What It Was Like to Tour Vancouver in 1997 (According to ‘Lonely Planet’)

Want to see exactly how much Vancouver has changed over the last 20 years? Try exploring with just a two-decades-old travel book as your guide.

August 9, 2017

By Michael Hingston

The stereotypes about Vancouver are well known and, at this point, equally well worn. Weed. Rain. Yoga pants. These images are easy to digest, which is why they tend to hang around in the larger public imagination, often to the point of frustration for the locals. But when you look past the clichés, you’ll see that cities can change, and usually a lot faster than we think.

Consider, for a moment, the Vancouver of just 20 years ago. The year 1997 brought both proud memories (the debut of the Canucks’ orca logo) and darker ones (the RCMP’s aggressive use of pepper spray and strip searches on APEC protesters that led to a public inquiry) to Terminal City. And when you consider Vancouver as a whole in that 12-month snapshot, a slightly different kind of place emerges than the one we know today—especially if you’re also holding an old Lonely Planet guide from that same year. Which I am.

Travel guides are fascinating documents. They speak exclusively to, and are consumed exclusively by, outsiders to the place being discussed. The kinds of things a guide focuses on aren’t always of interest to the people who actually live there. That goes for the positives—“Its physical setting and features make it easily one of the most scenically attractive cities in Canada, if not the world,” no duh—and the negatives. “The only drawback is the rain, particularly in winter when it rarely stops.” The people at Lonely Planet have a clear audience in mind, and residents of the 604/778 are not included. And not only because the latter area code didn’t exist then.

Still, the Vancouver section of the 1997 Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit for Canada provides a clear, if incomplete, snapshot of a city that was in the middle of a drastic transition. Expo 86, now a decade in the rear-view, had brought enormous international attention to the city (soon followed by enormous international money). In 1997, the half-million residents of Vancouver proper were served by a single SkyTrain line. The place Douglas Coupland dubbed “City of Glass” contained a lot less of it back then—fewer glittering waterfront condos and a far more modest skyline. Dedicated downtown bike lanes were an ambitious goal, electric cars an outright fantasy. The average size of a yacht in False Creek was a category or two smaller.

Recently, I set out with a mind to try to bridge this gap between the present and the not-too-distant past. How, exactly, does the Vancouver of 2017 square with its mid-’90s self? Along the way I would also try to connect my own past and present, as a born-and-bred Vancouverite who’s spent the past decade in absentia, a province away. Back in 1997, I was 12 years old, safely nestled in the forests of North Vancouver, insulated from much of what was happening across the water. How much of the Vancouver of my youth remains—and how much would I even recognize in the first place?

Downtown Core

The question stands: how do you make a fresh start with an entire city? I decide to kick off alongside a boatload of people who are doing exactly this, and that means beginning at Canada Place, which was a big deal in ’97 but today feels dwarfed by the shinier Olympic-related developments next door. Here, I’m surrounded by tourists delightedly snapping photos, many of whom are catching their very first glimpses of Vancouver, as they’ve been ferried to its doorstep by a huge Disney cruise ship that is now choogling away in the harbour. The tourists are taking selfies with the 65-foot The Drop statue (built in 2009), with the North Shore mountains photobombing in the background. All things considered, not the worst first impression.

I take my book and head west, weaving along the side streets of Coal Harbour before arriving at Denman Street. The guide has promised me “a lively, pleasant” streetscape with “a good selection of eateries.” That’s no doubt true—but almost nothing suggested back in ’97 is still standing. No Cafe Slavia, no Bud’s Halibut and Chips, no Pepitas. One of the few places that have endured, however, is Great Wall Mongolian BBQ, near the foot of Denman, home to acclaimed “giant stir-fries” created “while you watch.” Turning onto Davie, I’m pleased to note that Lonely Planet was progressive enough to recommend gay clubs like the Royal Hotel and Denman Station (again, neither in operation today). But it does oddly leave out LGBT culture as one of the key appeals of the West End itself. C’mon, Lonely Planet. I know there weren’t rainbow crosswalks back in ’97, but still.

Canada Place (Photo: Denys Kuvaiev.)

There’s slightly more continuity with the past on Robson Street, which the guide describes as “an interesting area with a blend of many ethnic shops, designer clothing stores and restaurants.” It shouts out the stretch from Howe to Broughton in particular. Once colloquially known as Robsonstrasse, thanks to the neighbourhood’s outsized German population, the dominant culture on the street is now almost entirely Asian: once the domain of schnitzel, ramen now reigns supreme.

I walk east along Robson, then zigzag through some of the larger attractions, most of which are unchanged since ’97. The Vancouver Art Gallery is still there (albeit with tentative plans to relocate in the near future) and still easily findable, no matter where you are downtown—just listen for the novelty song about marijuana being sung into karaoke-quality speakers. Also intact is Alan Storey’s Broken Column, the 27-metre kinetic sculpture inside what is now the HSBC Building. Just before turning toward Gastown, I catch a glimpse of BC Place in the distance. Once a lovable marshmallow of a stadium, the inflatable roof has been replaced to more closely resemble some spiky super-race of spider-people.

It’s now approaching lunchtime, and I’ve already walked more than 10 kilometres. Gastown has options for hungry tourists, none more prominent than the Old Spaghetti Factory, which has been luring diners with its inexplicably popular sourdough bread for decades. But the guide’s restaurant recommendations for the area instead lead, rather smartly, with Brother’s Restaurant, which has monastic-themed decor, “and the staff are dressed in monks’ habits.” In a word: what? Is this the kind of big-city experience I was missing out on in my preteen years, marooned across the inlet? Obviously, Brother’s no longer exists; it is now a confusing combination of high-end boutique and brunch spot. That change feels of a piece with Gastown generally, as the neighbourhood has shifted from tourist trap to a web of expensive shops for the hip. Lonely Planet observes that Gastown used to be “a skid row,” but even by the ’90s, renovations had pushed the city’s “seedier characters a little further south.” In the end, I duck into a waterfront pub to eat—but not before making a mandatory stop at the steam clock. “You can see it work through the side panels,” enthuses the guide, “and will hear it toot every 15 minutes.” I wonder how many of the people taking pictures know that this ancient-looking clock was actually built in 1977 as a creative means of masking excess steam from a sidewalk vent. Oh well. It still toots with the best of ’em.

BC Place Stadium (Photo: Songquan Deng.)

Beyond Downtown

Feet rested and energy restored, I head south on Carrall until I come up against the Millennium Gate (whose existence the guide obviously predates). Lonely Planet has a decidedly mixed opinion of Vancouver’s Chinatown: on the one hand it’s “for the most part” genuine, while trade, it says, has slowed in recent years. “Much of the new population and investment has headed to Richmond. Now at night it’s a pretty quiet area.” Lonely Planet couldn’t have foreseen the influx of hip restaurants that now dot the area, but on this weekend afternoon, at least, things are fairly quiet on the streets. I drop by the Sam Kee, also known as the World’s Thinnest Office Building, whose bizarre six-foot depth—the result of a brutal, decades-old expropriation tactic by the city against its original owner—has been featured on Ripley’s Believe It or Not! The building is closed today, so I am unable to take the tour, which now costs $15. My personal verdict, however, remains unchanged: believe it.

Instead, I head down a block and into the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. As of 1997, it was apparently the world’s only full-scale classical garden found outside of China. According to the tour group I briefly shadowed, this distinction has to do with where the rocks are sourced from: namely, the bottom of Chinese lakes. The garden is laid out asymmetrically, with a variety of paths and corridors around the artificial lake and its many species of plant. Says Lonely Planet: “Its design is subtle but exquisite in execution and effect.” I couldn’t agree more. I intended to whip through in 15 minutes and end up staying the better part of an hour.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden (Photo: V.J. Matthew.)

Time, I’m realizing, has gotten away from me. It turns out that Vancouver is simply too large of a city to cover in a single day. That means there’s no way to get out to attractions like the Old Hastings Mill Store or VanDusen Botanical Garden. I also would’ve liked to compare the guide’s descriptions of Wreck Beach—“the best-known stretch of sand in the country even though most people have never seen it”—to the present day, especially given the recent outcry from nude patrons that they’re being outnumbered by fully clothed gawkers. Well, that’s one less gawker, anyway.

It’s time for tourist triage. Weighing my options, I decide to head over to Commercial Drive, home, then and now, to a “mix of artists, professionals and various alternative types.” Plus Italians. It’s with this demographic in mind that I walk past the former sites of greasy spoons (Hot Pepper Cafe) and left-wing coffee shops (La Quena) all the way to Joe’s Cafe, which has been a reliable source of gelato and Eurocentric sports programming for decades. To my eye, it hasn’t changed a bit, but I want to hear Tony Antunes’s thoughts on the matter. Tony, along with his brother, the café’s namesake, opened Joe’s in 1974, and I catch him in a spare moment between pulling espresso shots and taking out the recycling. Has Commercial changed much in the last 20 years? Sure, he allows. A bit. “Some good, some bad.” But that’s just the way it goes, he says. What matters is that his regulars, a mixture of undergrads and Italians, have remained the same. Now, if I’ll excuse him, Antunes says, gesturing. There’s a lineup of people in front of the gelato freezer that needs attending to.

Time for one last stop. Luckily, there are two final entries in the Lonely Planet book that I can’t resist looking into, and both are in the Mount Pleasant area. This part of Main Street has felt the creep of the young creative class even more strongly than Gastown has. I’ve got nothing against coffee, bicycles and beer, but their hegemonic rule leaves little room for oddities like the Museum of Exotic World, which is recommended in the guide but now long gone. Owned and operated for years by Harold Morgan and his wife, Barbara, the museum was a jam-packed, “stunningly colourful” collection of objects retrieved from all over the world. Plus, it was open to the public every day, charged no admission, and Harold offered personally guided tours. Now it’s gone, and that’s a shame.

Gastown Steam Clock (Photo: Sherss.)

But wait: it turns out that the Morgans’ collection hasn’t been dismantled, only moved down the block. After Harold’s death, about 15 years ago, Barbara put the Exotic World’s contents up for auction, where they were snapped up by local antique dealer Alexander Lamb, and then displayed (in part) in the back of his eponymous shop at Main and 16th. “It was kind of an impulsive thing,” Lamb says of the purchase. “[Exotic World] was a cool, strange neighbourhood institution. I thought it’d be fun to keep it going. There wasn’t anything of value; it was a kind of folk art.”

There’s another twist. Lamb says that, despite Lonely Planet’s earnest endorsement, the Exotic World collection wasn’t really as noteworthy as it appeared. Most of it, according to Lamb, consisted of framed exotic photographs that Harold claimed to have taken himself on his travels. In reality, if you looked closely enough, you could see they were actually clipped out of back issues of National Geographic.

The only place in the guide that piqued my interest as much as Exotic World is part of the B & B section. Among a bunch of ordinary recommendations is this memorable description of Paul’s Guest House, on West 14th Avenue: “Paul speaks 11 languages and that should cover most guests! Breakfast includes all the eggs you can eat.” It’s now approaching dinnertime, but I decide to drop by anyway. As I approach the front door of the Craftsman-style home, I see a couple sitting on the porch, enjoying a glass of wine. The man notices my guidebook right away and jumps to his feet. When I ask if Paul is around, he smiles and shakes his head.

Apparently, Paul died shortly after the ’97 Lonely Planet guide was published, and the couple who has lived here ever since inherited a steady stream of tourists, more often than not dragging  a copy of the same book I’ve been carrying around all day. I hadn’t stopped to consider the after-effects of a big-name guidebook recommendation and how long it might take to update incorrect information. In this case, it took a written letter to Lonely Planet headquarters—and even then, the tourists kept coming, albeit fewer each year.

In fact, the man says with wonder, it’s been years since anyone has shown up on their doorstep, asking for Paul. But on this early Sunday evening, if only for a few minutes, it feels like the ’90s all over again.


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