Canadian laws · Canadian Stories · Chinese Culture

We’ll tell you where you can live – BC’s Land Titles Act

Whenever I’m visiting Vancouver, the topic of real estate comes up. Vancouverites can’t help talking about it. You might talk about it too if the phrase million dollar teardown was a part of your life.

I shared my trivia about how the so-called British Properties in West Vancouver were styled that way for a reason: only British people could live there. It was developed by the Guinness family, and it seems that while the Guinnesses were happy to make their fortunes selling beer to anyone, they were a lot less egalitarian when it came to their neighbours.
Aerial view of West Vancouver, 1974. By Miranda.Kopetzky (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
And it wasn’t just the British Properties. According to Ron Usher, general counsel for the Society of Notaries Public in BC, there could be houses all over Vancouver with discriminatory restrictive covenants hiding in their document clauses.

What’s a restrictive covenant, you ask?

1850 – Who’s not allowed in?

Since the mid-19th century, property law has permitted sellers to force buyers to make enduring promises about the races of people not allowed to move into the neighbourhood. According to the Consultation Paper on Restrictive Covenants, a covenant is a legally binding promise by one person (covenantor) to another (covenantee).

No Asiatics, no Indians, no Negros…

Here’s a sample restrictive covenant where the buyer agrees:

…that the Grantee or his heirs, administrators, executor, successors or assigns will not sell to, agree to sell to, rent to, lease to, or permit or allow to occupy, the said lands and premises, or any part thereof, any person of the Chinese, Japanese or other Asiatic race or to any Indian or Negro.

…anyone else?

I heard a 1980s story from a brilliant and well-respected lawyer who, while considering a house in West Vancouver, requested that the antisemitic restrictive covenants be removed from his real estate documents. The realtor assured him the covenants no longer applied. He assured the realtor he was fully capable of understanding legal niceties… and still wanted the covenants removed. That is, unless the realtor wished to walk away from the deal?

They were removed.

1978 – BC revises the Land Titles Act

Thirty years after the Chinese got the vote, they also got the right to buy a house where they wanted to live. It took a generation, but Section 222(1) of the Land Titles Act now states:

A covenant that directly or indirectly, restricts the sale, ownership, occupation or use of land on account of the sex, race, creed, colour, nationality, ancestry or place of origin of a person, however created, whether before or after the coming into force of this section, is void and of no effect.
This house did not have a restrictive covenant. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

2017 – How many houses are affected?
Looking north on Cambie Street, 2016. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Ron Usher said, “There could be thousands. They were common in Vancouver, West Vancouver, North Vancouver and Victoria, and there’s no way of knowing the exact numbers.”

Restrictive covenants are not cheap to remove, either. According to Peter Roberts of Lawson Lundell LLP, the cost can range from $2,000 to $10,000.

It’s a nightmare for realtors and owners wanting to sell. As noted from my story about the lawyer above, just because it’s no longer applicable doesn’t make it right.

Why did you write this piece?

I was reflecting on the history of Vancouver’s Chinatown, and wondering what reasons there might have been for  Chinese immigrants to live in such close proximity. There are positive social reasons for wanting to live near people like you, such as language, culture,  safety, and community. But it seems there have also been barriers to moving away from Chinatown.


Consultation paper on restrictive covenants. June, 2011. British Columbia Law Institute Real Property Reform (Phase 2) Project Committee. Available at link.

Genealogy Basics · Scanning family photos

Review: Epson FastFoto 640 High Speed Photo Scanner

I thought I’d share my thoughts about the new Epson photo scanner – billed as being the fastest photo scanner on the market today. That’s a big promise, but does it deliver?

Why consider a high speed photo scanner?

As soon as I saw the ad for the Epson FF-640, I knew it was the scanner for me. I’d spent 2.5 years carefully scanning 3000 slides, negatives and fragile old photos. I have 8000+ more to scan, but they are all prints from ~1970-2000. A high speed scanner that is built to scan photos from 3×5″ to 8×10″ is the machine of my dreams.
The machine of my scanning dreams. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

How much was it?

It was pricey – I got it for $700 on a holiday sale at Staples. It’s regularly ~$900, plus taxes. Shipping was free.

That’s a lot of money for a scanner. What else does it do?

It’s a hard copy scanner, for documents and photos. The ads say it will scan documents at 45 ppm.

So what are your first impressions?

This is my new favourite toy. On my first day of scanning, I tallied 1023 images. That’s the equivalent of 10 scanning sessions with my flatbed scanner. Put another way, I achieved in one afternoon (4.5 hours) the output of 10 months.

There are a couple of caveats, of course. My previous sessions included working with slides, negatives, and delicate, old photos. Some needed special handling and cleaning. All of those originals were scanned at higher resolutions, which slows a scanner down.

But still. A thousand images in one afternoon. Hallelujah!

OK, I’m interested. What’s in the box?
Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

From top, clockwise: scanner and document tray; scanner power cord; USB cord; quick start instructions and warranty; carrier sheet. Not shown: two microfibre cleaning cloths.

Anything else included?

Software, but what is offered will depend on your hardware and OS setup. Epson doesn’t support all platform equally. It broke down like this:

MacBook Air running OS 10.13
  • Document Capture
  • Epson Scan 2
  • Epson Scan 2 Utility
  • Epson Software Updater
  • Event Manager
PC running Windows 7
  • FastFoto
  • Document Capture
  • Epson Scan 2
  • Epson Scan 2 Utility
  • Epson Software Updater
  • Event Manager

I’ve been using the Epson Scan 2 software.

Was it easy to set up?


It was easier to set up on a PC than a Mac. That’s a first. The Mac installation wasn’t difficult, but it was clunkier and seems to be missing the FastFoto software.
Firmware update for Mac

This is a shot of the screen I got to look at for ages while Epson searched for a firmware update. Epson will advise you not to do anything else while it performs this manoeuvre, which gives you plenty of time to admire the GUI.


When I repeated the process on my PC, I found the setup much more fluid and automatic. The only hitch was when the software checked for updates, and the Windows firewall blocked the Epson Event Manager from fully installing. This is a known issue for Epson, but not for me, because I will not be using the scanner over a network.

How fast is fast?

Fast. After doing a few series of test scans, I started loading photos into the automatic feed tray (the ADF). Batches of 30 photos scanning at 300 dpi will be scanned in 22-25 seconds.

I have photos with important information on the back. Will the Epson scan both sides?

Yes. It’s an important consideration for the would-be archivist – how to keep the information on the backs of the photos? With my flatbed scanner, I’d have to scan, open the scanner & flip the photo, scan again, and then make sure to tag the scans so that they’d be consecutively ordered. That’s a lot of work when you’re facing thousands of scans, so many people opt to skip scanning the backs, or try to capture all the information when naming the scan, e.g., 2012-12-25 – Christmas at Kingsland Restaurant with Fred and Wilma Wong, John and Janet Koreman, the Tang family, Vancouver, BC P00425.

The Epson will scan a whole stack of photos 2-sided, and the scans will be consecutively ordered.

I have a collection of scans with unique ID numbers already. Will the Epson FF-640 let me continue with my number system?

Yes. I was worried about this issue. After 3200 scans, I didn’t want to have to start a new system at “P00001”. The Epson Scan 2 software will allow you to set the start number, in my case P03221, and will remember to count consecutively for all future scans.

I’ve heard the scans from the Epson FF-640 will be soft. Do you find them soft?

I was worried that I was sacrificing scanning quality for speed, but the Unsharp Mask setting in the Advanced tab of the Epson Scan 2 program does a good job of keeping photo scans sharp. In my mind, it’s perfect for the photo collector who doesn’t need advanced photo handling software.

I continue to use my flatbed Canon Canoscan 8400F for other originals:

  • Polaroids (too thick for the Epson’s feed design)
  • Photos mounted on thick cards or boards (won’t fit in the scanner)
  • Pictures still in their frames (see above)
  • Negatives and slides (the Epson does not have film-handling capability)
  • Small and fragile photos

I have advanced photo handling software. Can the Epson scan photos “as is”?

Yes. Except for Unsharp Mask, I use the scanner with the automatic photo adjustments turned off. I use Adobe Lightroom for more detailed work. The Epson will also scan photos in TIFF, PNG, and PDF, in addition to JPG.

I don’t have any fancy photo software. Can I have good quality photo scans in one pass, even if the originals are faded and scratched?

Yes. The Epson has automatic colour correction, red eye reduction, and fine line erasure.

My photos were all stuck in those “magnetic” (read: glue) photo albums and are now sticky. Can the Epson still scan them?

Sort of.

The rolling and scanning mechanism is the most fragile part of the machine. Any glue or tape stuck on the glass scanning plates would really compromise the scans and potentially damage the scanner. Epson suggests you clean each photo thoroughly before scanning. If the glue or tape isn’t coming off, you can use the carrier sheet to protect the scanner. Be sure to clean the carrier sheet from time to time too.

Any complaints so far?

Clean Freak
Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Either the machine needs constant cleaning, or I have a really dirty pile of photos. I am sure it’s the latter. In my first 1000 images, I had to stop 4x to stop and clean the scanner. In future, I will think twice about sorting photos on the floor.

The Epson works by automatically picking up each photo in a stack, rolling it through a scanner sandwich, and out the other side. Any dirt, dust, lint, hair, glue, tape remnants, or label fluff will get stuck in the rollers and scanning plates, and show up as lines in the scans. Once you see these lines appearing, you’ll need to stop, shut down the software, unplug the scanner, pop it open, and clean it carefully with the microfibre cloth.

Epson provides cleaning 2 cloths in the box, but I can see myself needing more. A lot more.

Mistakenly scanning photos as documents

From time to time, the Epson will scan a photo as a B&W document. I’m not sure why this happens, but it seems to be dependent on the photo image, because rescanning the photo will produce the same result. Luckily, I’ve been checking the scans after each batch, because I’d hate to have to find the mis-scan after having scanned a few hundred photos.


If you’re facing a monumental photo scanning project, this may be the machine for you, too. If you have any other questions I didn’t cover in this review, please pop me a comment below. Thanks for reading!

What’s up next week?

BC has had some eye raising laws on the books in the not-so-distant past. I’ll talk about one of them, and how it’s impacting people today.

Genealogical Research · Scanning family photos

How to sort photos from the past 50 years when you have almost nothing to go on

How do you sort photos when you have no idea of the dates and don’t recognize the people? Here are some hints from me, a longtime photography buff and ex-commercial printer.

Why sort at all?

Some people argue that sorting after scanning is better. I prefer sorting before scanning because:

  1. I name files so they will automatically sort in date order: YYYY-MM-DD – [description of photo] – [names of people] – [location if known] – unique filename identifier;
  2. Sorting photos makes the work of batch scanning and file naming much quicker;
  3. Batches of similar photos will offer more clues together than a single photo by itself;
  4. Sorting before scanning makes the post-scanning filing task much simpler, because I file photos in date order.

The problem: How to sort thousands of mixed photos from the past 50 years

I have boxes of loose photos from ~1970s-2000s, thanks to my family photo scanning project. See my story on the project here.

Step One – Do a rough sort of the photos by print attributes

  1. Sort by colour (B&W or colour), then
  2. Sort by size; then
  3. Sort by photofinishing type (matte or glossy); then, if needed
  4. Sort by photofinishing quality, e.g., are all the photos too light/ too dark?

Sort by colour and size

The first hint is the size and shape of the photos. Are they B&W or colour? Do they have curvy edges? Round corners? Are they odd sizes? Sort by colour, quality, and glossy/matte stock.

-Sample photos from a variety of cameras. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

This isn’t as odd as it sounds. Film and cameras have changed over the decades, ranging from small and cheap, e.g., Brownies and Kodak Instamatics; to instant, e.g., Polaroids; to high quality, e.g., Kodachrome 64 slides and medium format film. Our family had both pocket cameras and single lens reflex (SLR) cameras. SLR cameras were preferred because the 35 mm film rendered good quality images.

35 mm prints were offered commercially in standard sizes. My family preferred prints 3.5”x5” or 4”x6”, because they fit into photo albums. My grandparents kept special occasion photos – births, graduations, and weddings – in frames that held 5″x7″, 8″x10″, or 11″x14″ enlargements. My uncle had a darkroom in the basement, and he was the one who first showed me how a 35 mm negative naturally enlarged to fit those sizes.

Why a single roll might hold 2 events, or odd, throwaway photos

When my family got together, they’d bring their cameras, shoot a full roll of film (12, 24, or 36 exposures), then send that film off for processing. Film and processing were expensive, so it was common to save a film roll from one occasion to the next, resulting in the same roll holding more than one event, from summer weddings to Christmas. My grandfather used to ask us to pose by the house or car to “finish the roll.”

Sort by photofinishing quality and finish

The results would come back about a week later in a paper envelope, either matte or glossy according to preference. I still remember eagerly waiting for the return of my photos and quickly flipping through the batch at the drugstore to see what turned out and what didn’t.

Offsite printing was far from uniform – some labs regularly calibrated their processing machines, while others were staffed by clerks who seemed not to understand that Chinese people are literally not white people and set the white balance (the lightest part of the photo) from skin tones. This results in images with overly light colours: blown highlights and lighter-than-normal midtones. See sample below.
Skin tones are white, whites (tablecloth, cups, teapot) are blown, and mid-tones are too light. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Step two: Review the batches of photos for content

Use the advantage of batch sorting

Turn over each batch and look for any notes. You might get lucky and find a set of photos that are obviously one occasion such as a Christmas party and find that one of them has a note, e.g., Party 1985.

In my case, I found hundreds of loose photos without any ID, and then a few photo holders intact with notes. With the photos already roughly sorted into batches, it’s much easier to compare the print attributes and subjects of the loose and sorted photos, and make informed guesses about what goes with what.

Why aren’t there more labels?

It was extremely tedious to label each photo once they were printed. Sometimes, people would automatically order two or more sets at the time of printing in case anyone wanted a copy. My grandparents were social and generous, and would often order 3 sets of prints: that’s 108 photos for every roll of 36. To identify the stack, my grandfather would label just the paper envelope, or one photo in the pile. By reassembling the photos back to their original print stacks, I’ve been able to make assumptions about the rest of the prints.
Look carefully at all the envelopes for clues about the contents, but be aware that sometimes, the info on the envelope doesn’t match the photos inside. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

What’s the occasion?

Once all the photos are sorted by size and photofinishing, you’ll likely have dozens of piles. What are the people doing and wearing? Is it day or night? Remember that photography was a luxury hobby, so people tended to only take pictures of special occasions. What special occasion was the reason for this photo? 

What if I have the same occasion for more than one year?

For example, I have dozens of photos of company Christmas parties, and they’re all the same size, printed on glossy paper. I look at the surroundings: the curtains, floors, walls, and decorations. This allows me to figure out that I have photos of two Christmas parties, because they both feature Xmas decorations but in different locales.

If there had been two company Christmas parties in the same location, I would look for what the women are wearing. Men may wear the same tuxedo year after year, but women rarely wear the same outfit twice (unless they’re travelling and only packed one dress).

Simple sorting hacks – before and after

Before sorting

A loose pile of photos.
A loose pile of photos from the 1990s-2000s, judging from photofinishing quality; hair, clothing, and fashion styles. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

After the rough sorting is done, sort by year

After I’ve done the rough sort, I can often make a guess about a photo’s decade, based on the clothing and hair styles. I turned an old file folder into a simple place to do the second sort.
Repurposed file folder, 1920s-present, in 5 year increments. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Two boxes’ worth of sorted photos

From two of the apple boxes, here’s a shot of all the photos from the 1980s, sorted by year.
Photos from 1980-1989. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Progress, not perfection

Some photos will remain a mystery, despite the detective work. That’s OK, and to be expected. Thanks to What Everybody Ought to Know When Naming Your Scanned Photos, I use filenames to show unknowns like this:

  • For photos from the 20th century with no information on decade, I use 19xx-[description]-uniqueID.
  • For photos I can place to the decade, e.g., the 1970s: 197x-[description]-uniqueID
  • For photos where I can place the month and decade, e.g., April 1970s: 197x-04-[description]-uniqueID


My new high-speed photo scanner just arrived. After having done the work of sorting the last two boxes of photos and seeing the huge piles of photos left to scan, I am doubly, triply glad that I bought it. This is not something I ever thought I’d say, but I can’t wait to get started on the scanning. I’ll share my findings with you in my next post.

Genealogical Research · Scanning family photos

The family picture scanning project: how I digitized 3000 images in my spare time

This is a story about a family project. You may have a similar project mouldering away on your To Do list. In this story, I’m going to talk about how and why the project got started, the steps to getting the project done, and the unexpected bonuses I found.


When my grandmother passed away in 2013, she left piles of photo albums, boxes of negatives, and hundreds of printed rolls of film still in their paper envelopes. The entire collection filled  four whole apple crates. What on earth were we going to do with them?

My uncle volunteered to drive them home, a province away.

I volunteered to scan them all.



 – The contents of one apple crate. Now multiply this by 4. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Several months later, I sat in my basement looking at the boxes. I had no idea how I was going to do this. My grandparents had photos from the 1930s to the 2000s. Each time I opened a box, I’d get lost flipping through the photo albums. I was daunted by the thousands of photos with no names or dates. How was I going to organize this mess?

My grandparents were both social and frugal – they’d fill a photo album with photos from one occasion, then fill the remaining spaces with random photos that fit. This method obviously worked for them, since they knew the people and the places, but without that intimate knowledge, I was lost.

I put the project away again.

I did this a few times before thinking, hey, I bet someone else out there has had this problem and already solved it. That’s when I found Curtis Bisel’s site Scan Your Entire Life.

It was a lightbulb moment.

The gear: A flatbed Canon Canoscan 8400F, two backup drives and a PC running Windows 7. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

It’s now four years later. For 2.5 years, I made great progress, scanning ~100 at a time in 34 scanning sessions. The hardest part was getting started: organizing, sorting, and making decisions on important basics such as scanning resolution and filename conventions. I also needed to decide what to do with the photos once scanned – how to store them long term and on a budget.

The next hardest decision was what to scan first. Open a box and choose at random? Pick an album? Do all the colour prints first? I opted to do the ones that most appealed to me: the old black and white photos.
Sample 1940s era photo of 2 stylish women, Vancouver, BC.Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

In hindsight, I don’t recommend this, because despite all the prep work, I inevitably refined my processes as I went along. Then again, I might not have found the project as fascinating, and might not have continued. Hard to say. In the end, I did spend time rescanning and revising filenames. By the end of the second scanning session, I was on a roll, happily spending weekends and evenings immersed in the past. I worked from oldest to newest, and scanned just over 3200 images: all the tiny black and whites, all the white bordered 60s & 70s prints with fading ink, and the majority of the old family photos.

Then my scanner died and I didn’t have the cash to replace it. The project was put on hold.


I kept a journal to track my scanning progress, but it became a place to gather my questions about the family.

In the absence of dates, research and logic became my go-to tools for solving the mysteries I was uncovering. When I found my grandparents’ wedding photo, I wanted to know everything about it: where and when did it take place, who was in the photo, and even who was the photographer? I found a few answers by searching the online archives at the Royal BC Museum for the marriage licence, and the BC City Directories for the photography studio.

Other photo mysteries are ongoing. I found dozens of photos from the 1930s and 40s, all addressed to “Dora”. Who was Dora? I learned that Dora was my grandfather’s sister, and that Dora was her English name. So far, I’ve tried and failed to find an original document that has both English and Chinese names, which would confirm which of my grandfather’s two sisters was the girl named Dora who loved exchanging photos with her pen pals.


Thanks to a generous Christmas gift, I’m back on track. I’ve ordered a hi-speed photo scanner, brought up a box of photos from the basement, and begun the task of sorting all the photos in it. This box is nearly all travel-related. It’s taken me two nights to sort, but I’m not in a hurry. Besides, I love the stories unfolding in the photos, like a super slow-motion video. Also, I found that my grandfather was diligent about recording travel dates and locations on the cheap plastic holders that came free with film processing, which hugely helps organizing and sorting.


So I’m not quite halfway done, but the new high-speed photo scanner will make a huge difference in my projected completion date: from ~Spring 2021 to December 2018. That’s something to celebrate.
Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Another reason to celebrate: I’m learning that a project like this – scanning an entire family’s photos over the course of 5 years – can become a powerful genealogical search tool. Pictures resonate with life and vitality in a way that words and documents cannot, and in the days before Photoshop, it was once true that a picture never lies.

Lastly, this time spent poring over images has given me a rich mental picture of what life was like back then. When I close my eyes, I can almost stand beside my grandfather in front of his store, looking onto Main Street and thinking about the future.
A police officer stands outside a Vancouver Chinatown shop. About 1925. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

This has been a huge help in my genealogical journey, helping me make intuitive leaps over the gaps in the document trail. The search for Chinese Canadian genealogy feels like detective work because it is a search to find marginalized and misunderstood people living on the periphery of society. If you think that’s a bit harsh, then I gently remind you that the Chinese were not considered citizens in this country until granted the vote in 1948. See my posts on it here and here.

It’s like wall climbing – the path up is the expert line, and progress can only be made by getting stronger, taking big leaps of faith, and pushing the limits.


Do you have boxes of loose photos from the past 50 years and no clue how to organize them? In my next blog post, I’ll share my tricks for getting the job done.