Canadian laws · Chinese Culture · Chinese Genealogy · Genealogy How Tos

The Chinese Detention Shed, Vancouver

[Updated 14 Oct 2022.] See postscripts below.

Genealogy makes history come alive in a way that totally escaped me in school.


I was reading the 1921 Canada census for Vancouver one night. Yes, this is what genealogists do for fun in their spare time. There are hundreds of pages, and the ward boundaries don’t make any sense, so it was by accident that I found the Chinese Dentention Shed.

Say what?

What’s a Detention Shed?

Well, I don’t really know. If you google “detention shed”, you won’t find much. It seems that the Chinese Detention Shed has been all but forgotten in immigration history. Canada had Immigration Sheds at her ports of entry: Victoria, Halifax, Quebec and so on. In these sheds, immigrants were processed for papers and checked for health. But immigration sheds were for new immigrants only. After they’d immigrated, they’d never see another shed again.

But for the Chinese, an extra special layer of attention was warranted. It seems there was an immigration shed set up for Chinese immigration regardless of whether or not they were already living in Canada. That blows my mind.

Who was in the shed in June, 1921?

From: District 22, Subdistrict 7, Ward 1, Vancouver Centre – 1921 Census of Canada

1921 census
Excerpt, Dentention Shed, Ward 1, Vancouver. Credit: 1921 Census of Canada[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2013.
  1. MOY Heng, male, married, 35 years old, born (“b.”) 1886, immigrated (“imm.”) 1910, restaurant worker, $300 earned in past 12 mths (~$3800 in 2018 dollars)
  2. MA Lung, male, married, 31 years old, b. 1890, imm. 1911, railway employee
  3. WONG Doo Tong, male, single, 60 years old, b. 1861, imm. 1898, laundryman
  4. LIM Fook Luen, male, single, 26 yrs. old, b. 1895, imm. 1906, merchant
  5. SHERIN Yick Fong, male, single, 31 yrs. old, b. 1890, imm. 1913, mill hand
  6. LAM Tung, male, single, 60 yrs. old, b. 1861, imm. 1909, restaurant worker
  7. WONG Yet Gus, male, single, 41 yrs. old, b. 1880, imm. 1908, cook
  8. WONG Alun Chun, male, single, 47 yrs. old, b. 1874, imm. 1913, labourer
  9. TOM Tong Bak, male, male, single, 31 yrs. old, b. 1890, imm. 1913, labourer
  10. MOY Amy, [no gender provided], single, 44 yrs. old, b. 1877, imm. 1909, merchant
  11. CHEE Jam Kan Hung, male, married, 31 yrs. old, b. 1890, imm. 1911, cook, $2,000 earned in past 12 mths (~$25K in 2018 dollars)
  12. WONG Sze, female, married, 37 yrs. old, b. 1884, imm. 1918

Where was this shed?

After a while I wondered if I’d be able to find this shed, and here it is, courtesy of the City of Vancouver’s VanMap service.
Map 1 – Chinese Detention Shed location at the north end of Burrard Street, Vancouver. From the 1912 Goad’s Fire Insurance Map, City of Vancouver’s VanMap application
Map #2 – Chinese Detention Shed, 1912.  From the 1912 Goad’s Fire Insurance Map, City of Vancouver’s VanMap application

My thoughts

I was talking to my friend Kailena yesterday about what my life might have been like if I was around one hundred years ago. I said I’m not sure I would have survived it. This list of twelve names tells me that it didn’t matter when I immigrated, where I worked, what gender I was, if I was merchant class or peasant labourer – if I was Chinese and coming back to my home in Canada, I’d be cooling my heels in a detention shed.

For extra irony, the Chinese Detention Shed was located at the edge of Chinatown, so these eleven men and one woman could see and hear home, even if they weren’t allowed to step foot in it.
City of Vancouver Archives 153-2 – Chinese Detention Shed at Vancouver, 1890. Copyright: Public Domain. Available at


Update 5 Oct 2020

Ever since learning about the Chinese Detention Shed, I’ve kept my radar on the lookout for mention of it. I found it yesterday. It appears a shed was built before City Council approved it. My new theory now estimates the existence of the shed from 1888 to after 1921.

A small frame building has been built at the Depot for the accommodation of Chinamen landing by the CPR steamers… The erection of an immigrant shed has been under discussion by the City Council and it is possible one will be built before very long., Vancouver Daily World, Vancouver, British Columbia. 29 Sep 1888, page 4.

Lisa Rose Mar in her work Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era 1885-1945, wrote “…the Canadian government relied on the CPR for Vancouver’s Chinese detention shed until 1914 or 1915…” When was it closed? If I find an answer, I’ll update this post.

As well, if anyone needs some tips on navigating the amazing VanMap application, please leave a comment below.

Update 17 Oct 2020

The Chinese called it “The Pig House,” and described being “locked up like a pig in a cage.” See Righting Canada’s Wrongs: The Chinese Head Tax, by Arlene Chan, page 29. She includes a poem written on the wall.

Also, a huge thank you to reader C. Au whose map work pinpoints the location as being the current location of a vastly different type of accommodation: The Pacific Rim Hotel. I’ve stayed there. Now that is truly ironic.

Update 19 Nov 2020

This week I found my great-grandfather Yip Sang on the General Register of Chinese Immigration. I noted how the Chinese Immigration Branch first noted his arrival in the country (1881) and then kept careful notation of his movements and updated paperwork, from his first head tax certificate issued in 1890 to his replacement certificate in 1915. This register made me fully appreciate the bureaucracy involved in surveiling the Chinese, and how all-encompassing it was. With that new insight, I re-reviewed Yip’s 1914 CI9 (certificate to re-enter the country) and saw he arrived 16 Nov 1914 but the notation said, “Released Victoria Nov 20th/14.” Released. He was released. From where was he released?

It appears that Yip Sang, for all his leadership, connections, and status as a naturalized British subject, not to mention his work as a Chinese Immigration agent, was still subjected to the Chinese Immigration Act and spent four days in the Detention Shed. My cousin shared with me that our family called it gee doy lung, Toisan for the pig pens. 

Update 14 Oct 2022

In 1904, doctors performing medical inspections on the hundreds of Chinese immigrants requested a better building:

… I notice what you state with regards to lots for erection of a detention house. It is not the intention of the Department [of Chinese Immigration] to take this matter up at present.

Letter to “Doctor” from G.L. Milne, Esq., M.D., Medical Inspector, Victoria, BC dated 10 Oct 1904

Canada, Central registry of the Immigration Branch 1873-1968, Department of Immigration and Colonization, microfilm b1033, file no. 10, medical examinations of immigrants at Vancouver and Victoria 1904-39, letter from medical inspector to doctor re request for detention house dated 10 Oct 1904, British Columbia Archives : accessed 18 Aug 2022; citing RG76, RG10, NAC no. c10242, vols. 331-32, file 330483, ports 1-5.

15 thoughts on “The Chinese Detention Shed, Vancouver

  1. I can’t click Like on this. How appalling. I hope those people did eventually find a good life for themselves and their families. What a horrible start.

    1. I know, right? “LIKE” is such a limited word.

      When I was thinking about those people sitting in that shed and all the things they’d already endured to live in Canada, I knew they’d survive. It amazes me that nobody ever talked about this, like a jail sentence you had to pay for the privilege of re-entry. My grandparents grew up in that era. Once again, I am reminded of my ilfelong gratitude for what they endured so I could grow up a Canadian.

      Thank you very much for your thoughts, Val.

    1. WordPress definitely needs a better comment button!

      Thank you very much for your feedback, Ian. Sometimes I hesitate on hitting the PUBLISH button because the subject matter is as heartbreaking as it is unbelievable. And then I publish, because there is hope that we might learn from history.


  2. Incredible and horrifying find…my dad was just telling me about it today. He didn’t use the term detention shed but he did say that all Chinese had to be quarantined upon arrival to ensure they didn’t spread diseases. If it was in practice until 1921 then my grandfather must have been kept there at least twice. Do you happen to know the period of detention?
    Also, do you have any tips for trying to translate poor penmanship in some of these records?

    1. So sorry for the long delay in responding.

      Yes, this is as horrifying as it is enlightening. I so appreciate your dad’s perspective on this shed. It adds another nasty layer of insult (the assumption that Chinese were diseased as well as being undesirable). I have yet to come across a predetermined period of detention but I have seen periods as long as 16 days. Clearly, there was more going on to immigration than the process of verifying immigration papers.

      As for help reading handwriting… I encourage you to post in my private Facebook group Genealogy for Asian Canadians. I try to help people with handwritten transcriptions, and I’ve been practising my gravestone translation skills there too.

      Thanks for writing, Gina.

      1. Okay, more ironies. I have superimposed the archival map onto a current Google Map image to ascertain a more accurate location of the Chinese Detention Shed. It was located under what is now the Hotel Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel [5 Star]. Let me know how to post an image here or I can send it to you via email and you can post it.

  3. My father would have spent his quarantine time there when he immigrated in 1921. Years later, I would walk and drive past that very spot many, many times. Even more ironically, I have been on a cruise ship berthed just meters away. I may not have been in first class, but I would not have been in steerage neither.

    1. I’ve also walked along that pier and not known its history. The truth is that Vancouver’s Chinatown was concentrated and geographically not very large for all its historic importance.

      I only learned my two merchant great-grandfathers (Yip and Chu) lived 2 doors down from one another in 1921, both on E. Pender Street (or Dupont – can’t remember when the street name changed). That tells me the families knew one another very well, which is contrary to what I was told for years.

      1. Actually, taking a closer look at the CoV map, the location of the Detention Shed would have been on the lower level of what is now there which is the loading dock level for the Pan Pacific/Convention Centre East /Cruise Ship Terminal. That site would now be accessible on W Waterfront Road under Canada Place.

      2. Holy cow. Is that where it was? I have been there, many times. I’ve parked in those huge lots, stayed in that hotel and hotels nearby. Do you think the convention centre and hotel was built on the pre-existing structure of the immigration shed? Now I think about it – the shed being less a simple shed and much more a complex able to house hundreds of people for long periods of time – it makes sense to me the sub-structure (pilings, cement base, sewer lines, electricity lines, not to mention road and traffic) would be extensive and a city council might want to redevelop it instead of tearing it down. (I am absolutely theorizing here. I’d need to dig into the history of the Pan Pacific’s development to know.)


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