I was chatting at work this past week with my boss (who, like me, used to live in Toronto) about the differences between visiting Toronto and hosting friends from Toronto. Neither of us feel like tourists when we go to Toronto because we know the city; nobody needs to show us around or, for that matter, show us how to get around. But when our friends from Toronto come to Vancouver, we end up playing tour guide because it’s often their first time in Vancouver (or their first visit in many years) and they want to see and do everything.
Which is all good. I had a friend from Toronto visit me this month and we had a fabulous ten days together playing tourist in my home city. My conclusion? Staycations are highly underrated.
Which brings me to today’s post. Until now, I’ve always taken visitors on walking tours of my own design. For something different, I decided to take this particular friend on a “professional” walking tour. We went with the Tour Guys because they advertise free tours ― and they really are free. They ask only that you tip them if you like them (we did), and give them a favourable review on Trip Advisor.
The Tour Guys describe themselves as “history geeks.” As a history geek myself, I was pleasantly surprised by the value they offered in a 90-minute tour. I do a lot of research about Vancouver for this blog, but on both tours (we did one of Gastown and another of Chinatown) I learned something new. Did you know that the term “skid row” originated in the Pacific Northwest? (Both Seattle and Vancouver claim to have used it first.) The phrase originates from “skid road” ― the road used to skid logs through what is now the Downtown Eastside (often referred to as Canada’s poorest postal code) to the Hastings Mill on the shores of Burrard Inlet.
Most importantly, the Tour Guys do not gloss over some of the more shameful aspects of Vancouver’s history. Both guides talked about the riots that have taken place throughout the past century, from the race riots of 1907 all the way to the Stanley Cup riots of 1994 and 2011. Our guide on the Chinatown tour explained the federal government’s policies that deliberately targeted Asian immigration (namely, the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act), and also talked about the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II.
Affable with both children and adults alike, our Tour Guys were entertaining and kept our interest the entire time. There were a few careless mistakes with some facts ― the Millennium Gate in Chinatown went up in 1986 (Vancouver’s Centennial), not 1967 (Canada’s Centennial), and BC joined confederation in 1871, not 1886 ― my guess is those errors were simply slips of the tongue. But an egregious error was this one: environmentalist David Suzuki lives in Vancouver, not Toronto.
Having said that, here’s my recommendation: take a walk with the Tour Guys if (1) you have out-of-towners you want to impress (I’ve already recommended them to my boss) or (2) you want to learn more about your own city.
And if you’re a visitor to Vancouver, you most of all need to meet the Tour Guys. You won’t regret it. Promise.
Since I’m on a roll, here’s another mural. This one is from Vancouver’s Chinatown and it’s chock full of history. Just imagine all the stories the people portrayed in this mural could tell.
In the heart of Chinatown is one of Vancouver’s hidden gems: Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park. The garden was named the 2011 Best City Garden by National Geographic. The park (where these photos were taken) is an extension of the garden and has no admission fee. If you’re in the vicinity, be sure to stop in. It’s a peaceful break from the noise and bustle of Chinatown.
Last week, my dad and stepmom were in town, and my stepmom told me she wanted to go for Chinese in Chinatown. That was easy enough to arrange: there are oodles of restaurants in Vancouver’s Chinatown, one of the oldest and largest Chinatowns in Canada.
Afterwards I took them past the Millennium Gate. It was built in 2002 and serves as the unofficial entrance to Vancouver’s Chinatown, which was declared a National Historic Site in 2010.
There’s an awful lot of history in Chinatown to explore and to write about. For now, I’ll leave you with this photo of the Millennium Gate, and the promise of more posts to come.