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How to Familiarize Yourself with Mount Pleasant’s Rich and Little Known History, On Foot

On Friday, January 14th, after almost 27 years of operation, it was last call at The Whip restaurant in Mount Pleasant. I was gutted to see my favourite local drinking establishment close. Things haven’t been the same since the Covid-19 pandemic hit so, for me, it was an anticlimactic farewell when Julie served me my final The Whip beer on the patio on that day. If it had been normal times I’m sure I would have participated in a real knees-up send-off.

Last call at The Whip, January 12, 2022. Photo: C. Hagemoen

Over the years, I went to The Whip so much they knew my name, my order (hazy IPA), and my preferences (dressing on the side, please). I felt comfortable in its historic, unpretentious space. I often worried that my friends would think I was too predictable and boring since I always suggested we meet for drinks there, but they always obliged. They liked it too.

The Whip interior, getting served at my usual table, March 2020. Photo: C.Hagemoen

The Whip Gallery & Lounge (aka “The Whip”) opened in 1995 after the grunt gallery vacated the space for their present location at 350 E. 2nd Ave. It soon turned into a funky neighbourhood joint and art exhibition space that featured live music, DJ’s, and poetry nights. In the late 1990s it was a performance venue for the Vancouver Jazz Festival and made regular mentions in Malcolm Parry’s Vancouver Sun society column.

Things mellowed out in the 2000’s and The Whip became known more as a watering hole with a relaxed atmosphere, tasty food, good staff, and a great beer selection. In 2008, they won Gold for “Best Local Beer Café, Pub, or Restaurant” in CAMRA’s Best Local Beer Awards, and held a regular cask tasting night every Sunday. Up until February 2020, The Whip featured a monthly rotation of art exhibitions showcasing local and emerging artists (myself included).

Working and wine inside The Whip. Photo: C. Hagemoen

The Whip was one of the places I used to work remotely. I spent many an afternoon tucked into my usual spot inside or outside on the patio with pen in hand (occasionally with my laptop), researching and writing. Many Scout articles were worked on there and it was at The Whip that my recently published Mount Pleasant Stories walking tour guide was born. It was my office away from my home office.

Since I started living in Mount Pleasant (again) seven years ago, the neighbourhood has changed a lot. It’s lost its working class roots and is becoming something quite different. This rapid change, along with my interest in preserving local history, inspired me to start a project I call Mount Pleasant Stories.

Cover of Mount Pleasant Stories. Design: Jeffery Chong. Photo: CoV Archives, CVA 790-0084

Unlike other historical areas of the city – Strathcona, the West End, and Chinatown – very few historical walking tour guides and histories of Mount Pleasant have been published. In my opinion, this is a serious oversight as Mount Pleasant has a rich and interesting history. I wanted to add to the narrative of Mount Pleasant, and introduce people to the history and stories that they may not already be familiar with.

The first in a proposed series of five Mount Pleasant historical walking tours, Walk 1: Mount Pleasant’s Heritage Heart tour loosely follows the path of old Brewery Creek through the heart of the Mount Pleasant village. Travel through time and walk in the footsteps of some of the residents, community leaders and business owners, explore the industries, and learn about the groups and organizations that once called this part of Mount Pleasant home.

Many stops in the guide include “Fun Facts” like this one from the tour about the grunt / The Whip: From September 1984 until August 1995 the store space along East 6th was the first location of grunt gallery, one of the region’s most established artist-run centres. grunt gallery was formed in 1984 by a group of eight artists as a venue for their work. Now located at 350 East 2nd, the grunt is an integral part of Mount Pleasant’s art scene as well as the national and international contemporary artist communities. A faint impression of the word “grunt” is still visible in the cement at the restaurant entrance at 209 East 6th.
What else was happening on the 200-block of East 6th Avenue in the past? Here are a couple of excerpts from my guide featuring other Mount Pleasant stories from this block …

grunt impression at entrance to 209 E6th, formerly The Whip. Photo: C. Hagemoen

Stop 30 – Brewery Creek Building – 280 East 6th Avenue (ca. 1904)

This is a rare example of an industrial building from Mount Pleasant’s past that is still standing. The circa 1904 stone and brick industrial building was originally built as part of an expansion of the Vancouver Breweries Ltd. complex centred on Scotia Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. A building permit was issued to the brewery in October 1903 for an $8,000 brick and stone building to be built on the corner of Scotia Street & East 6th Avenue. The Province articles from 1903 reveal that the new two-storey building was constructed for use as a storage cellar for aging ale and featured a bottle-washing room equipped with automatic electric machinery.

After the building ceased its brewery function it became the home to a variety of businesses over the next several decades including: confectioner Benjamin F. Fell’s Candy Factory (you can still see the hand painted Fell’s Candy Factory sign on the East 6th Avenue facade), Purity Dairy, Vancouver Creamery, Canada Grease Works, and a stucco manufacturing plant used to produce the components for bottle-dash stucco. The building was converted into artist live-work spaces in 1993.

Fun Fact: In 1998, David Paperny and Audrey Mehler made a TV production about this renovated heritage building. Brewery Creek was a “docu-soap” that followed the lives of residents of the Brewery Creek condos for two months, including one time resident, singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan. The 40-minute film aired on CBC.

Brewery Creek building at E6th and Scotia. Photo: C. Hagemoen

Across the street once stood Sing Kee Laundry, 263 East 6th & Quong Wo Lung Laundry, 251 East 6th. These two Chinese-Canadian laundry businesses were established on this street around 1911. Historical Building Permit records show that Chin Mah had a “Chinese Laundry” designed by architect Edward E. Blackmore built at 263 East 6th for $2,000 and Toy Loy Wong made additions and alterations to an existing wood frame building at 251 East 6th for a laundry. They were among the twelve Chinese-run laundries operating in Mount Pleasant circa 1912. Sing Kee (Sing Gee) Laundry was located at 263 East 6th and Yee Lee Laundry (later Wo Lung Quong Laundry) was next door at 251 East 6th.

Fire Insurance Map, January 1930. Photo: CoV Archives, Vol.3 Plate 341.

Faced with systematic discrimination in Canada, early Chinese immigrants often had little choice but to create their own economic niche. They were merchants and tailors, they opened restaurants, and starting in the late 19th century many of Canada’s predominantly male Chinese immigrants chose laundry work. Before the process was mechanized, doing laundry by hand was hard work. Those who could afford it would send their laundry out to be done. Cities like Vancouver were full of single, working men living in boarding houses or apartment hotels who also needed their clothes washed, meaning there were plenty of customers nearby.

Laundry was generally considered “women’s work”, therefore low status and posing no threat to white, male workers – the status quo. However, that does not mean these businesses operated without racist harassment. In 1915 a group called “The White Laundries of Vancouver” took out large ads in the local papers calling on the “[white] people of Vancouver to help provide employment for 500 men, women, and girls”. Commenting on the so-called “insanitary conditions” of Chinese laundries compared to the “modern, sanitary conditions of WHITE laundries” they declared that “there is no advantage in patronizing CHINESE laundries – there is every advantage in patronizing WHITE laundries”. Adding insult to injury, this racist campaign also complained about the fact that the Chinese laundry men were sending most of their wages out of the country and not spending it in Canada, notwithstanding the fact these men were prevented from bringing their families to Canada and had to send money abroad to support them.

Racist and paternalistic newspaper ad in the May 7, 1915 edition of Vancouver Daily World.

The 1921 Canada Census shows that 45-year-old “Gee Sing” was renting the building at 236 East 6th for his laundry business. He arrived in Canada from China in 1899. Also living and working on the premises were his two teenage sons, a cousin, and three roomers, all males. While all the adult men are listed as married, none are living with their wives. Racist laws, such as the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 & 1923, first limited and later prevented immigration from China, meaning families were torn apart and many men were forced to live as bachelors.
East 6th Avenue. Fire Insurance Plan, August 1956. Photo: CoV Archives , Vol. 3, Plate 341.

Quong Wo Lung Laundry was in operation until around 1930 while the Sing Kee Laundry operated until about 1972, making it one of Vancouver’s last and longest operating independent Chinese-Canadian city laundries. In its final years Mah Kew was the proprietor of Sing Kee Laundry. He lived with his wife Jung Shee (Judy) in a dwelling at 269 East 6th Avenue.

The settler community of Mount Pleasant is over 140 years old and consists of five distinct areas. There are so many stories to tell, especially in a physically dense area like its ‘Heritage Heart’ – far too many to fit into one walking tour guide. That said, this guide is still 67 illustrated pages of stories, histories and fun facts.

Think of it like a historical amuse-bouche – something to whet your appetite for the banquet that is Mount Pleasant’s history.

If you are interested getting a copy of Mount Pleasant Stories: Historical Walking Tours (Walk 1), they are currently available at Pulp Fiction Books.

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