Gastown: Smilin’ Buddha reincarnated

Once the heart of an underground music scene, the SBC skate park holds on to past ‘street cred’

Just after 8 p.m. on a Tuesday in December, a police cruiser pulled a U-turn in the middle of the 100 block of East Hastings.

Next to a fenced-in urban garden and down from the Insite safe injection site, half a dozen young men stood around, smoking and handling skateboards outside two bright red doors. Inside, 12 skaters dropped into a 45-foot-long ramp build into the narrow brick hall.

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The SBC Restaurant — an indoor skate park at the former Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret — is the only one of its kind in Vancouver since opening at 109 East Hastings Dec. 1.  A hand-printed sign on the door reads “everyone’s welcome” and the address is sprayed on the door in black paint.

“We anticipate that there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to want to skate at this place,” said Andrew Turner, one of three founders and owners of the SBC.

“We’ve had about 100 people skating around in the three days that we’ve had it opened. And the ramp can handle about 20 people at a time max, so it’s been operating at close to capacity for most of the time that it’s been open.”

Parks board chairperson Sarah Blyth, who got her political start organizing the Vancouver Skateboard Coalition, said SBC is a welcome addition, especially as the temperature drops and wet winter weather sets in.

“We’ve needed one for a very long time,” she said, noting one of the early goals of the coalition was to create an indoor park. Leeside, a sheltered tunnel near Hastings Park, is a popular destination but it’s not heated.

SBC runs in two-hour sessions from 3 to 5 p.m., 5 to 7 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Each session costs $10.

Famed in the 1950s as the Smilin’ Buddha Dine & Dance, the venue became a cabaret favoured by seasonal labourers (it hosted “girlie” shows and served cheap bar liquor) and then emerged as a destination for psychedelic and experimental rock as well as the underground punk and hardcore scenes in the ’70s and ’80s. Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, 54-40 and DOA all played the Smilin’ Buddha.

This week, the Heritage Vancouver Foundation recognized the Smilin’ Buddha, “the destination for edgy music in Vancouver,” for helping shape the city’s identity and named it a place that matters. Its famous neon sign of a reclining, large-bellied Buddha sitting beside a steaming hot pot, is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Vancouver.

A skate park is a natural reincarnation for the neighbourhood cabaret, said Bev Davies, a photographer who arrived in Vancouver in 1968 and became a talented, blonde fixture in the city’s music scene.

“It’s part of that same underground culture,” she said. “It maintains its street cred. Culturally, it’s the same anti-establishment culture that punk rock was part of. Did I say was? I mean is.”

The hall today is a long corridor of painted brick, sparse lighting, stenciled posters and graffiti. A large poster of the illustrious namesake neon sign hangs on the wall. The children of the  late cabaret owners, Nancy and Lachlan Jir, are divided in their support of the reincarnation of the Buddha title. Two of their daughters were expected at the SBC on Wednesday for a Vancouver Heritage presentation. A “place that matters” plaque will be installed at a later date.

The space was forgotten as a derelict dump until it was revived. Turner, his brother Justin and Malcolm Hassin approached city officials nearly three years before signing the lease.

“We wanted to make sure it was going to go over,” said Turner. “We didn’t want them to be alarmed or surprised that we were here.”

The centrepiece of the SBC, the six-foot ramp with pool coping and a seven-foot wall ride scales down to three feet to accommodate different skill levels. The ramp  is actually a hybrid creation from other dismantled parks, including, Turner said, “parts of the Richmond skate ranch, Expo 86 ramp, Kevin Harris’s ramp, Malcolm’s little back yard ramp…

“We built everything. It’s recycled, salvaged materials because we did it with no money.”

There’s also pieces of the “crack pipe,” a Powell Street ramp built indoors by the folks at the Antisocial skateboard shop.

“So there’s like six or seven different ramps that went into making this place, which is pretty cool,” Turner said.

The SBC can also host live music. 

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