Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Vancouver Noir 1930-1960

review by Heidi Greco

Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960
Diane Purvey and John Belshaw
Anvil Press

A first glance at a copy of Vancouver Noir might lead you to expect it to be a book of photographs. And it is. Only it’s a whole lot more than a coffee table book.

The black and white cover shows a ’30s vintage car being pulled on chains up and out of a watery grave. God knows who or what might be inside. As a cover, the image is brilliant, luring potential readers with the promise of murky secrets revealed. And the secrets contained are many – the result of a vast amount of research by Diane Purvey and John Belshaw. Both are affiliated with universities – Purvey with Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, Belshaw with Langara in Vancouver. Each of them has an impressive list of publishing credits and the two of them have worked together before, notably on a 2009 title from Anvil Press, Public Mourning: The Rise of the Public Shrine in BC. To say that their research appears to be thorough would be an understatement. The book’s bibliography runs six pages; endnotes – and in a compressed font at that – extend for a full 13.

Yet, despite their extensive qualifications as members of academe, their account of these three pivotal decades in Vancouver is anything but dry or stodgy. In part, it’s designer Derek von Essen’s artful layout that draws one in. He’s incorporated well over 100 photos and maps into the text. But if the photos are the hook, the text is the meat. This marriage of image and text is most appropriate, especially when we stop to consider what Noir is all about. Most of us probably link the term most closely to film, those black and white classics, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, The Maltese Falcon. Yet the authors expand on this, proposing that Vancouver went through a phase when the values of Noir were embodied in the very growth and development of the burgeoning city.

Appropriately, they employ the Speed Graphic camera as the primary vehicle for their argument. Light enough to be portable, yet solid enough for an able photographer to document events, it served as the press camera of its day. With its three viewfinders, it allowed the shooter to select the most appropriate point of view for confirming what the photo would contain. The Speed Graphic’s back panel opened to reveal a screen-like square on which the photographer could check the image’s composition. Because this view corresponded to what the lens saw, the image revealed was upside-down and reversed horizontally, left to right. The idea of a camera with three viewfinders as a guiding metaphor for this book is apt, considering the many new points of view on Vancouver’s history which it presents.

An example of one such distinctive point of view is embodied in a map on page 34. Not the usual representation of the city, it looks South from Burrard Inlet, with Chinatown, Strathcona and the old Central School districts in the foreground. The map’s compass rose orients South at its top, with West on the right and East on the left – the same upside-down and horizontally-inverted image in which the camera ‘sees’ the world. Appropriately, van Essen has placed this map directly above a section header called “Reimagining Vancouver”.

Most of the book’s photos are from police or newspaper files. Aside from depicting street scenes or political figures of the day, many provide a sometimes-gory look at car crashes or streetcar incidents or even murders. But if this book is beginning to sound like mere titillation, nothing could be further from the case.

The first chapter could stand alone as a one-of-a-kind history of the city. Unlike the ‘usual’ portrayal of a city’s growth, Purvey and Belshaw offer remarkable insights into the chasmic divisions we still see in some of today’s Vancouver with its East/West mentality. The Downtown Eastside, with its all-too-well-known Skid Road, seems to have been an actual construct – an area deliberately set apart from the upper crust (read: white) inhabitants of the city’s west side. This appears to be an outgrowth of racist attitudes and policies that fed on the concept of a ‘Yellow Peril’ during the first half of the 20th century. And it wasn’t only Chinese who were discriminated against as threats to the white population, though for a long while they seemed to bear the brunt of the abuse.

Prostitution has long been one of the Eastside’s afflictions. During the ’30s it provided fuel for a series of race-based confrontations between police and Chinese restaurateurs. The practice targeted by then-Chief Constable Foster was the “…use of white waitresses” in Chinatown restaurants. “The target may have been prostitution, not Chinatown waitresses, but increasingly middle-class reformers could not make this sort of distinction. In their failure, [Mayor Gerry Gratton] McGeer and Foster not only reinforced the prejudicial image of vice-ridden Chinatown and morally bankrupt, sexually predacious Chinese males, they effectively mined and paraded the Noir image of the woman of dubious morals. The Yellow Peril was invoked, not for the first time in Vancouver’s history: white women were prey to the cold-blooded sexual appetites of the Asians. Inter-racial sex – long a source of visceral fear in a white community weaned on Social Darwinism, eugenics, and straight-ahead racism – resonated with the locals. When Foster found his efforts frustrated by the courts, he turned to the City’s Licence Inspector, H.A. Urquhart, a like-minded bureaucrat who could close down offending restaurants. And offence came cheap: ‘loose conduct’ included ‘a white waitress sitting down with a Chinese,’ which was thought to be a sure sign that the sale of sex was being negotiated.”

Yet any treatment of Noir would be incomplete if it only treated the sordid and criminal elements. The chapter on Glamour reminds us of the many stars who passed through the city, the vibrant nightclub and music scenes for which Vancouver was so well-known.

Glossy, with plenty to gawk at, Vancouver Noir provides more than mere glitz. The black-and-white vision of history it presents is one that’s well worth investigating. I look forward to the next exploration into the past this team of researchers embarks upon.

Heidi Greco’s most recent book is Shrinking Violets (2011), from Toronto’s Quattro Books.