The City of Vancouver archives recently released a new series of digitized Heritage Inventory photos. Predominately from the 1970s, these photos are great because they document the city’s ever-changing streetscape, and feature buildings and businesses that had never before been considered for heritage study. Included in the series are some fantastic photos of small, independent grocery stores with their iconic privilege signs and graphic advertising. Christine Hagemoen tells us all about them in this ongoing series….
Once ubiquitous landmarks in the 20th Century, small family-run grocery stores could sometimes be found along main thoroughfares, but often were deeply embedded within residential neighbourhoods. Grocery store proprietors (who frequently lived on the property) were well known in the community, and would even watch out for all of the neighbourhood kids. Whether they were armed with a list of staples to pick up, a note to buy cigarettes for mom, or some change to buy candy, these stores often gave kids their first sense of independence. After Canadian immigration rules changed in the decades following WW2, many immigrant families saw the corner grocery as a chance to earn a living in Vancouver.
However, since these photos were taken, in the mid-1970s, corner stores have all but disappeared. Supermarkets, chain convenience stores, suburban big box stores and our car-culture changed how people shopped. Starting in the 1980s, amendments to city by-laws and rising property costs sealed their fates. Whatever you called them — corner stores, mom-and-pop shops, confectionaries, grocery stores, or simply “the store” — these places once served as local gathering spaces and encouraged a sense of community. That makes them worth celebrating…
Kong’s Grocery – 898 East Georgia
I love these photos of Kong’s Grocery circa the 1970s because they document the physical changes to the streetscape during that time. Two of them are heritage inventory photos from the City of Vancouver Archives (1974 & 1978) and the earliest one (top) was taken by Art Grice in 1972. The store’s proprietors, Dat and Moon Kong would have been witness to these changes.
The images show the progression (before, during, and after) of the City re-investing in the neighbourhood’s infrastructure after the community-razing Chinatown freeway proposal was nixed. Vancouver city planners of the mid-20th century declared war on “blight” and planned to demolish great swaths of Strathcona houses to make way for new housing projects and a freeway connector. The Kongs operated their corner store directly across the street from Ray-Mur Housing Project (now called Stamp’s Place). In addition to Ray-Mur (1971), the MacLean Park housing complex (1963) and the Georgia Viaduct (1972) were the only major projects of the blight clearance/freeway scheme that were ever built.
Erected in 1913, the building was perfectly situated along the old “Georgia East” streetcar line. (In Grice’s 1972 photograph, you can see the streetcar tracks still embedded in the roadway before they were removed in 1974.) Builder W.W. Brehaut constructed the building for owners Smith & Keats for $7000. Although little is known about the original owners, the building’s architects, Honeyman & Curtis, were prolific and well respected in the city. In addition to this modest mixed-use two-story, they designed buildings like the 2nd Hotel Vancouver (1912-1949), Fire Hall No. 6 (1907), and Fleck Mansion (1924) in Shaughnessy. The first person to operate a business out of this corner location was David Sutherland, with his dry goods store.
The building still stands today but sadly the grocery store is no longer. In the 1970s, when these photographs were taken, the building still had its original wood cladding. Today it is covered in rather tired-looking vinyl siding.
Throughout this grocery store series, I’ve noticed it was quite common for women to be the primary store proprietors, and the grocery at 868 E Georgia is no exception. In 1974, the city directories listed Moon Tay Kong as the proprietor of Kong’s Grocery. She ran the business along with her husband Dat Kong who also worked as a lumber grader. Unlike many other corner grocery store proprietors, though, the Kongs did not live where they worked. The Kong family lived in a house about a block away at 764 E. Georgia Street.
The first female storekeeper for this location was Mrs. Mary Dawson, in 1921. Then, starting around 1929, Sho Hira, a widow, was the owner of the corner grocery for a few years. Later Hira would be running a confectionery at 810 Union (the former Union Market). This is where she and her daughter were living at the time of the Japanese Internment. (I also wrote about them in the first Scout grocery store series instalment.)
In the 1950s, Kunie Hanada, along with her husband, Yoshio, were operating the store, now called Campbell Grocery. They lived there with their three children, Katsumi, Kazue, and Kitoshi. The Hanada family later operated Templeton Market (127 North Templeton Drive) for many years before retiring from the retail business.
As seen in the 1972 close-up photo (above), next door to Kong’s Grocery was Handy Meat Market. Antonio (Anthony) and Hazel Negrin owned the mom-and-pop meat shop. It was in operation from around 1942 until the Negrins retired in 1973.
The Kongs were the last to operate a store out of this corner property. In 1989, Dat Kong put the entire corner property up for sale by owner for $448,000.
The sentiments of the time were captured in the 1964 City of Vancouver/CMHC film, To Build A Better City, depicting the perspective of city planners and the fight against blight. In the film, the historic neighbourhoods of Fairview, Mount Pleasant, Strathcona, and Chinatown are called a “destructive band of blight around the city centre”.