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Speaker Series Review with John Belshaw: Fifty Shade of Noir

Updated: Jul 6, 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 country.

A landscape photo of Vancouver’s waterfront during the early part of the 1900s. Photo Credit: Vancouver Archives.

Moving into the history of the city during the 1930s, Belshaw discussed the importance of ‘deviancy’ in society at this time. In particular, he explained how the history of capital crimes, trials, outcomes, appeals for clemency and photographs revealed a sternness in propriety, or authority, especially for police officials. The audience got to see some of these photos, which showed hard-faced detectives wearing large trenchcoats, policemen posing for the camera pointing at bullet holes, and power poses, that were so popular during the era.

It was around this time that racial discrimination began to change the laws too. For example, white women were prevented from working in Chinese restaurants, and many non-white citizens were put on trial with all-white juries.

He also stressed the importance of Vancouver’s indigenous peoples, who, at the time, were being ethnically cleansed. Entire communities were shipped out of the city, forced into residential schools and criminally punished unfairly. “We haven’t covered the history of our rendering of a whole population of indigenous people,” he said. “This is a history that has not been written and needs to be written.”

Moving into the 1940s and 1950s Belshaw would discuss how women still experienced their own kind of prejudice in the city. Citing a murder case from 1947, he discussed how a woman by the name of Viola Woolrich, who was murdered by her husband. He shot her three times at close range and then immediately confessed to his neighbours. Though he had confessed and was clearly guilty of the crime, he was still found innocent. Belshaw explained, “Although she was dead, [Viola] was still put on trial…she was portrayed as a bad mother, a bad wife, and she was a little big—so she had it coming.” In fact, it was documented during the trial that the judge even said to the husband, who was 20 years old at the time, “Son, you’ve suffered enough.”

From teenagers to the Jewish community, women and beyond, the nature of ‘deviancy’ and prejudice knew no bounds in the early part of Vancouver’s 1900s. Bringing this history together, Belshaw ended his presentation with a focus on the history as a subject itself.

He discussed the emerging awareness and interest in Vancouver’s past, and how other notable authors and historians, such as Aaron Chapman, Eve Lazarus and Jesse Donaldson have helped unearth these stories and increase public awareness. Our city’s noir history was “A period that was once overlooked and perhaps embarrassing,” he said, ” but it’s now a source of major interest—and we’re never going back.”

The award-winning crime writer will take us into the darker side of Vancouver. From biker gangs to gentrification, the author of Cut You Down and Invisible Dead will discuss the real-life crimes and local landmarks behind his acclaimed Wakeland series of detective novels. Seating is limited, so book your tickets now!


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