Description of Historic Place
The Chinese Freemasons Building is a four-storey brick facade surrounding a modern glass and concrete core, located at 5 West Pender Street at the western edge of Vancouver's historic Chinatown.
Constructed between 1906 and 1907, probably for the Chee Kung Tong, this building's heritage value is found both in its architecture and in its history of use.
The architecture is of heritage value because of the contrast between the Pender and Carrall Street facades, one of which is a typical commercial facade for the era (Carrall Street) and the other which reflects Chinatown's particular style of open balconies and generous glazing. Substantial alterations were undertaken by prominent Vancouver architect Samuel Buttrey Birds in 1913, perhaps related to the creation of a branch of the Bank of Vancouver on the ground floor. The facades are all that remain of the original building; they were retained when the rest of the building was demolished in 1975. This decision is significant for reflecting the emergence of a preservation agenda in the City of Vancouver's development planning policy for the historic Chinatown district at that time.
Heritage value is also found in the history of use. The ground floor, like most ground floors in Chinatown, was used for retail space and offices, while the upper floors were used for a restaurant by a long-term tenant, the Pekin Restaurant (later the Pekin Chop Suey House). The Chee Kung Tong, sometimes called the Oriental Society and later the Chinese Freemasons, had their meeting rooms here, as well as a dormitory for Chinese males and a Chinese school. Such uses are representative of those commonly found in Chinese society buildings in Chinatowns throughout the world.
The heritage value of the building is enhanced by the significant role the Chinese Freemasons played in the history of the Chinese community in Vancouver and in Canada more generally. The earliest manifestation of the society, the Chee Kung Tong, dates its establishment as a fraternal order to the earliest immigration of Chinese to British Columbia during the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858. It is therefore associated with the establishment of the Chinese community in British Columbia and in Canada. The Freemasons were intensively involved in the politics of China. Intense involvement in Chinese politics was a characteristic of the overseas Chinese community generally for many years with divisions within the community, reflecting adherence to different political agendas. The history of the Freemasons tells us a great deal about aspects of the history of the Chinese community, in particular the role of the politics and organizational life, and the enduring connections to China. While the specifics are peculiar to Vancouver, the general pattern of engagement is common to overseas Chinese communities more generally.
The building was slightly damaged during the anti-Chinese riots of 1907. Dr. Sun Yat Sen is reported to have stayed in the building, probably in 1911, while raising funds for his revolutionary Kuomintang party during his period of exile from China. It appears that the building may also have been mortgaged by the Chinese Freemasons in 1911, in common with similar holdings in Chinatowns in Europe, America, and Japan, to support the revolution.
Heritage value is also to be found in the remains of the external brick walls of the former Chinese Methodist Mission that are embedded in the north and west walls, and can also be seen in the walls of the present basement. The presence of a Methodist Mission on this key Chinatown site (fire insurance plans indicate it was built by 1901) reflects the established importance of Methodism in Chinese religious society in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
Source: City of Vancouver Heritage Conservation Program
The character-defining elements of the Chinese Freemasons Building include:
- Busy corner location at the principal entrance to Vancouver's historic Chinatown
- Building seen through Chinatown's gateway when approached from the west
- Pender Street facade, reflecting typical Vancouver Chinatown architecture, including recessed balconies backed by building-wide glazing, divided into a number of smaller lights and door openings by narrow glazing bars
- Evidence of the location and extent of the original balcony balustrade seen in the position of redundant fastenings and paint ghostings
- Restrained Victorian-Italianate Carrall Street facade, reflecting typical early nineteenth-century Canadian commercial architecture, including evenly-spaced, recessed, multiple, double-hung sash windows on two floors, over shop fronts
- Unifying effect of facades between Caucasian and Chinese-Canadian commercial areas
- Shop fronts at street level running the length of the street facade and around the corner chamfer
- Evidence in the building facade of ground floor retail and office use, as illustrated by the remains of shop fronts, including cast-iron posts and wood posts with wood corbels; former positions of shop doorways, and the remains of metalwork associated with shop awnings
- Evidence in the building facade of the position of a cheater story (illegal mezzanine) above the ground floor
- Chamfer at corner of Carrall and Pender Streets and remains of door opening to street on chamfer
- Mixed uses of upper floors
- Retained facade of historic building juxtaposed with modern core
- Sheet-metal mouldings, including cornice and string courses
- Brick construction of facade and brick details, including dentil panels and projecting strings and hoods
- Miscellaneous metalwork in the building facade, reflecting the former positions of suspended signage, flagstaff, and overhead services
- Evidence of former window openings in west party wall that hints at the former internal arrangements if the building
- The remains of the former Chinese Methodist Mission building embedded in the north and west walls of the present structure
- The remains of the former gate to the lane