Sunday Snippet: Lani Russwurm, Vancouver Was Awesome

“More than anything else, people are what make Vancouver awesome. There are members of the Squamish, Musqueam, and the Tsleil-Waututh nations who have occupied the area for millennia, the descendants of immigrants, and recent arrivals. Some residents live in ethnic enclaves such as Chinatown or Punjabi Market, and others reside where their finances permit regardless of cultural affiliations. Several waves of immigrants have acted as a major force of change throughout the city’s history, generating, at times, social conflict and even riots. Yet for the most part, and throughout its history, Vancouverites from a variety of backgrounds have worked, lived, and played together around shared goals and interests, despite or maybe because of their differences.”

I’m a Vancouver native. I was born and raised in this city and I’ve witnessed it go through several transformations in the last thirty some odd years. My mom and dad have told me countless stories about how Chinatown used to be or how the location occupied by Canada’s second largest shopping mall was once nothing more than farmland. I’ve also seen how the different waves of Chinese immigrants have even changed the Chinese sub-culture of this city to the point where I barely ever hear the Toi San of my childhood.

In Vancouver Was Awesome: A Curious Pictorial History, Lani Russwurm explores some of the colorful history of Vancouver, from before 1910, all the way up to 1972. A lot of people don’t know why we call it Deadman’s Island, for example, or the connections that our city had with Charlie Chaplin, Rudyard Kipling and Boris Karloff. Most people are unaware of the significant black population or how we became a city of jazz. Or why the Wong Brothers may deserve a place in aviation history.

Like many other cities, Vancouver also has its ugly past with racism and it’s not like discrimination isn’t still a problem today, but I am proud of our little multicultural mosaic where I can sample authentic cuisine from just about anywhere on the globe and partake in all sorts of “ethnic” celebrations. We each bring something different and something special to this ad-hoc patchwork of a city.

“Because it is such a young city, Vancouver’s identity apparently remains a work in progress. It has been called many things — Terminal City, Lotusland, Vansterdam, City of Glass — but none of its nicknames fully captures its essence. That may be less a sign of immaturity than an indication that Vancouver’s persistent characteristics are too contradictory to fit into a single, unified urban identity.”

I don’t know a heck of a lot about Lani Russwurm, aside from the fact that he is a reasonably well known local writer, having contributed to publications like Vancouver Is Awesome and The Tyee. He definitely has a passion for local history and it was with this intense passion that he put together Vancouver Was Awesome: A Curious Pictorial History. He calls it a “mixtape” of Vancouver’s history, because while it is presented in roughly chronological order, there isn’t really any sort of grand narrative to tie it all together.

And perhaps that’s appropriate for a city whose identity is still “a work in progress.” Maybe we don’t know who we are as a collective, because we can be so different as individuals. And that’s okay.

To hear a little more from Lani and his thoughts on Vancouver’s history, check out his interview with Joseph Planta from

Image credit: Laurel Russwurm