Interior Tour: Chinatown, Vancouver

When Eric and his siblings inherited a two-storey building in Vancouver's Chinatown, they set out to create a contemporary space reflective of their heritage. After several years of renovation, the 119-year-old building boasts a ground-floor cafe, where patrons can enjoy unique cocktails and gluten-free Asian-inspired dishes, as well as three bright rental units featuring Resource Furniture pieces to maximize the 440 square-foot floorplan.

Can you give us a little history of the building?

This two-storey building was built in 1904 in an Edwardian style. It was built when Vancouver was experiencing a great increase in population, during its economic expansion as a port city, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As a result of the city’s fast growth, this type of architectural building style was faster to construct, less ornate, and more economical to build than its Victorian-style predecessor.

My grandfather came to Canada, from China, in the late 1920s and worked as a labourer in the expanding wood processing and construction industry.  He managed to save up enough and purchase this property in the early 1950s and later sponsored my Grandmother and Father over to Vancouver from Guangdong, China. My family lived upstairs in the second-floor apartment, while the ground floor had 2 small studio-type live/work spaces. My Aunt recalls a Chinese tailor living with his wife and 4 children in one of the 500 square-foot ground-floor units, in the 1960s. He had his sewing machine set up against the front windows, where he had his tailoring business. Behind the curtain, was his family’s living space, which consisted of a small kitchen and bathroom at the back of the building. His 4 children slept on bunk beds next to the kitchen.

What was the main inspiration for the cafe?

My main inspiration for our cafe is the nostalgic cuisine from Hong Kong-style cafes in Vancouver which my siblings and I enjoyed when we were kids. Hong Kong cafes were very popular in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s; a place where a majority of the working class would go to enjoy their daily meals. These spaces offered a fusion of Western and Cantonese dishes, as Hong Kong was under British rule at the time. Rice dishes and other Cantonese noodle dishes were served alongside baked buns, custard tarts, sandwiches, and of course the quintessential Hong Kong cafe staple, milk tea. These cafes made their way to every major city where Chinese communities established themselves.The design of the ground floor of the building takes inspiration from several layers of Vancouver’s history. My goal was to use the Edwardian style of the original building as the foundation, overlaying it with the mid-century sentiment of the Hong Kong cafe, which established itself in the 1950s. The interior styling references popular mid-century decorative aesthetics and Chinese crafts during the time my Grandparents lived there.

... And for the rental units upstairs?

For the rental units, my inspiration was the rail-road apartment which held popularity in the early 1900s in port cities such as New York and San Francisco. These types of floor plans consisted of a series of narrow rooms all connected in a line, with doors, much like a passenger train car.  The current rental unit is made up of 4 small rooms, which have been amalgamated to create one 440-square-foot studio apartment. One terminus end of the apartment contains the original bathroom, and the rest of the space is made up of 2 original bedrooms and part of the back deck, which has been enclosed to extend the building out by 9 feet.The design pays tribute to the historical floor plan by assigning different purposes to the footprint of the original rooms. For example, one original bedroom now contains the kitchen area and the other original bedroom is now a dining area/work space, as well as the bedroom. The Penelope Dining unit from Resource Furniture was the perfect choice for this apartment, as its flexibility allows for numerous furniture configurations in a compact footprint.

How would you describe your interior style?

I would say my interior style is modern-classic. My background is in architecture, so I appreciate clean lines and the pure form of space, but I also like to keep original details such as moulding and shapes. In my own apartment, I chose to keep the original tongue-and-groove fir flooring which I had refinished and stained a traditional dark brown. My furniture and interior colour palette is very subtle, consisting of white, black, and chrome.

What is your favourite element of the rental unit?

The space is only 9.5' wide but the tall ceilings and skylights allow you to connect with the entirety of the apartment when you're in the space. The long, linear layout allows different parts of the apartment to be experienced separately much like different car types on a passenger train. My second favourite element has to be the original cast iron clawfoot bathtub. It was made in Toronto in the early 1900s and we had it refinished to be reinstalled in the original bathroom. It was so heavy that our contractor had to use a crane to get it up to the second floor before the new windows were installed!

What tips do you have for maximizing small spaces?

Think outside the box when it comes to maximizing spaces. We all have preconceived notions of how space should be. With a small space, you just have to get creative! Most of the time we don't even use all of the space we think we need, and if we do, we only use that space part of the time. Start to question how you're using the space: Can I combine two or more rooms in one? Can one piece of furniture serve different uses at different times of the day?Perhaps something as simple as a cutting board can give you extra counter space when you use it to cover the sink. Foldable hooks by the front entrance can offer the function of an impromptu coat closet for guests when you don't have room for a dedicated closet.