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The history of my grandparents’ house

This is the story of a house in Vancouver. It was my grandparents’ house, but it could be any house you grew up in.

The present

Stepping over the construction tape, I called into the open doorway Hello? Is anybody there? 

A man emerged from the back, covered in a nameless fog of wood chips, drywall plaster, and general grime. Hi, he said. Can I help you? 

This was my grandparents house, I said. I wanted to say hello and convey my appreciation for what you’re doing with it. 

His face brightened. We talked for ages. He asked me to drop by anytime, and bring my family if possible. He and his wife wanted very much to connect with the history of the house. They were artists: he was a metalworker and his wife a sculptor. They’d long searched for a site where they could live and make art. They needed a house in a light industrial area, and they had all but given up.

Then they found the perfect spot. It was going to cost a ton, but they had a vision. They moved the house to the furthest front corner of the lot, then extended it and built a huge deck off the back.

They were planning to drink wine and enjoy the million dollar view of Vancouver at their feet.

I knew that view well. I grew up with it.

The beginning

According to one family story, the house was a wedding gift from my great-grandparents in the 1930s. In a contrary tale, the house was purchased after years of hard labour by my grandparents. However it happened, my grandparents had moved from the rooms above the family store to their own home by the 1940s.

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The house and the tall apple tree. 1943.

The neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant was where Chinese families could live, adjacent to Chinatown and the CPR railyards (now False Creek). (For more on where Chinese – and other – families could not live, see my story on the BC Land Titles Act here.)

The house was a small 2 storey on a huge, deep, double-wide lot. Over the years, my grandparents dug and expanded two enormous gardens where they grew spinach, garlic, onions, green onions, radishes, turnips, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, peas, and bok choy. In lean times, those gardens kept the family fed. In better times, nobody went home without a bag of produce.

My mother and her brothers attended the elementary school up the block, and celebrated birthday parties on the front lawn. My grandmother grew flowers along the front walk.

My grandfather left for work promptly each morning at 7:45 a.m. – the family warehouse just a 4 minute drive away.

The middle

My sister and I visited our grandparents often, spending many weekends with them. We tried to climb the apple tree in the front yard, burnt our fingers on the wood-burning gas stove, and skinned our knees skating on ancient steel roller skates in the back alley.

There were a lot of house parties. My uncles at UBC brought their friends home for dinner; there were mah jong parties, birthdays, Christmases, and Chinese New Years.

The young ones played in the living room while the old ones gossiped in Chinese in the kitchen.

 

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The decline

The neighborhood had changed in the intervening years. Vancouver’s city planners, deaf to the protests of the Chinese community, had decided the large lots were too valuable to be residential. The area was rezoned as mixed/light industrial. This meant that as families moved out, selling their homes for the value of bare lots, the houses were demolished. Soon, only two houses remained on our block, sandwiched in-between cement warehouses. The poor, the desperate, and the addicted made their homes in the doorways. My grandparents put extra locks on the front door and a bar across the basement door.

But the view remained. From my second floor window, I could see all of Vancouver.

My grandparents put the house up for sale, but who would want it? It broke my grandmother’s heart to leave her gardens. My grandfather feared the house would be demolished.

The end

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When the house finally sold, none of us could bear to visit. We feared it would become another warehouse in the warehouse district, and stayed away.

Until the day E. and I were walking up the street, and saw the construction site. The house frame had been preserved, and although many changes had been made, it was still recognizable as our granparents’ much-loved home.

I stepped over the construction tape.

Postscript

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Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

I took a bit of liberty with the “present” dateline. The house was reconstructed in the late 80s. I am fascinated by it, and would love a peek inside.

It’s still there, and if you know where it is, you can Google it to see the gorgeous deck.

Maybe the next time I visit Vancouver, I’ll ring the bell on the gate.

 

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