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.

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