Vancouver, a multi-cultural odyssey


By Victor Block

I was mesmerized by the beauty and tranquility of the Ming Dynasty Chinese garden through which I was strolling. Images of intricately sculpted roofs and covered walkways are reflected in jade-green pools. Growths of willow, bamboo and other delicate plant life are set against a backdrop of graceful pavilions and gazebos.

This magnificent setting could be in China — but it isn’t. It’s half a world away in Vancouver, Canada, which has the largest Chinatown in that country.

The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is among reasons why Vancouver earned a Conde Nast Traveler magazine’s “Best city in the Americas” award in 2010. Another is its location, nestled between the sea and towering mountains. The proximity of ocean and parks that dot the urban landscape provides a playground teeming with a long list of inviting things to do and see.

The diversity begins with the city’s multicultural population. Many residents trace their ancestry back to men from China who arrived during the Gold Rush in Canada, and another immigration wave brought in for construction of the Canadian-Pacific Railroad in the 1880s. Among more recent arrivals are people from the Philippines, Taiwan and other Southeast Asian countries.

Earlier travelers from that area also impacted the region’s culture. Ancestors of present-day Indians began to arrive from Asia around 16,000 B.C. Finding abundant seafood in the bay and wildlife roaming the forests, they settled in to stay.

The influence of people of the First Nations, as those original dwellers and their descendants are known, is everywhere. Elaborately carved, brightly painted totem poles stand as proud reminders of this native heritage. Visitors may board cedar canoes to experience the songs and legends of the Coast Salish culture. Members of the Squamish First Nation demonstrate their heritage as they preserve centuries-old customs like spear fishing for salmon.

A good way to encounter reminders of First Nations culture, along with other major sights in Vancouver, is aboard a sightseeing trolley. Passengers may remain on board for the entire two-hour tour, as drivers deliver information and unabashedly corny puns in equal doses. Or get off the trolley at any of 23 stops along the route, then reboard to continue the ride.

Stanley Park, a major trolley destination, is a Vancouver “must see.” Sprawling over 1,000 acres, this popular urban retreat is large enough to encompass a variety of ecosystems.

The park is laced with 23 miles of gentle hiking paths. My hour-long stroll led through dense woods, around marshy ponds and past fields where some of the 230 species of resident and migrant birds joined together in a symphony of song.

The nosier Granville Island  — a former industrial park — was built during the 1920s. Brightly painted warehouses and corrugated iron buildings today house craft shops, artists’ studios, clothing stores and other retail and entertainment establishments.

Much of the action is centered at the Public Market, a sprawling covered space with row after row of produce tables, poultry stalls, seafood vendors and specialty shops. Take-out food counters are jammed with an eclectic crowd of laborers wearing work clothes, business people sporting the latest fashions and ladies out for a day of shopping.

Here, too, the First Nations culture holds court. In addition to prints, blankets and jewelry, the Wickaninnish Gallery sells small stones adorned with hand-painted crabs, lizards and other animals. Items I spotted for sale at the nearby Creekhouse Gallery ranged from simple human figures carved out of caribou antler to foot-long soapstone seals priced at more than $3,000.

After the hustle and bustle of Granville Island, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden provides “refreshment for the heart.” Modeled after gardens created during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Vancouver version was built of components shipped from China. Every architectural structure was perfectly fitted in the traditional manner, without use of screws, nails or glue.

Among other stops on the trolley tour route is Yaletown, once a somewhat rundown industrial neighborhood. An old railway repair shed has been transformed into a community theater. Warehouses have been restored as artists’ lofts, trendy restaurants and nightclubs.

Another district, which bears the unfortunate name Gastown, is inviting for several reasons, including the fact that is Vancouver’s birthplace. In 1867, a riverboat captain named John Deighton showed up near what is now Stanley Park with a keg of whiskey, threw a plank across two barrels and began selling to workers in nearby timber mills. Deighton’s reputation as a talkative chap, who on occasion stretched the truth, earned him the nickname “Gassy Jack.”

The little community that rose around his place of business became known as Gassy’s Town, and from that modest beginning a city grew. The area retains its brick sidewalks, cobbled streets and Victorian buildings. Restaurants, bars and boutiques now attract both visitors and locals.

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