Backstage Past: Remembering the golden era of Chinatown nightlife

Neighbourhood was a hotbed of entertainment in the 1960s and '70s

For the better part of two neon-glimmering decades, Vancouver’s entertainment district to see, hear and even taste something all its own wasn’t the Theatre Row of Granville Street or the legendary Hornby Street venues like The Cave — but the clubs, cinemas and restaurants that once ran through Chinatown and its surrounding streets in the 1960s and ’70s.

“In 1974, I would go down to Chinatown with my friends to the Shaw Theatre or the Golden Harvest cinema to see Bruce Lee matinee movies,” smiles Todd Wong. “As a teenager, I had pictures of Lee all over my wall. I was such a fan. I mean, it was really re-affirming to see a positive Asian role model then. You just didn’t see that around much in those days.”

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Both the Shaw Theatre on Hastings Street (built in 1971) and the Golden Harvest theatre on Main (built in 1974) were two cinemas that showed Hong Kong-produced Mandarin language films. Wong remembers afternoons in the theatres almost as vivid as the movies themselves. “Whole families might be there, and people brought their own food sometimes,” he recalls. “The strange thing was the theatres often played these soft-core trailers before the feature. So you’d have these kids four or five years old running up and down the aisles while these trailers were playing.”

After watching movies like The Big Boss and The Chinese Connection, Wong and his friends typically ran excited out of the theatres trying their best Bruce Lee moves on one another.

He refrains from any kung fu kicks in the street these days. He is perhaps better known by his tartan alter-ego Toddish McWong, the ringmaster of his signature event Gung Haggis Fat Choy — a combined Robbie Burns Day and Chinese New Year celebration event now in its 17th year, which features Burns poetry readings, music and unique dishes like Haggis wonton. (Though a scheduling conflict has forced him to postpone this years Gung Haggis until March.)

Wong’s father was also involved in the Chinatown nightclub business. He had been a show card writer for the Marco Polo club (billed as “Canada’s Only Oriental Revue”) producing hand painted signs that advertised who was appearing on the bill — everything from the Oriental revue’s lineup to big names like Sly and the Family Stone to the Mills Brothers. “Nobody remembers these acts playing the Marco Polo,” says Wong.

“By 1974 my family had moved to North Vancouver but we still took the bus downtown to go to the movies. And after, we’d go to Foo’s Ho Ho restaurant and for apple tarts at the New Town Bakery on Pender,” he says.    
“We’d walk around and see my grand-uncle Henry, who was always down at the corner of Pender and Columbia. He was a spotter for the Chinese gambling dens there — keeping an eye out for the police.”

By the late ’70s, the golden era of the Chinatown nightlife scene had dwindled. But today, the Shaw Theatre on Hastings is a regular home to rock concerts and known as The Rickshaw Theatre, and the Golden Harvest on Main is now the newly opened Imperial.

With the emergence of Fortune Sound Club (once Ming’s Restaurant) as a venue for hip-hop and DJ shows, the Keefer Hotel Bar’s weekly Sweet Soul Burlesque performances and the Emerald Supper Club on Gore Street, which opened last year, it would appear that the nightlife in Chinatown is experiencing a resurgence.

“If you see what’s happening to the Chinatowns in other cities, like Portland, while the Asian community who live in them isn’t necessarily increasing — they are becoming a lot more cosmopolitan. And I think that’s a good thing,” says Wong, adding that the area will always carry an acknowledgement of its past.  

“Chinatown will always be historic. Even the Remembrance Day ceremony in Chinatown gets bigger and bigger each year — even though there are less and less old veterans as time goes by.”

While you can still pick up apple tarts at the New Town Bakery, there’s no movie theatres left in Chinatown to watch Kung Fu movies. And a Chinese restaurant that stays open to nightclub hours has yet to return to the neighbourhood.

In the meantime, if you see Todd Wong eating Haggis in Chinatown, don’t be surprised if he asks you to pass the sweet and sour sauce.

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