West Pender Street, Vancouver, British Columbia
of Historic Place
Sam Kee Building at 8 West Pender Street is an internationally
renowned narrow building, including a lower-level extension beneath
the sidewalk, located at the traditional entry to Vancouver's
Sam Kee Building, constructed in 1913, has heritage value for
its architectural design, particularly the unusually narrow proportions;
for its association with the Sam Kee Company and other organizations
and events that have contributed to the development of Chinatown;
and for its role in the heritage conservation of Chinatown.
Touted by The Guinness Book of Records as the 'shallowest commercial
building' in the world, the Sam Kee Building has architectural
value for being a fully functioning commercial structure with
a depth from front to back of only 6 feet (180 cm), augmented
on the second floor by projecting bay windows and by a basement
that extends as far again beneath the sidewalk. The unusual proportions
arose from a dispute whereby the City had expropriated most of
the lot for street-widening without compensating the owner, the
Sam Kee Company, for the residue, believed to be unusable. This
event has value as a gauge of the disrespect shown to Chinese-Canadians
by the civic authorities; and owner Chang Toy's response in building
on the much-reduced site is an indicator of the Chinese community's
defiance to this discrimination.
Additional architectural value resides in the bay windows, which
are characteristic of many Chinatown buildings of the time; and
in architects Bryan and Gillam, who were competent representatives
of their profession.
The building has historical value for having been built by the
Sam Kee Company, a highly successful business owned by wealthy
merchant Chang Toy, who was known in the Caucasian community as
Sam Kee. The ground floor was used for retail shops and the upper
floor for a social organization and residential units, both uses
characteristic of the area. The basement reportedly contained
public baths, an important use that served the wider community
and reveals the sanitary shortcomings of many dwelling units in
For the last generation, the building has been at the forefront
of efforts to conserve and revitalize Chinatown and Gastown. In
1966, architects Birmingham and Wood, who were key players in
the early conservation initiatives, purchased the Sam Kee Building
and used it as their office. The building hosted many key discussions
that shaped the historic areas. The present owner, Jack Chow,
is a well known businessman who is sometimes regarded as an 'ambassador'
for the revitalization of Chinatown. Chow has renamed the historic
place the 'World's Famous Building'. He has continued the site's
tradition of defying municipal authorities by successfully objecting,
with broad public support, to the City's intention to charge an
encroachment fee for the projecting bay windows and basement.
Source: City of Vancouver Heritage Conservation Program
Photo: City of Vancouver Archives, Bu N158.N
character-defining elements of the Sam Kee Building include:
- Location at the gateway to Vancouver's historic Chinatown district
- The existing building envelope, including the shallow dimension
from front to back.
- The fenestration, including the projecting bay windows on the
second floor and the shop fronts (which have been somewhat altered)
on the ground floor.
- The sloping roof over the bay windows with a central pediment.
- The central curved parapet with the date 1913.
- The wood dado beneath the shopfront windows
- The largely blank side walls pierced by single arched windows
at ground level, with corner quoins
- The recently installed glass blocks in the sidewalk, which illuminate