Archive for October, 2008

Mongolian connection

October 31, 2008
Immigrant Barsa Amarsanaa tells his story
Janet Nicol

A small group of people of Mongolian origin meet at the top of Grouse Mountain to celebrate their national holiday every summer, and Barsa Amarsanaa, a college student and hotel employee, is one of them.

He has been attending this annual festival since he immigrated to Vancouver with his mother two years ago. He says if you join the festivities, expect to see them participating in Mongolian “manly sports” — archery and wrestling.

In San Francisco, the city with the largest Mongolian community on the continent, Amarsanaa says they also perform a third sport — horse racing. “The parents race with a child on their back,” he explains with a twinkle in his eye.

Horse racing or not, Amarsanaa says Canadians are curious about his homeland, known as the land of the blue skies. “They think it’s exotic, and they’re right,” he says.

Many also believe Mongolians speak Chinese, so he quickly corrects them on that point. “Mongolians speak Mongolian,” he says proudly.

Amarsanaa comes from the capital city of Ulan Bator, which he says has many modern buildings, busy industry and fashionable people. Dark-haired and handsome himself, Amarsanaa wears a small diamond stud in his left ear.

The capital is a popular tourist destination, he adds, and coming to Canada interrupted his plans with three friends to write a travellers’ guidebook to the city.

Amarsanaa regrets the book never got to print, and it’s not the only thing he sacrificed for Canada. Amarsanaa says he left a lot back in Mongolia — including his girlfriend, grandparents and friends. And the cultural adjustment and language barrier weren’t easy either.
But “life is an exchange,” he says, explaining you lose one thing and gain another. His cell phone suddenly chimes and he takes a look at the call display and turns it off.

Since coming to Canada, Amarsanaa, who lives in Yaletown, has made new friends at school and work. And when Amarsanaa set up a website called Mongolians in Vancouver ( last year, he started to feel even more connected. The website includes lots of tips on how to adapt to Canadian life.

“My first impression of Canada was really good,” he says. Soon after arriving, he found himself taking a three month work-study course at Immigrant Services Society. “You can study and get paid at the same time,” he said, praising the program. “And then they help you look for full-time work.”

Amarsanaa has worked in a major downtown hotel for a year now. “We Mongolians will do many things,” he says. “I am the front desk clerk, bell hop, waiter and I even cook.”  

Now Amarsanaa, who originally wanted a career in software engineering, thinks he will pursue hotel management — something he had never planned.  

“I am living by the wind of life,” he says.

Reprinted from Canadian Immigrant magazine, November 2008

When Vancouver was a town…

October 31, 2008
True characters
Janet Nicol
Vancouver Courier
Long before it came a global celebrity stopover, Vancouver was a town filled with a now forgotten legion of eccentrics
CREDIT: Photo-Dan Toulgoet
Long before it came a global celebrity stopover, Vancouver was a town filled with a now forgotten legion of eccentrics
Street photographer Foncie Pulice, seen here on Granville Street in 1970, was a ubiquitous presence in the downtown core.
CREDIT: Photo courtesy Deni Eagland/Vancouver Sun files
Street photographer Foncie Pulice, seen here on Granville Street in 1970, was a ubiquitous presence in the downtown core.
Local historian John Atkin remembers the 'old guys' conversations at the venerable Ovaltine Caf? on East Hastings Street.
CREDIT: Photo-Dan Toulgoet
Local historian John Atkin remembers the ‘old guys’ conversations at the venerable Ovaltine Caf? on East Hastings Street.
William Konyt, owner of Hunky Bill's once located on Denman Street, was often greeted by passersby in the mid-'90s.
CREDIT: File photo-Dan Toulgoet
William Konyt, owner of Hunky Bill’s once located on Denman Street, was often greeted by passersby in the mid-’90s.

A man dressed as a giant peanut tap dances for tourists. A town fool is paid to attend demonstrations. And an elderly woman holds birthday parties for people with the same first name.

This isn’t a new reality show. This was Vancouver in the days before the overused label “world class city” became its unofficial motto.

Pre-Expo 86, Vancouver felt more like a small town than a city, complete with the unique charm of a smaller population and its array of eccentric but loveable characters. The steep copper-roofed Hotel Vancouver defined the skyline in a city of under 400,000 people in the early 1960s-about 200,000 fewer than today. And a forest of high-rise rental apartments emerged in the West End, replacing blocks of houses dating back to the city’s origins. Kitsilano’s Fourth Avenue had transformed into a hippie haven, the Naam restaurant now the only reminder. Residents still ventured to Hastings and Abbott streets, despite the area’s decline, to shop at Woodward’s department store, with its popular food floor in the basement and home delivery service.

Today, the Westin Bayshore is hidden among a community of condo-dwellers in Coal Harbour, but the four-star hotel once dominated the shoreline by Stanley Park. Originally called the Bayshore Inn, the hotel represented the city’s glamorous side, with its harbour views, outdoor pool and celebrity guests, including poet Leonard Cohen and reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes.

On the city’s flip side were the rows of brick warehouses and storage lockers east of Granville Street in Yaletown, now re-developed into anonymous high-rise steel and glass condos. People were rumoured to lurk around the area then, engaging in forbidden activities and frequenting the scandal-ridden Penthouse night club on the district’s edge.

False Creek and Fairview Slopes also became residential areas in the 1970s, a few decades after most of the saw mills and ship yards moved out. And along the creek’s old industrial northern shoreline, Expo ’86 showcased Vancouver to the world.

In the world fair’s aftermath, Vancouver gained distinctive buildings, a Sky Train, and more people from a greater number of countries. But it also lost its small town charm.

An appealing trait of Vancouver’s less urbanized era was the number of eccentrics-people with an unusual or odd personality-who were well known to locals. They were “public characters” as Jane Jacobs, a community activist and writer, called these standout personalities. Familiar to many, these public characters were a shared topic of conversation among residents and gave a flavour and identity to the community.

Bruce Macdonald, a local historian and author of Vancouver: A Visual History, remembers many characters from the ’60s to the early ’80s. A resident of the city’s East Side near Commercial Drive, Macdonald recalls Evelyn Harris as one of many well-known residents. “Everyone on ‘the Drive’ knew her,” he says of Harris, the life-long dancer who lived on her own and never married.

An outgoing and lively woman, Harris regularly chatted with people as she walked along the Drive, Macdonald remembers. “She was like a kid.”

“She went out every day,” Macdonald says of the tiny woman, who stood about four-foot eight and weighed 90 pounds.

In 1919, when she turned five her family moved into a two-and-a-half storey wooden frame house on Lakewood Drive that had a gabled roof and full porch. She continued to live there after her parents died, and in 1989 the city gave her a heritage award for owning the least altered heritage home in the city. Her home caught the attention of heritage buffs in the city-as did Evelyn herself.

“She liked to collect historians,” says Macdonald, who was a frequent visitor to Harris’s Lakewood Drive house.

Other local history buffs, including Robin Ward and Michael Kluckner, also gathered in Harris’s front room. They came to admire the home’s museum-like interior with its original fixtures and finely polished fir paneled walls. Kluckner used his artistic skills to paint Harris’s stove in a decorative style, Macdonald recalls.

Harris also started a club. Anyone with the first name of Evelyn met once a month to celebrate her birthday. The club reached 40 members at its peak in the 1990s as Harris sailed through her 80s.
Her death in 2002 left folks like Macdonald sad but the fate of her house was also cause for mourning. Harris’s brother inherited the home but later sold it. Subsequent owners eventually made renovations, altering the home’s original appearance Harris had so lovingly maintained.

Harris wasn’t the only affable standout on the Drive.

Long before coffee behemoth Starbucks spread its tentacles across the city, Macdonald remembers the popularity of Joe’s Café, with its mix of clientele converging at its Commercial Drive location. “It was one of the biggest hangouts on the Drive,” he says of the café and billiards place that opened in 1975. Owner Joe Antunes was an equally fascinating character Macdonald got to know.

“He is a shy owner,” Macdonald says, but “everyone knows him.” A former bullfighter from Portugal, Antunes has always been a “silent” presence while he works the evening shift. Macdonald thinks Antunes was misunderstood when a protest by lesbians in 1990 led to a boycott of his café and the clientele changed and diminished.

“He gave financial support to a gay Olympic baseball team,” Macdonald points out.

It wasn’t only the East Side that had its personalities. Gastown had its own self-appointed mayor, “Ace” Aasen. He wore a tattered top hat and carried a dandy’s walking cane. Aasen could often be found in bars around Gastown in the 1970s, waxing poetic on the world’s problems. “He drank a lot but wasn’t drunk. He was interesting to talk to,” Macdonald says. Aasen apparently caught the ear of a UBC student, who wrote about him in the Ubyssey newspaper in 1975.

And then, of course, there was Mr. Peanut, aka Vincent Trasov. A local artist, Trasov dressed as a giant papier maché peanut, with white gloves, spats, a monocle, leotards and tap shoes. He ran for mayor in 1974, stealing the show with his satirical campaign to “elect a nut for mayor.”

Art Phillips (former B.C. finance minister Carole Taylor’s husband) was declared the winner on election day, but Mr. Peanut came in a respectable fourth with 2,685 votes.

Trasov now lives on Vancouver Island but he has not been forgotten. In fact, the City of Vancouver presented him with the Mayor’s Arts Award this past June. Hosted by Mayor Sam Sullivan, Trasov was honoured for his body of work including the Mr. Peanut Campaign of 1974, which Sullivan called “a landmark conceptual performance art piece.”

Macdonald also remembers Joachim “Kim” Foikis, the city’s self-styled town fool who enjoyed skewering the high and mighty. He dressed in a red and blue court jester’s outfit with a dunce cap of horns and bells and strolled around the city, financed by a $3,500 Canada Council grant he received in 1968. The grant helped pay his bills, in lieu of his holding down a “real” job-a fact that didn’t go over too well with Canada’s more conservative taxpayers at the time. Foikis showed up at anti-war demonstrations, warning of impending nuclear destruction. His court jester antics were so successful that he was even profiled in the New York Times.

Vancouver’s fool also gave rides in the downtown area to anyone who asked in his wooden wagon, pulled by two donkeys named Peter and Pan. Foikis “retired” to a Gulf island in 1970 and died in June 2007 in Victoria. He was 71.

A character who arrived on the public scene with an animal as companion, was “Eric.” He is remembered by Ned Jacobs, a community activist, musician and part-time grounds keeper at Queen Elizabeth Park. He’s also the son of Jane Jacobs, whose ideas about community involvement he continues to uphold since her death in 2006.

Jacobs says Eric would show up at the plaza by the floral conservatory with his parrot “Boss” and offer the loan of the bird to tourists. For a dollar, Eric would take a picture of Boss perched on the shoulder or hand of an agreeable customer. Eric’s livelihood depended on the good humor of his parrot, Jacobs observes. “Eric knew the parrot was boss.”

At first Eric wasn’t very popular among the conservatory staff, Jacobs remembers, but eventually he was left alone and even became helpful. A rash of thefts among tourists occurred at the plaza, Jacobs explains. Eric noticed one of the pickpockets would distract a tourist, while his partner in crime “flipped” the victim’s wallet.

“Eric spotted this and told a staff member who called the police,” Jacob says. “Once the police came, the ring was gone.”

Jacobs came to Vancouver from Toronto as a young man in the ’70s and remembers meeting a lot of people while taking the bus. “An old timer would talk to you,” Jacobs recalls. “He could be a logger or a miner, and he was friendly and open. There was a stronger connection between the city and rural areas… Many people had worked in the bush or small towns and brought with them the small town casual friendliness where you pass someone on the street and say hi. This affected the city as a whole.”

When John Atkin, a local historian and Strathcona resident, came to Vancouver in the 1970s, he liked to think and read over coffee and pie at the vintage Ovaltine Café on East Hastings Street. This was “back when I had time,” he says. Atkin remembers “the old guys” who came in the café after going to the horse races at Hastings Park.

“They would come down along the Hastings Street bus line,” he remembers. “They would take over the counter,” Atkin says, “and talk about horses.”

“Those guys are gone now. There are a few old guys who come in-but not the ‘horse guys.'”
The Ovaltine Café, more recently featured on the CBC television show Da Vinci’s Inquest, opened in 1943, and continues to maintain its coffee counters, booths, mirrors and varnished woodwork.

Atkin remembers two older male servers. “They wore grey waiter shirts with Ovaltine Café embroidered over their pocket,” Atkin says, “and they knew all the regulars. They had conversations with everybody.”
But the place lost its spark when the two men left, Atkin says. It seems some old-timers are just irreplaceable. A ubiquitous presence in the downtown core was street photographer Foncie Pulice, “a democrat with a camera” as one customer described him. Pulice would snap candid photos as people passed by a downtown street and hand them a ticket to redeem their picture at his studio after 24 hours. Atkin wrote about Pulice’s 45 year career in a newspaper feature shortly after Pulice died, at age 88, in 2003.

Pulice grew up in Strathcona’s Italian community in the 1920s and began snapping photos in 1934. He took his last pictures at his favourite corner of Granville and Robson in 1979, at a time when the street photographer was becoming an occupation of the past. Remarkably, Pulice never kept negatives. But hundreds of his customers still have originals with “Foncie’s Fotos” stamped on the back, and many Vancouverites have since loaned them for public exhibits.

Despite the poverty and problems of its residents, the Downtown Eastside continues to have the feel of a small community. A recent visit to its hub, the Carnegie Centre, yields more stories about pre-Expo characters.

Terry Reid, who lives in a suite one block from the centre, remembers Winnipeg-import “Hunky Bill” who started a perogy stand at the PNE in the late 1960s. Reid, an avid horse racing fan, often saw Bill at the track by the PNE grounds.

“You would hear him if he won,” Reid says.

Reid says there would be a commotion when Bill came down the stands to have his photo taken with his winning horse. “People would laugh when they heard him shout and come running down,” Reid says. Bill’s yelps and hoots showed how much he loved to win.

Hunky Bill, whose real name is William Konyt, also started a restaurant in 1979 on Denman Street, known as Hunky Bill’s. Three years after it opened, the B.C. Board of Inquiry received a complaint by Ukrainians charging Konyt, who was also of Ukrainian heritage, with having an offensive business name. “Hunky” is considered an ethnic slur against Ukrainians.

The complaint was dismissed however, and Hunky Bill carried on cooking perogies and cabbage rolls until he semi-retired in 2000 and his children took over the business. You can still find Hunky Bill’s food booth at the PNE’s concession row-now in its 42nd year of operation and still serving Winnipeg garlic sausages.

There were characters aplenty in the city’s pre-Expo days, when Vancouver still retained its small town, sleepy charm. “The sense of the bizarre or slightly wonky, was something that seemed to fit very well in Vancouver,” David Silcox, an arts council member, observed back when he supported a government grant for a town fool.

But Vancouver residents have gradually shifted their attention to famous people living elsewhere, according to Macdonald, who sees lots of urban changes from his East Side perch. He says local stories about Vancouver people are reduced to “Mike McCardell’s three-minute segments at the end of the news hour.”

“We have a celebrity-obsessed culture,” says Macdonald, lamenting the media’s lack of attention on local characters. “Now we watch Britney Spears on TV.”
And where is the small town charm in that?

© Vancouver Courier 2008
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