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Sam Kee Building

8 West Pender Street, Vancouver, British Columbia

Statement of Significance

Description of Historic Place

The 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 historic Chinatown.

Heritage Value

The 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 Chinatown.

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

The 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 the basement.



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