Speaker Series Review with John Belshaw: Fifty Shade of Noir

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

Chinatown during the early part of the 1900s. Credit: Vancouver Archives.

Many incorrectly assume that Vancouver is a city without a significant history, but on May 30th, those who attended our Speaker Series presentation, Fifty Shades of Noir, by Professor and co-author John Belshaw, discovered a wealth of ‘dark’ stories from our city’s past. Belshaw, who co-authored the book Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960, gave the audience an in-depth look at the timeline for Vancouver’s progression from a frontier town into a city of vice, prejudice and progress in many different ways.

He began by discussing the impact that the Canadian Pacific Railway had on the city and how it provided Vancouver with a connection to the rest of Canada, ushering in a breadth of new, middle-class jobs, including ones for journalists, lawyers and other white-collar workers. It also welcomed immigrants from classed countries like England, and these people would eventually shape Vancouver’s middle class which, before the railway, had not really existed.

In fact, before the CPR came to Vancouver, the city was largely a hard, male-dominated city, full of labour-intensive and dirty jobs. A ‘working man’s city,’ it lacked female influence, but was diverse in cultures, with a large aboriginal population, and base of immigrants from all around the Pacific Rim.

Belshaw explained how, as the middle class grew in Vancouver, the attitudes towards vice and indignancy changed drastically. Part of this change can be traced to local papers and journalists, who were part of the middle-class society, and who influenced the rhetoric of the times with scathing critiques of ‘opium dens,’ ‘gambling dens’ and ‘hookers’ and ‘drugs’ on the streets.

Drugs were of a major concern for the new class, but, as Belshaw noted, the working class often used them to self-medicate when performing “literally back-breaking work.” This increased negative stereotypes of the working class, who would often find relief from their pain in opium dens in the East Side of Vancouver, often in Chinatown.

Belshaw also explained how attitudes towards Chinese Canadians changed as well. Just as there was a divide between the working class and the middle class, there was also an even bigger divide between Chinese community, white working class and white middle class. For instance, the Chinese population formed the service sector in Vancouver, from restaurants, laundry and entertainment to gambling, drugs and brothels, while the white working and middle class used these services.

The famous Sun Tower, which is still located at 100 West Pender Street. Photo Credit: Vancouver Archives.

This brought Belshaw onto the topic of the famous Sun Tower. Built in 1912, and commissioned by former mayor and sometimes journalist, L. D. Taylor, it looked over the alleys of Chinatown, which encouraged much of the anti-Chinese sentiment written about the district during the time. Belshaw joked, “Who knows what newspaper reporters would have written about if they had been situated on the Edge of Shaughnessy instead…probably the dangers of martinis and tennis clubs.”

Audience members also heard about the attitudes towards women in Vancouver during the early 1900s. Quoting a writer, Margaret Andrews, Belshaw noted, “You could tell when the frontier phase Vancouver’s history was over because there were women’s washrooms downtown.” He went on to explain that once women’s washrooms were downtown, women could stay and explore the area longer and occupy it in a way they hadn’t before. This lead to the retail business downtown taking off, and other reforms to make the core more gentile and hospitable for the overall public.

The balance between the demographics began to even out around between 1914 and the early 1920s as there were more women in the city, prohibition came into effect, and people were looking to clean up the streets. Not to mention, the first World War resulted in a massive loss of male lives, some of the highest in the cou