Awaken Overseas Chinese Theatre was established by the Sing Kew
Dramatic Society in 1898 at 544 Shanghai Alley. With a capacity of 500 seats,
it was probably the largest public space in Chinatown. As such, it played a
prominent role in the political and cultural life of the community. Its shifting
role, at different times, as theatre, lecture hall and boarding house also mirrored
a community in transition.
its beginning, Sing Kew was a stage for theatrics and rhetoric - a place for
Chinese opera performances as well as public and private debates and forums.
For example, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the Father of Modern China, lectured
there daily during his visit in 1911. The Empire Reform Association, an organization
promoting Chinese patriotic causes, also held its meetings there. As the Association
frequently invited Caucasian guest speakers, the theatre was also where the
community met and communicated with members of the mainstream society.
As the first Chinese theatre, Sing Kew played a central role in preserving culture and providing entertainment through Chinese opera performances. Since many plays were adapted from classical Chinese literature, they also helped to propagate and perpetuate traditional values and morals.
Cantonese opera and Peking opera were extremely popular for audiences of all ages as they incorporate singing, music, dance, and acrobatics. While appreciating a performance on stage, audiences could also enjoy snacks of oranges, melon seeds and peanuts. Children could run about while mothers nursed their babies. The opera was a wonderful escape for older people who did not have much to do in the evening and for bachelor workers whose material reality was long working hours, a small room with a bunk, a table, a stove and harsh routine.
Sing Kew lost its position as the only Chinese theatre after 1916 when Wing Hong Lim Theatre was built on Columbia Street. As opera troupes from China and Hong Kong ceased to perform in Vancouver in the latter half of the 1920s and between 1945-60 due to the economic and political situation in Vancouver and China, Sing Kew increasingly became more often a boarding house than a theatre.
The rising popularity of Chinese opera records and movies also hastened its decline. On November 29, 1947, a severe fire ripped through the theatre and, within 21/2 hours, destroyed everything, including the magnificent costumes that once adorned its stage.
A missionary report notes that among the 6,000 Chinese in Vancouver, there
are only 210 families. The majority are men separated from families in
Community pastimes include the popular Cantonese opera, the Chinese lottery
and card games. A large number of records and Cantonese movies are available
from around 1915.
Chinese grocers support citywide petition for uniform early closing of
stores in Vancouver, while Chinese vegetable peddlers fight City By-law
that demands a 100% increase in license fees.
Most of the buildings in Chinatown are constructed between 1910-20. Chinatown
is virtually self-contained, with two Chinese theatres, six schools, one
hospital, one library, and a large number of clan, county and other associations.
CENSUS OF CANADA shows Vancouver's Chinese population continues to rise
On July 1st, Ottawa passes the Chinese Immigration Act, almost completely
banning Chinese immigration. For years thereafter, Chinese refuse to celebrate
Dominion Day and call it "Humiliation Day".
On July 1st, in reaction to the enforcement of the Chinese Immigration
Act, all Chinese-owned shops are closed. Amusements in public, such as
strolling in the park or engaging in musical activities that may be heard
on the street, are forbidden. Chinese are not to watch Dominion Day parade.
Chinese leaders lecture on Immigration Act and its humiliation of the
The Wong's surname association [Wong Kung Har Tong] establishes the Mon
Keong Chinese Language School in Vancouver alongside at least six other
such schools. It becomes first to offer high school classes in 1947.
The Chinese Benevolent Association raises $3,000 to equip a children's
playground behind the southeast corner of Pender and Carrall.