Beyond the glass and steel that dominates the skyline, the old brick buildings and back alleys of downtown Vancouver tell tales of a scandalous past. Stories of gangsters, opium dens, crooked politicians and race riots will dominate my next two hours as I join the B.C. Association of Travel Writers for the Prohibition City tour.
Our guide for the evening, Will Woods, appears as if from another time, looking dapper in his trench coat and fedora hat, carrying a leather satchel as if heading home from his 1920’s day job. Founder of Forbidden Vancouver, he’s going to walk us through the days when booze was illegal, jazz was king and corruption ruled the city.
We start our tour across from the Holy Rosary Cathedral, rumoured to have housed more than just the pious in the years of prohibition. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Vancouver was a rough and tumble port city, catering to the loggers, mill workers and sailors who took leave on its shores. The men worked hard and played hard, and savvy business owners were more than willing to provide establishments that would accommodate their needs, much to the chagrin of the temperance movement. It was the movement’s belief the removal of alcohol from society would put an end to the poverty, crime, disease and domestic violence that plagued the city.
It wasn’t until the first world war that the movement gained momentum in British Columbia and in October 1916, a vote was held to outlaw the ownership and sale of alcohol. Three years before the United States enacted legislation, prohibition was brought into law in British Columbia, leading to a healthy bootlegging industry along the coast and across the provinces. Will leans in towards the group and, in a conspiratorial air, tells us the Prohibition Commissioner, Walter Findlay, was himself arrested for bootlegging liquor in 1919!
We wend our way past the old Canada Post building, built with a bunker to withstand a nuclear attack, then down to Victory Square, home of the oldest trees in Vancouver. Here we stop at an alley that was once home to the blind pigs, the Canadian equivalent of the speakeasy. Hidden away in the basements and accessible only by password, the blind pigs catered to the dry-throated with concoctions that rotted the gut and occasionally caused actual blindness. The precursor to the modern cocktail stemmed from this era as barkeeps added fruit juices or soda to mask the bitter spirits.
From this spot, the tower of what is affectionately known as the Sun Building looms above the square. It was commissioned by L.D. Taylor, Vancouver’s most-elected mayor, and opened in 1912. Arriving in Vancouver in 1896 amidst allegations of embezzlement in Chicago, Taylor made a fortune during the Klondike gold rush before stepping into the political arena. Controversy followed his career, with inquiries into corruption within the police department and city hall based on his close association with well known gangster, Joe Celona.
We head down the street into Chinatown where, prior to prohibition, the asian community was considered the scapegoat for the city’s ills, including the loss of jobs to minorities and the inter-mingling of white women with asian men. Will tells of the race riots that occurred here in 1907. Members of the Asiatic Exclusion Committee paraded towards Chinatown and stormed the neighbourhood, smashing windows of homes and businesses and assaulting anyone found on the streets. The assault was allowed to continue for three days before police closed off the streets. The damage to the King Fung Company opium factory during the riots led to a claim against the federal government for compensation.
Then Labour Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was sent to Vancouver to investigate the claim and complete a Commission Report on the riot. It was there the future prime minister drafted the first narcotics act from an office overlooking what is now Pender Street. The Opium Act prohibiting the importation, sale, and manufacture of opium for any purpose other than medical came into law in 1908.
Around the corner, we stop in front of the world’s shallowest commercial building at the gateway to Chinatown, built in 1913 after the city appropriated all but two meters of the lot from Chinese landowner Sam Kee. The glass ceiling where Kee expanded his holdings underneath the sidewalk is still visible, one of the few examples remaining today. The underground portion housed the only bath house in Chinatown at the time.
Increasingly lawlessness during prohibition and the onset of the great depression led the citizens and politicians of British Columbia to rethink the prohibition laws. A second vote on the issue was held in October 1920 with 92,000 voting against prohibition, including women exercising their right to vote for the first time in B.C. history. With the repeal of prohibition, the province enacted a liquor control act in 1921 with some laws that remained in effect until recently, including the rule that liquor could only be purchased from a provincially controlled store.
With the repeal of prohibition, the first beer parlours were born, and our guide leads us to Gastown, popular for its pubs, restaurants and micro-breweries. The lobbies of many of the older hotels, like the Ranier Hotel on Carrall Street, once housed these beer parlours with their list of rules as long as your arm meant to control consumption. You could not order from the bar. You could not stand while drinking. There could be no music, singing, dancing or eating while consuming alcohol. Women who frequented the parlours were seated in separate areas.
No longer constrained by such archaic ideologies, we make our way to a local establishment to imbibe a little ourselves. Will’s enthusiasm and wealth of knowledge has opened our eyes to a past long forgotten, but one that continues to shape our present laws towards alcohol and drugs in British Columbia.
Forbidden Vancouver offers walking tours in Vancouver from May to November.