Transcripts provide peek at the past

  • Vancouver Sun
  • 4 Nov 2022
Transcribimus founder and former mayor Sam Sullivan displays handwritten budget minutes from 1897 inside the Vancouver Archives.

The City of Vancouver’s operating budget for 2022 was $1.747 billion. In 1897, it was $363,937. How do we know? Because volunteers for local website Transcribimus have gone through the original handwritten documents at the City of Vancouver Archives, transcribed them and mounted them online. In this case, the transcription was by Krystyna Richards, working from Vancouver city council minutes taken April 2, 1897. Now, council meetings can be quite dry or self-promoting.

“They were generally effusive in terms of what they recorded,” said civic historian John Atkin.

“But having access to them is interesting for those gems that they have.”

One of the gems is that the city collected $1,000 in licence fees in 1897 for opium, which was legal in Canada until 1908.

In 1897, opium was Vancouver’s third-highest source of licensing revenue, after liquor ($17,000) and insurance companies ($3,300).

Atkin said at the time there was one local opium manufacturer, the Hip Tung Lung company, and three merchants that sold opium: King Fung and Co., Gim Lee Yuen, and the Wing Sang company. All were on Dupont Street between Carrall and Columbia streets, the historic heart of Chinatown. (Dupont became East Pender Street in 1907.)

The Wing Sang building dates to 1889, and is now Chinatown’s oldest structure. It was recently purchased by the B.C. government and is being converted to a Chinese Canadian Museum.

The old Hip Tung Lung opium factory is still around as well, at 23 East Pender. Modern-day Vancouverites

know it as the former headquarters for Ming Wo kitchenware. It was built in 1907 for $15,000. A Vancouver World story on Dec. 12, 1907, said it had 13 ovens or “roasting pots” for making opium. But the opium wasn’t to be sold in Canada — it was to be shipped to China, where the sale and manufacturing of opium had been banned.

The opium trade was always quite notorious in Vancouver, but the federal government didn’t seem to realize the size of it until there was an anti-Asian riot in Vancouver on Sept. 7, 1907.

The government sent future prime minister Mackenzie King out west to investigate in a royal commission.

He was shocked to hear evidence that the Hip Tung Lung factory had annual revenues of $170,000, and that whites were taking opium alongside Chinese.

When King submitted his report on June 26, 1908, he called for an opium ban “to free the people from an evil so injurious to their progress and well-being.”

And the feds banned it.

The other items in the 1897 budget aren’t quite so shocking. The police chief was paid $1,200, for example, and his force of 12 cost $10,080.

But there’s plenty of other interesting fare on the Transcribimus website, where about a dozen volunteers are chipping away at council minutes and other documents at present.

A recent addition from March 12, 1897 relates to how the city’s board of works had received a petition from bicyclists asking for a “cinder track on streets for the use of bicycles exclusively.”

After the proposal “was discussed at length,” the matter was referred to the city solicitor, to see if the city could legally do it, and also whether or not the city could “fix a tax on bicycles to defray the cost.”

On March 18, the solicitor reported back “that the council could not reserve a part of the street for bicycle riders, nor impose a compulsory tax on them.” But cyclists continued to press the city for a bike path, and judging from stories in the Vancouver World, a few were constructed in 1901.

Transcribimus was founded by former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan in 2012. In the last decade, about 50 volunteers have transcribed council documents from 1886 through 1897. They’ve also transcribed several letters from early pioneers, such as Gassy Jack Deighton (of Gastown fame) writing to his brother in England in 1870 and Mary Isabelle Rogers (of Rogers Sugar) writing about visiting Vancouver in 1885 and ’86, just before and after the city was incorporated.

There are also transcriptions of bios of early politicians from early newspapers like the Vancouver World, and sections on the city’s early ward system and bylaws.

Sullivan finds all this stuff fascinating, and quite moving. He said his partner Lynn “used to send me down to the archives with a box of Kleenex, because I would be sitting there reading the minutes and crying, blubbering away when I saw who was motioning and who was seconding, what time of day, what month was the meeting called.

“Because I’d been through the whole (process), I knew how to read the minutes. It was like a drama unfolding.”

It still is — now they’re working on 1898.