Canadian Genealogy · Canadian laws · Chinese Genealogy

True crime, the Wing Sang Co., and police records: A trip to the City of Vancouver Archives

This is the second in a series on Vancouver-area genealogy sites in spring 2022. If you’d like to see the first one, see A trip to the United Church of Canada Archives. In this post I tell you everything you need to know to plan a visit to the archives and then provide a mini-case study on what you can do with the records.

Logistics

Mapping and parking

The Vancouver Archives are located in gorgeous Vanier Park, Kitsilano, Vancouver, BC.

Kitsilano is a popular Vancouver area where parking is scarce and traffic is busy. If you can, I recommend you avoid driving and take transit. For bus and train information, see TransLink here.

The address for the Vancouver Archives is 1150 Chestnut Street, but be warned your mapping app will probably only be able to get you to the park entrance at Chestnut Street and Whyte Avenue. From there, proceed along Whyte by car or foot past the planetarium parking lot (the one with the big silver crab out front), past the Academy of Music on your right, the observatory on your left, and the next ultra-low rise building will be the archives. Keep your eyes open for the two small signs at the parking lot and ramp.

Vancouver Archives entryway (see map below for location). The building is downstairs. 20 May 2022. Vancouver, BC. Photo from author’s Instagram video reel.

If you are driving, there are two nearby parking lots. If you have a smartphone, I recommend getting the PaybyPhone app to manage your parking fees. The lot immediately adjacent to the archives is very expensive but the gravel lot across Whyte Ave. is a bit more reasonable. (in May 2022 I paid $2.95/hr for five hours). This second lot is popular with Vanier Park visitors so try to visit in the morning.

Path to City of Vancouver Archives entryway. 20 May 2022. Vancouver, BC. Photo from author’s Instagram video reel.

Hours and important details

The Vancouver Archives are open Monday-Friday, 1000 hrs – 1700 hrs, excepting normal holidays. Nevertheless, I recommend any researcher, in town or out of town, to confirm the archives are open before planning a trip. Here is the contact page. (We live in unpredictable times. Who knows? There might be a renovation the week you’re going.) They will accept retrieval requests until fifteen minutes before closing time. Just outside the archives are washrooms, free lockers for day use (tokens are beside the sign-in book), and a sunny seating area.

Vancouver Archives foyer, lockers, and entryway. 20 May 2022. Vancouver, BC. Photo by author. ©Past-Presence.com. All rights reserved.

When I visited, full covid protocols were in place. Patrons were asked to wear a mask at all times, and each researcher was given a table for their exclusive use. The archivists were constantly disinfecting surfaces. I tried to minimize the things I needed to touch. Also, since I was handling fragile, heavy, large books, I was loaned freshly laundered cotton gloves for my hands and metal frames to hold the books. A researcher may view one box, folder, or book at a time. Researchers are permitted to take photos for personal research and as usual, no pens are allowed. In the photo below you can see the two finding aids I was consulting (blue binders), my laptop with a fresh Evernote note, my gloves, the two metal frames to gently hold the book, and one of the massive volumes I reviewed.

My working space (from left): finding aid, request slips, computer, finding aid, two metal frames, and a police register. 20 May 2022. Vancouver, BC. Photo by author. ©Past-Presence.com. All rights reserved.

Food: coffee and snacks

Researching is hungry work! There is no coffee shop in Vanier Park but there are food and coffee options at the corner of Cornwall and Cypress, a fifteen minute walk from the archives. Here’s a map of the area.

Initially, I planned to get a coffee and snack at Starbucks but then spotted Siegel’s Bagels nearby. Why settle for an egg wrap when you can get an in-house made onion bagel laden with smoked meat and a pickle? You can also hop back in your car and drive around Kits, famously heaving with delicious things to eat and drink.

Getting ready for your archive visit

Search online before you go

Use the excellent Vancouver Archives database search to get familiar with the collection before you visit. Browse the collection using the categories at left or use the search box at the top.

Vancouver Archives search our holdings section. (Click on the image to see it larger.)

Always contact the archives before you visit. Let them know what you want to see. The fonds might be on the shelves in the back or they might be in offsite storage. If they are in offsite storage, the retrieval time could be weeks, not hours.

This is a true story: when my Chinese Research Methods class visited the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, our instructor was expecting to show us the materials he’d been discussing. We were disappointed to learn those same fonds had been moved offsite and would be at least a two-week wait to get back. I wasn’t in SLC that long and missed out.

Once you’re there

Once you’re on site, my best tip for getting the most out of an archives visit is asking for a quick tour. The archivist will ask what area, subject, or time frame you’re researching and then point out the resources you’re likely to want. They will also show you how to fill out a record retrieval slip and while I am an experienced researcher, I always appreciate the reminders.

Every archive follows archival best practises, which means the fonds are kept in the order of the collection as it was donated. For example, if I were to donate my collected documents to an archive, they would be kept together as the “Linda Yip fonds,” even if there was a pre-existing Yip family collection and it made more sense post-donation to re-organize them. The archives might then assign my fonds a code related to the overall Yip family collection and it’s the codes you want to know. A few minutes invested will save hours of confusion.

The prisoner record books, 1897-1917

I had a specific collection in mind.

I wanted to see the Vancouver Police Department’s prisoner’s record books, 1897-1917. I have a theory that with the hundreds of discriminatory laws on the books during this period, it would have been near-impossible to stay on the right side of the law if you were Chinese. There is research behind this theory: see below for my ideas about the Cumyow family. I wanted to see if i) Chinese were over-represented in the court systems; and ii) if the police records might prove to be an unintentionally rich genealogical source.

Privacy laws restrict researcher access to records less than a century old, which meant I could browse records for 1897-1922. Theoretically it’s also possible to see records 1923-present day with a Freedom of Information Act request. See References for details.

Prisoner’s record book, 1897-1905, Vancouver Archives. (Click on image to see larger.)

There were four volumes of prisoner record books, each with hundreds of pages. I had time to go through three of the four: 1897-1905, 1898-1900, and 1905-1907.

Prisoner’s record book, 1905-07, 20 May 2022. Vancouver Archives. Photo by the author. I included a photo of my hand for scale. ©Past-Presence.com. All rights reserved.
Prisoner’s record book with handwritten index included. 20 May 2022. Vancouver Archives. Photo by the author. ©Past-Presence.com. All rights reserved.

The prisoner record books were remarkable: like a cross between a scrapbook and a rap sheet. Each page had two or three black and white photos pasted vertically up the side. The earliest photos – 1897 era – are less mugshots and more like “snapshot of me in front of police HQ.” Flash photography had been around for a decade by 1897 but the photographer appeared to prefer natural light as many of the early photos were taken outdoors. Most photos had at least brief descriptions: name and type of crime.

There are quite a few Chinese men in these files. Many are called Ah Sing or Shing, and I wonder if the police knew they were being had? Sing is Chinese for name. For example, “Shing, Age 20, 5 10 1/2 tall, Sallow comp, black hair and eyes, Convicted on Jan 27th 1900 of theft of chickens and sentenced to 6 months.” Looking at his face, I wonder what I see there. Despair? Hunger? Resignation? Harsh times. It made me think of Jean Valjean.

My life was a war that could never be won

They gave me a number and murdered Valjean

When they chained me and left me for dead

Just for stealing a mouthful of bread.

Valjean’s Soliloquy, Les Misérables

There were a number of [white] women on the books, generally arrested for sex work. For example, “Rosie [surname withheld], Prostitute. Native of Paris France. Age 19. Height 5’3″ Dark comp. Brown eyes. black hair. Arrested Mar 29th 1900, theft of $60 from John Russell at the Donegal Hotel. Committed for trial.” Reading through, I noticed the sex workers often claimed France as their birthplace. Was that true or was it for cachet? I admit I laughed when reading the name of Rosie’s john, John. Did she really steal from him or did he perhaps refuse to settle his bill?

Over time, the police administrators grew more detailed. By 1905, the photos were reduced to mugshots and the descriptions became case summaries, like legal diaries of arrests, charges, and convictions. I was fascinated by the rap sheet for Ed Cumyow spanning the years 1905-09. If you don’t recognize the name, the Cumyows were a respectable and prominent Chinese family whose most famous member was Won Alexander Cumyow. (Avid readers might recognize this surname from my story about Aileen Cumyow’s life here.) The Cumyows spent their lives working for the courts. I am working on an in-depth study of this family and one of the peculiarities of their history is the unusually high number of police case files for Alexander, brother Edward, sons Fred and Richard. Why would a respectable Chinese family, who were well acquainted with the law, so often run afoul of it? Is there a connection between their prominence, race, and the atmosphere of the time?

Gew Gar Geck: the burglar and the Wing Sang Company

Gew Gar Gick, Prisoners’ record books abt. 1899, Vancouver, B.C., City of Vancouver Archives, p. 27.

In the Prisoners Record Book (1898-1900), I found an entry that took my breath away: “Gew Gar Gick, 37 years old, A noted burglar, Burglarized Wing Sang store Nov 1897. Was arrested in the act of burglarizing shop of Phoenix & Macklin Jan 13 1899. Committed for trial.” The photo shows a stocky man seated on a wooden chair in a courtyard with high wooden walls. His expression is confident and unrepentant. Wing Sang was the name of my great-grandfather Yip Sang’s main business and my research shows it was the target of burglary at least twice: in 1897 and 1901. I have a photo of the business from that era.

photo, Wing Sang & Co, Yip Sang family
Yip Sang with five adult men and six children in front of Wing Sang & Co, 29 Dupont Street, between 1889-1901. © Yip Family Archives. All rights reserved.

I checked for newspaper articles. From The Vancouver Daily World, 11 Oct 1897, I found a description of the crime. The name of the burglar was given as Jew Dar Deick, a fair approximation for Gew Gar Gick. There is a discrepancy: the police record said Gew was arrested in November 1897, a month later than the article showed the robbery to have occurred. It is possible the police scribe was belatedly entering Gew’s name into the books in 1899 and was mistaken about the original date. Even for the period, the evidence is circumstantial. Gew appears to have been arrested because he’d recently been released from prison, had money, and was not wearing a hat. (The police needed a Detective Murdoch to match the boot prints!)

“A burglar caught, “ Daily World, 11 Oct 1897. (Click on image to see it larger.)

The reporter described the burglar’s modus operandi (MO) as using “an augur to bore a hole in the window frame” but probably meant an auger like this one.

Pearson Scott Foresman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Gew chose trial by judge and jury at the assizes. (An assize is a periodic, travelling court.) It seems unlikely he would be able to access bail and so it’s possible he waited it out in jail.

Like the earlier article, Gew Gar Gick’s name was creatively romanized, this time as Gew Goi Gich.

“Criminal cases,” Daily World, 19 Oct 1897. (Click on image to see it larger.)

Gew had to wait for his day in court. In November his trial was remanded (postponed) to the “next assizes.” Again, note the different spelling: Gew Gar Geck.

“Regina vs. Gew Gar Geck,” Daily World, 9 Nov 1897. (Click on image to see it larger.)

I searched for the “next assizes.” They appeared to occur twice annually, in spring and fall. Gew had his court date on Tuesday, May 17, 1898. It’s a fascinating case and I learned my great-grandfather took the stand to testify.

Part one.
“Regina vs. Gew Gar Geck,” 18 May 1898, Daily News Advertiser (Click on image to see it larger.)

Unfortunately for Yip and the Wing Sang Company, Gew was freed after possibly having spent seven months in jail awaiting trial. He was not free for long.

Six months later in Nov 1898, the “Auger Man” struck again, this time at tobacconists Phoenix & Macklin. I won’t share all the articles here but I will let you know Gew again opted for trial by judge and jury and skillfully argued in his own defence. The court recessed while the jury deliberated. The jury decided Gew was guilty of attempted shop-breaking. In Apr 1889, he was sentenced to three and a half years, presumably back at his old home, the BC Penitentiary.

Afterword

I was following a hunch when I added the Vancouver Archives to my Asana Research To Do list back in Sep 2021. (If you haven’t heard about using Asana for genealogy, see my post here.) I didn’t know what they contained but I had a feeling they might be worth the investment of precious onsite research hours. The prisoner record books were all that I hoped and more. I had been testing a theory and came away with unexpected finds for not one but two research lines: my own family and the Cumyows. I had no idea such a good story would result.

In this post I share the results of just one of the hundreds of biographies available in the Prisoner Record Books. Who knows how many more there are waiting to be found?

For those curious about opium: it was legal to buy, import, sell and use until 1908.

Next week: Ocean View Burial Park

Thank yous

Thanks this week go out to Jim Wolf, who first suggested the Vancouver Archives, and to Kira Baker, archivist extraordinaire. And as always, thank you to you, my dear readers, for following along with me as I make my discoveries. Your comments and feedback are important. What did you think about the prisoner’s record books?

References

Newspaper articles (date order)

“A burglar caught,” [Vancouver] Daily World, 11 Oct 1897, pg. 5, col. 3, Vancouver, British Columbia, [digital images], Newspapers.com (accessed 7 Jun 2022).

“The Royal City,” [subtitled] “Criminal cases,” [Vancouver] Daily World, 19 Oct 1897, pg. 5, col. 3, Vancouver, British Columbia, [digital images], Newspapers.com (accessed 7 Jun 2022).

“Regina vs. Gew Gar Geck” [Vancouver] Daily World, 9 Nov 1897, pg. 4, Vancouver, British Columbia, [digital images], Newspapers.com (accessed 7 Jun 2022).

“Spring assizes,” [subtitled] “Regina vs. Gew Gar Geck,” [Vancouver] Daily News-Advertiser, 18 May 1898, pg. 5, cols. 1-2, Vancouver, British Columbia, [digital images], Newspapers.com (accessed 10 Jun 2022).

“Still at it: the Auger Man makes another haul – his penchant for tobacco unabated” [Vancouver] Daily World, 18 Nov 1898, pg. 3, col. 1, Vancouver, British Columbia, [digital images], Newspapers.com (accessed 10 Jun 2022).

“Crimes of justice – crimes brought home to two bad men,” [subtitled] “The heathen Chinee,” The [Vancouver] Province, 19 Apr 1889, pg. 1, cols. 4-5, Vancouver, British Columbia, [digital images], Newspapers.com (accessed 7 Jun 2022).

Archives and other references

“Assize definition,” 2022, [online dictionary], Merriam-Webster (accessed 10 Jun 2022).

“Auger 3,” 23 January 2021, at 12:27, [wiki], images of augers, Wikipedia Commons (accessed 10 Jun 2022).

British Columbia, Vancouver Police Department, Vancouver, “Series S202 – Prisoners’ record books,” (1897-1905), [bound volume], reference VPD-S202, container: box 774-D-03, City of Vancouver Archives: accessed 20 May 2022. About copyright: the Vancouver Archives’s policy is to provide, where possible, unrestricted access to its holdings for the purpose of learning about our shared history, provided such sharing is properly cited.

_____ (1898-1900), [bound volume], reference VPD-S202, container: box 774-H-01, entry for Gew Gar Gick, p. 27, City of Vancouver Archives: accessed 20 May 2022.

____ (1898-1900), [bound volume], reference VPD-S202, container: box 774-H-01, entry for Rosie [surname withheld], p. 98, City of Vancouver Archives: accessed 20 May 2022.

____ (1898-1900), [bound volume], reference VPD-S202, container: box 774-H-01, entry for Shing [no other names], p. 86, City of Vancouver Archives: accessed 20 May 2022.

_____ (1905-07), [bound volume], reference VPD-S202, container: box 076-C-02, entry for Ed Cumyow, pg. 389, City of Vancouver Archives: accessed 20 May 2022.

City of Vancouver Archives, 2022, [website], City of Vancouver Archives, (accessed 7 Jun 2022).

“Freedom of information requests and released information,” 2022, [website], forms and instructions for filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the City of Vancouver, City of Vancouver (accessed 9 Jun 2022).

History of wrongs towards B.C.’s Chinese Canadians, [no date], [website], Province of British Columbia, (accessed 7 Jun 2022). Prior to its apology in 2014, the government of B.C. assembled the discriminatory laws the province had both considered and assented in Discriminatory Legislation in British Columbia 1872‐1948.

“William Murdoch,” [undated], [wiki], Canada’s answer to Elon Musk and Sherlock Holmes combined, this long-running series featured Canadian historical events and people, Murdoch Mysteries Fandom (accessed 10 Jun 2022).

Gaëlle Nicolussi, “Opioids and Opioid Use in Canada – a complex history,” 2018, a brief history of opioid use in Canada, HeretoHelp (accessed 10 Jun 2022).

Valjean’s soliloquy, Songwriters: Alain Albert Boublil / Claude Michel Schonberg / Herbert Kretzmer / Jean Marc Natel, LyricFind, (accessed 7 Jun 2022).

7 thoughts on “True crime, the Wing Sang Co., and police records: A trip to the City of Vancouver Archives

  1. I’ve been meaning to visit the Vancouver Archives for years – really must get there! I’m also helping a patron right now with their family history, based in Vancouver and have a feeling the Archives might prove helpful to them to. It will be great to point them to this post so they know what to expect for their visit 🙂

    1. As ever, thank you for reading me.

      I think when we live close to archives we think, “Oh, I’ll do that soon,” and subsequently never get around to it. There’s no urgency. I hadn’t prioritized in-person archive visits myself in dozens of BC trips. It was covid’s enforced isolation that had me starved for in-person archival research.

      I have other tips for you and your patron. Thanks to reader CL, try:

      – Business License Registers which list local businesses by category (by name, address, sometimes the proprietor’s name, and date of payment)
      – Real Property Tax Registers (which include the annual assessed value, and mention changes in property ownership)
      – building permits
      – water connection permits
      – fire insurance maps
      – Zoning Board of Appeals minutes
      – yearbooks
      – class photos

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