[by Lani Russwurm] The Lost Souls of Gastown Tour meanders through the oldest alleys of Gastown. Today we think of alleys as almost exclusively dedicated to garbage pick-up, deliveries, and parking cars. But Vancouver had several “deviant alleys” that had much more varied uses. Trounce Alley (aka Blood Alley), Shanghai Alley, Canton Alley, Market Alley, Beatty Lane, and Hogan’s Alley were all more interesting than your run-of-the-mill laneway. They were variously community hubs, residential strips, discreet locations for commercial vice, and home to cultural institutions and businesses.
Trounce Alley is between Water and Cordova streets, running from Carrall to Cambie. It became a proper alley in the late 1860s when WR Lewis’s Royal Mail Stagecoach line was extended from New Westminster to Burrard Inlet. Lewis needed somewhere to take care of his horses, so he had the lane cleared and gravelled and built a horse barn there.
The alley was named by FW Hart, a furniture merchant and undertaker, after Victoria’s Trounce Alley. The name suggests there might be an interesting story behind it, but the one in Victoria was simply named after a guy called Thomas Trounce.
Trounce Alley was Vancouver’s first alley and an important strip in the early days of the settlement. It was home to several businesses, including horse stables, a broom factory, and a cabin where Gassy Jack’s teenage wife and infant son lived.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, developers saw potential for Gastown to become a commercial heritage district and began renovating the buildings in Maple Tree Square and commissioned the Gassy Jack statue. The City eventually came on board and did a major overhaul of the area, adding bollards, brick streets and sidewalks, and cobblestones in Trounce Alley to give it an old-timey feel.
The name “Trounce Alley” didn’t have the allure they were looking for, so they began calling it Blood Alley and introduced myths that the name derived from blood flowing from slaughterhouses in the alley. Alternatively, some claimed that hangings once took place there and inspired the name. Neither story is true (hangings all took place in New Westminster and there were no abattoirs).
There was a Blood Alley lined with abattoirs in New York City that was demolished in the 1940s for the UN Building. Another street in New York’s Chinatown called Doyers was variously nicknamed “Murder Alley,” “Blood Alley,” or the “Bloody Angle” due to the large number of murders that took place there during Tong Wars in the 1920s. It’s likely that Gastown’s mythmakers took their cue from the Big Apple, or possibly a John Wayne film called “Blood Alley.”
The name “Blood Alley” has stuck and is now part of the city’s history. If you want to be precise, it technically only refers to the cobblestoned Blood Alley Square, while the alley itself is still Trounce, regardless of what Google Maps says.
Shanghai and Canton Alleys
When the Great Northern Railway set up shop on Columbia and Dupont (now East Pender Street) in 1905, many people (mainly Chinese men and prostitutes) were displaced, but they didn’t have to go far. A “New Chinatown” had been developed just west of Carrall Street, consisting of two small lanes called Canton Alley and Shanghai Alley in what had been a mainly industrial area.
Shanghai Alley is behind Carrall Street to the west. It was home to an opium factory (before drug laws were introduced in 1908), Sing Kew Theatre, and the rear of the Chinese Empire Reform Association, but both alleys were mostly filled with tenements to house Chinese workers, with shops at street level. Prostitutes began moving in after being chased off Dupont Street by police so that passengers disembarking at the new railway station would be spared encounters with “painted ladies.”
The increased demand for space in Shanghai and Canton alleys by the sex trade boosted the value of those properties. Existing leaseholders took advantage of the situation by subletting their spaces for higher rents, to the chagrin of the landowners.
Yip Sang and other wealthy property owners weren’t happy that others were profiting off of their property and began cancelling leases. A public meeting was held at the Empire Reform Association to resolve the issue, but it became so raucous that police were called and had to escort the landlords to safety.
With Chinese businesses and residents being priced out of the alleys, a syndicate of Chinese businessmen bought up cheaper property between Gore and Westminster avenues (today’s Main Street) on what’s now Pender Street, effectively extending Chinatown in 1906.
A 1907 campaign shuffled the sex trade off again, first to Shore Street, then north to Alexander Street. Police made sure Canton and Shanghai alleys would be strictly Chinese.
The alleys were both trashed during the Asiatic Exclusion League riot that rampaged through Chinatown and Japantown in September 1907. An iron gate was installed at the entrance of Canton Alley after the riot for protection.
When the city widened Pender Street in 1912, it expropriated part of a property owned by the Sam Kee Company on Pender between Carrall and Shanghai Alley, leaving company owner Chang Toy with a six foot wide strip of land.
Rather than sell the property, Toy built the skinniest building in the world, today owned by Jack Chow Insurance. This building, the one directly behind it, and the 1903 Chinese Empire Reform Association building are all that remain of the old Shanghai and Canton alleys.
Market Alley runs from Main Street to Carrall, between Pender and Hastings streets. It was named after the old Market Hall building, erected in the 1890s on the northwest corner of Pender and Main Street (a market was on the ground floor and City Hall was upstairs). It was a bustling commercial lane lined with legitimate and illegitimate businesses for decades. Today its former storefronts are locked up and alley activity is limited to garbage pick-up, deliveries, graffiti artistry, and street-drug using and dealing.
After the Asiatic Exclusion League rioters trashed much of Chinatown in 1907, Deputy Minister of Labour and future Prime Minister Mackenzie King came to Vancouver to hear claims for compensation from business owners victimized in the riot. Two of the claims came from opium factories, one in Shanghai Alley and the other in Market Alley. King was also lobbied by the Anti-Opium League, a Chinese activist group that took him on a tour of the Chinatown drug scene.
Back in Ottawa, King drafted legislation that banned opium for non-medicinal purposes. It was Canada’s first drug law. It came into force in July 1908 and resulted in the first drug bust at the end of September. A police raid of a Market Alley opium den just east of Columbia Street found two white women from Victoria, May Doyle and Nell Robertson, smoking opium.
Police had heard rumours of the place being one of the more notorious opium dens in Chinatown, but for months were unable to pinpoint its exact location. Finally a pocket knife-wielding VPD sleuth figured out that the entrance to the den had been concealed with newspapers and cut it open. The owner, Chan Yuen, was sentenced to twelve months hard labour.
After the red light district was shut down on Dupont Street in 1906, gambling became the popular illicit pastime in Market Alley and a major preoccupation of the police. One gambling joint that opened in the mid-1930s was so busy that a restaurant opened on the premises to feed the gamblers.
It was called the Green Door and in the 1960s and 70s it became a favourite haunt for counter-culture types attracted by the underground feel of the alley entrance, lack of advertising, minimal signage, and especially low prices and good food. Other coloured door restaurants opened in Market Alley, but the Green Door is the best remembered. It lasted until the 1990s.
Beatty Lane was the alley between Beatty and Cambie, running from the Cambie Street Grounds (now the parking lot across from the Beatty Street Drill Hall) and the old Vancouver City Hospital at Pender and Cambie (also parking today). A small cluster of black people lived there in the early 20th century. Several of them played important or interesting roles in local history, making Beatty Lane significant in the geography of Vancouver’s black history.
After her husband Hiram died, Martha Scurry took in boarders at her family home at 534 Cambie Street, which backed on to Beatty Lane. The Scurrys were pioneer Vancouverites, arriving here just before the city incorporated. Hiram ran a barbershop on Carrall at Trounce Alley, which his sons continued after his death.
One son, Elijah, or Lige, was one of the best players on Vancouver’s lacrosse team. He was known for being exceptionally fast and aggressive on the field. Lige was so good and the competition so fierce in BC’s three-team lacrosse league that the Victoria and New Westminster teams colluded to implement a “colour bar” that ended his lacrosse career.
Lige Scurry’s next pursuit was to open the Railway Porters’ Club on Hastings Street. In an age of a racially segregated labour market, the occupation of sleeping car porter was one of the few open to black men. Porters needed a place to socialize and rest during stopovers at Vancouver, and black people in town generally needed a social hub to call their own. Unfortunately for Scurry, police raided the club in 1904 on the grounds that black prostitutes were frequent visitors. Police found no evidence that prostitution was being conducted there, but Scurry was nevertheless convicted of selling liquor without a license.
Martha Scurry’s daughter Cassie married an American named Samuel Howard. Their daughter Barbara would become the first black woman to represent Canada on the international sports stage at the age of 17 and the first visible minority hired by the Vancouver School Board.
Before settling into his idyllic cabin on English Bay, Joe Fortes lived at Martha Scurry’s boarding house and considered the Scurry family his own. Fortes arrived in 1885 and is the most celebrated black man in Vancouver’s history. He helped open English Bay for swimming, patrolled the beach as a special constable, taught innumerable kids how to swim, and saved countless lives as a life guard.
George Paris didn’t live in Beatty Lane, but for several years ran the Vancouver Athletic Club (VAC) there. Paris is considered BC’s first heavyweight boxing champion. Right after Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion of the world in Australia in 1908, he came to Vancouver and fought a demonstration bout at the VAC.
Paris travelled to Europe with Johnson as his personal trainer. Jazz historian Mark Miller speculates that Paris was exposed to jazz music through his association with Johnson and identifies Paris as Canada’s first professional jazz musician.
Martha Scurry died in 1911, but her boarding house continued. When Birth of a Nation, DW Griffiths’ groundbreaking and extremely racist film was slated to open in Vancouver in 1915, the denizens of 534 Cambie were not pleased. The film is credited with inspiring the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and consequently the spike in the lynching of blacks in the American south. Samuel Howard and Charles Scurry helped pen a strongly worded letter on behalf of the “colored people of Vancouver,” the Negro Christian Alliance, and the Wilberforce Lodge No. 9141, Grand United Order of Oddfellows, denouncing the flick and protesting its screening in Vancouver:
This foul libel, based on “The Clansman,” a play which sprang from the decadent intellect and putrid conscience of the contemptible Thomas Dixon, whose books are pronounced too filthy to be admitted to the library in the city of Portland, Ore., has already usurped much valuable space in the hearts and minds of the people of Canada … [We] hereby respectfully protest to the proper authorities of the city of Vancouver, and the province of British Columbia, against the presentation of this nefarious film before any Vancouver audience.
Beatty Lane disappears from the directories in 1914, and the last listing for the Scurry/Howard clan at 534 Cambie is in 1918.
While Beatty Lane had a distinct black presence, there were larger clusters of black people in the East End and Yaletown due to the proximity to the train stations and roundhouse where many black men worked. By the 1920s, the East End had become the undisputed geographic centre of the city’s black community, particularly after Fountain Chapel, a black church, opened at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Hogan’s Alley in early 1922.
According to the city’s first archivist, Major Matthews, the name Hogan’s Alley originally referred to Park Lane. That’s the alley just east of Main Street and included what’s now Station Street before it was severed by the viaducts.
The name Hogan’s Alley is likely a reference to the 1890s newspaper comic strip featuring the Yellow Kid in a wild, largely Irish slum area in New York City. It was also a nickname for a campsite on the beach at English Bay, where families spent summer months in the 1890s. Invoking the name Hogan’s Alley implies campers were “slumming it.”
At some point Hogan’s Alley in the East End came to include the lane between Union and Prior streets, running east from Park Lane to Fountain Chapel at Jackson Avenue. That strip became notorious for its afterhours clubs, bootleggers, and gambling joints. Austin Phillips, a black blues musician, describes Hogan’s Alley in the 1930s and 40s in an oral history collection compiled in the 1970s:
There was nothing but parties in Hogan’s Alley—night time, any time, and Sundays all day. You could go by at six or seven o’clock in the morning and you could hear jukeboxes going, you hear somebody hammering the piano, playing the guitar, or hear some fighting, or see some fighting, screams, and everybody carrying on. Some people singing, like a bunch of wild coyotes holler—they didn’t care what they sounded like just as long as they was singing.
In more recent years, the term “Hogan’s Alley” has become a shorthand for the historic black community in the vicinity of Hogan’s Alley, not just the alley proper. Beginning in the 1940s with the Chicken Inn on Keefer Street, southern fried chicken joints began popping up in the neighbourhood. One of the better known ones was Vie’s Chicken and Steakhouse at the corner of Union and Park Lane. Vie’s was open from 5 pm to 5 am and was a popular drop-in for neighbourhood residents, longshoremen, and top-notch black performers playing in Vancouver, including the likes of Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald. Jimi Hendrix’s grandmother Nora once worked there as a cook. She was also one of the founders of Fountain Chapel.
Another gathering place was the Pullman Porters’ Club on Main Street at Prior, which backed on to Hogan’s Alley. Clubs for railway porters were a staple in Vancouver’s black community as far back as Lige Scurry’s Railway Porters’ Club in 1904. After that one was shut down subsequent versions operated on Pender, Granville, Water, and the one in Hogan’s Alley.
Hogan’s Alley disappeared as part of the plan to build a freeway network in the 1960s, a similar process that destroyed black neighbourhoods in cities throughout North America. Vancouver’s freeway proposal ultimately did not survive a public backlash, but not before the first piece of it, the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts, was built over the demolished Hogan’s Alley site. As the city makes plans to remove the 45 year-old viaducts, community members are pushing for some meaningful commemoration of the black neighbourhood the structures displaced to be incorporated into future developments.
Cover photo: Canton Alley ca. 1928 by Brodie A Whitlelaw, Library and Archives Canada #PA-126739