chinatown was the Sing Ping Theatre, owned by Chang Toy. (There were theatres built in Hong Kong at the same period with the same names as Vancouver’s theatres). Stephen Brouwers suggests Loo Gee Wing was the more successful owner, as the arrangement of the building allowed him to benefit from retail sales that offset the costs of running the theatre. The Sing Ping ran at a loss and the first company to perform there was wound up in 1918, although it was soon replaced with a new company. Meanwhile the Ko Sing seems to have been successful enough that In 1921 Loo Gee Wing hired S B Birds to alter it to add dressing rooms, boxes and a new ticket office. The appearance of the building today is largely unchanged, although the wooden windows have been replaced with aluminum units.

Loo Gee Wing also developed 100 East Pender; a building that was built two years later than the others in 1911. These days known as the Sun Ah Hotel, the building was designed by Colonel R T Perry, probably with R A Nicholais; Perry and Nicholais also designed the now demolished Sam Kee Hotel on Main Street in the same year. White and Cockerill altered the building for another owner some years later. The building was once adorned with the fabulous neon of the Ho Ho Chop Suey Restaurant – these days a more modest sign identifies its successor, Foo’s Ho Ho. In 1926 the building became the home of a Chinese clan association, the Lung Kong Kung Shaw Association – this society was later known as Lung Kong Tien Yee