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Vancouver Confidential: Book shares shocking tales of Vancouver’s past

As Vancouver undergoes a transformation with new luxury condos and micro-suites springing up everyday, there’s been a Renaissance in interest in its history.

Vancouver Confidential explores this subject from the early to the mid-20th Century. This is a great book for visitors planning a deeper dive into the city than they can get from a trolley tour or a bike around Stanley Park. It’s a compilation of essays that looks at the history of the town from a non-establishment point of view. The opening map points out the “Hobo Jungles” and “Entertainment Joints.”

Vancouver may seem a little dull for a lot of international tourists, but when you peal back the layers you’ll find it’s anything but. As well, a lot of the stories in the book shaped what Vancouver is today and feed its current tensions. If you want to understand a place, history is a great place to start.


The Orpheum Theatre, a former Vaudeville venue, is still actively used as a concert hall.

Sammy Davis Jr., who played Vancouver numerous times in the 1940s, said, “Vancouver was the place Vaudeville went to die.” In other words, Vancouver hung on to Vaudeville longer than other cities. One of the early pioneers of Vaudeville was Charles E. Royal, who arrived in Vancouver from San Francisco and played theatres around Vancouver. His scene became limited by the Great Depression, with the Orpheum Theatre, which still stands as a heritage building on Granville Street remaining one of the last places to play. His story is detailed in the chapter, “Nightclub Czars of Vancouver and the Death of Vaudeville,” by Tom Carter.



One of Vancouver’s premier manufacturer’s and importers of spirits, Daniel Joseph Kennedy got his start during prohibition selling “tonics” which were not very subtle in their labeling. Prohibition was repealed in 1921 and Kennedy went on to advertise his Silk Road Cocktails on this Yaletown office building, the Gray Block, where his offices were located. In the article by Jason Vanderhill, the author points out that cocktails became popular during prohibition because of the questionable quality of the illicit liquor being used. The next time you’re enjoying a cocktail in a Vancouver bar, think of Kennedy and his mission to bring tonics to the masses.

Black Dragon Society

T. Maikawa Building
The T. Maikawa Building was once a department store in the heart of Japantown.

Before internment removed and then dispersed the Vancouver citizens of Japanese heritage, the Powell Street neighbourhood was the centre of Japan-town. Terry Matada details some of what he knows about one of his grandfather’s closest friends, Rikimatsu Kintaro, who was a member of the Black Dragon Society and ran various schemes around the area, including the gambling parlour that cost him his nose.

The East End

James C. Johnstone describes himself as a house historian. He hit the jackpot when he met Lucille Mars, a longtime resident of the Strathcona neighbourhood, one of Vancouver’s oldest and most diverse areas. The stories she told Johnstone are funny, sad and even heartbreaking as some members of the community were forced out by war and even a planned freeway. The community rallied against the freeway and now, even though Mars’ childhood home no longer stands, a long-time home of hers still does as well as the Union Market at 810 Union St.


Sun Tower
Vancouver’s Sun Tower was commissioned by L.D. Taylor in 1912 and was known as the World Building after his newspaper, the Vancouver World. The building was later sold to the Vancouver Sun newspaper.

In the 1920s, drinking, gambling and prostitution laws were largely enforced through the collection of fines which more or less amounted to bribery that allowed establishments to stay open. Eve Lazarus writes about the commission that kicked off in 1928 in an attempt to tackle the situation. Though the commission heard compelling testimony, it was mostly set aside in the final report and no serious consequences resulted. The mayor of the time, Louis Denison Taylor was booted out, but made a comeback in the next term.

Hobo Jungles

The Great Depression hit Vancouver hard with many single men arriving from all areas of the country. Men were drawn to Vancouver because the temperate weather might provide more winter work than what was available in the cold and snow-bound east. At the time no real social programs existed and able-bodied single men were cut off from what was available on the presumption that they could live on less and fend for themselves. As a result, the created what today might be called shantytowns or tent cities. At the time they were called hobo jungles – a hobo being defined as a person who migrates looking for work. Stevie Wilson writes about the history of these communities.


In the 1930s spies were employed to survey activity at labour meetings and relief camps to gather intelligence about communist thought and strikes that may shut down business operations. Though their work was based mostly on gossip and hearsay, the authorities had some grounds to be nervous due to the sheer numbers of unemployed in the city and surrounding camps and reports of riots in other cities. One police spy called Vancouver a “seething cauldron of discontent” just before the May Day Parade in 1935. However, the parade was large, but uneventful, writes Lani Russwurm.

Chinatown waitresses

Chinatown streetOne of the lesser known struggles that took place during the Great Depression was that of the Chinatown waitresses. These were white women employed in the neighbourhood working eight hours a day, seven days a week. When Police Chief W.W. Foster cracked down on white women working for Chinese employers, the waitresses got together and marched on City Hall where the mayor refused to meet them. Rosanne Amosovs Sia details how this crackdown happened.


In the 1930s Vancouver’s new mayor Gerry McGeer tackled corruption at the highest levels of City Hall and the Vancouver Police Department writes Cathernine Rose. Rose describes how McGeer and the new Chief Constable, Colonel W.W. Foster purged those involved in corruption from the force and put an end to the public protection of “vice” crime. The results of investigations led to the arrest of the ex-chief and five accomplices with sensational revelations uncovered.

James Crookhall

James Crookhall is underrated as a pioneering force in Vancouver’s photography scene argues John Belshaw in his essay. Crookhall was around to capture the essence of the mid 20th Century through his street photography. Although many of his photos became well known, he himself was not a professional photographer and made his career in the shipping industry.

Gerry McGeer

Who was the man who faced down corruption and then went on to face down striking relief camp workers by reading them the riot act? Will Woods tells the story and the driving motivations of this central Vancouver figure, who had strong views about monetary policy, but little sympathy for workers whom he thought might be under the influence of communism during the Depression years.

The War Years

The Second World War brought air raids, blackouts and other signs of the war to Vancouver. With the attack on Pearl Harbor and a much smaller nighttime attack on a remote hamlet on Vancouver Island, xenophobia towards some of Canada’s own citizens increased. Aaron Chapman writes about how fear led to one of the biggest black marks of the war on Vancouver – the internment of its large Japanese population. The city only recently apologized in 2013.

Getting away with murder

In 1947, Vancouver was a somewhat violent place with guns and random acts of violence plaguing a population that was growing increasingly middle class. One not-so-random act of violence was the murder of a young woman by her husband. Diane Purvey explains how the victim was put on trial and the killer was exonerated.

Intrepid reporters

Jesse Donaldson recounts an incredible tale of two Vancouver reporters who captured one of a gang of serial rapists and reveals the dark underbelly of Stanly Park. The book ends with song lyrics by Aaron Chapman about another sensational murder involving a city celebrity in 1965. By this time, things have changed and the killer is brought to justice.











Shella Gardezi

Shella Gardezi is a writer and editor living in Vancouver. She loves to travel and created this site to share her love of British Columbia.

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