November 19, 2016 – By Larry Schwarz


While visitors to Vancouver often wander over to Granville Street, Granville Island, or maybe even the Granville Liquor Store, those who are willing to venture to Chinatown will find the ultimate underdog.

Question: What do all of these places have in common?

• The Sam Kee Building
• The Jack Chow Building
• “Slender on Pender”
• “The shallowest commercial building in the world”
• “The most unique insurance store in the world”

Answer: They are all names or nicknames for the same building.

So, how did this happen?

Chang Toy, a Chinese immigrant and businessman who was the principal partner of the Sam Kee Company, bought a piece of land in Vancouver in 1903. In 1912, the city wanted to widen the road in front of his property and confiscated most of it. There isn’t full agreement on whether or not Toy was ever compensated for this land grab, and people familiar with the event believe that discrimination against the Chinese community played a big part in this.

The narrowness of the Sam Kee Building is indicated by darker shade of paint to the left of the drainpipe.
The narrowness of the Sam Kee Building is indicated by darker shade of paint to the left of the drainpipe.

Today, the popular tale is that Toy bet a fellow businessman $10,000 that he could build a functioning structure on his remaining 6-foot sliver of land. In 1913, he won the bet, and the new Sam Kee building was divided into 13 tiny spaces for businesses. The basement was the only place to get a hot bath in Chinatown; the persisiting rumor of escape tunnels leading there from nearby opium dens has never been proven.

Fast forward to 1985 when a Chinese insurance mogul named Jack Chow bought the crumbling building. His hope was to refurbish it in advance of Expo 86, get it into the Guinness Book of World Records, and draw international attention to Vancouver’s Chinatown.

In 2013, on the 100th anniversary of the building, a massive, million dollar renovation was done. The end result is an attraction that maintains the structure’s historic integrity but with ultramodern features including copious amounts of glass, mirrors, and lights.

Employees who used to have to put on their coats and walk outside to get from one part of the building to the other no longer need to do so. Part of the redesign allowed for glass enclosures to extend out onto the sidewalk to eliminate this problem.

The Sam Kee Building is now home of the Jack Chow Insurance Company.
The Sam Kee Building is now home of the Jack Chow Insurance Company.

The Sam Kee Building on Pender Street is a Class “A” Heritage Property, which is the highest ranking given by the city of Vancouver. The eye-catching Jack Chow Insurance sign on the top corner of the building is actually wider than the building itself. On a clear day it’s possible to spy the sign from the top of Grouse Mountain north of the city.

The main floor on ground level is only 4’11” (1.5 m) wide, making a photo of outstretched arms touching the walls a popular shot. The top floor is 6’ wide (1.83 m) because of the overhanging windows; the basement is 6’ wide because it extends underneath the sidewalk. Thick blocks of glass embedded in the sidewalk allow light to shine down into the basement.

The owners hold the Guinness certificate that verifies the building is indeed the shallowest commercial building in the world. The problem is that Pittsburgh’s “Skinny Building” has challenged Jack Chow’s claim. The Pennsylvanians insist that their building is thinner because the width (5’2″ / 1.57 m) is consistent from floor to floor. They believe that Sam Kee’s wider top floor and basement are grounds for disqualification.

It should be noted that both Guinness and Ripley’s have no mention of either building on their websites. Guinness, however, does list the world’s narrowest house (in Poland) and the world’s smallest hotel (in Germany), but that’s about as far as they go. According to Wikipedia, Guinness World Records has “declined to list some records that are too difficult or impossible to determine.” They have also purged their files of many long-standing records. This could very well be one of those cases.

The cluttered main floor is where insurance is sold and tours begin.
The cluttered main floor is where insurance is sold and tours begin.

Another bone of contention is that the Sam Kee building is not freestanding; it is attached at the rear to another larger building. This shouldn’t really be an issue because its steel frame and four interior columns are fully capable of holding it up on its own.

There are three square panels of glass on the main floor. At first, it doesn’t seem like such a good idea to walk on them, but the glass is strong enough to withstand at least a dozen moose. Anyone who has been on the glass floor at the CN Tower’s observation deck in Toronto has heard similar reassurances.

The basement is immaculate and perfectly organized. For some reason, the pieces of the cloud mural don’t line up properly, but the Q*bert, three-dimensional carpeting reflected in the wall-sized mirror makes for a cool visual effect.

The basement is spotless and set up with seemingly random items.
The basement is spotless and set up with seemingly random items.

On the second floor is a kitchen which isn’t unreasonably small, and the little broom closet is a sensible use of space. The bathroom is rather confined, but it doesn’t look any more uncomfortable than a typical public stall. The concern might be the one-way window through which people can look out from the bathroom but not leer in. Non-exhibitionists could be forgiven for being reluctant to use a toilet with a window opposite the throne.

Prominently featured are the two illuminated, glass stairways with synchronized neon steps. In the evening, there is an outdoor light and music show on the side of the building every hour on the hour.

This building won the obscure 2016 Live Design Award in the “Architainment” category and is the first Canadian building to have done so. Live Design, according to their website, is “an online creative and technical resource for live entertainment professionals in lighting, sound, staging, and projection.”

The Sam Kee Building's three floors are connected by illuminated, glass staircases.
The Sam Kee Building’s three floors are connected by illuminated, glass staircases.

On a quiet, overcast weekday morning, I went to explore Chinatown and accidentally stumbled upon the Sam Kee building. A well-dressed man was sitting patiently at one of the Jack Chow Insurance Company’s four service windows. It is here one can buy insurance or a ticket for a tour of the building. With no other patrons in sight, it looked like it was going to be a private tour.

The man introduced himself as Rod Chow. It turns out that he is the president of Jack Chow Insurance and son of the founder and CEO. Rod was very well spoken and knew everything there was to know about the building and its history.

After telling me some facts and showing me some highlights, we headed down to the basement. Suddenly, Rod transformed into a smooth-talking, mind-bending, magic-making machine. He began performing card tricks and illusions at a five-star level. It couldn’t have come as a greater surprise.

As it turns out, Rod is a professional magician who has received more than 40 awards for his sleight of hand. His two children, who were not there, are also magicians and have won numerous awards.

The Jack Chow sign is wider than the building; the width of the structure is the darker shade of paint.
The Jack Chow sign is wider than the building; the width of the structure is the darker shade of paint.

Without giving anything away, I can say that Rod performed several jaw-dropping magic tricks. Some of them involved playing cards; none of them involved buying a Canadian auto insurance policy.

Rod gives the impression that he doesn’t want people photographing everything in sight, and visitors should do their best to honor that.

“We want there to be some surprises,” he explained.

On his lapel was a small pin that had four Fs on it. Each F was inside the image of a tiny playing card. Further research uncovered that this stands for Fechter’s Finger Flicking Frolic, an invitation-only, annual convention for the world’s most prestigious close-up magicians. It’s a very private event; attendees aren’t even allowed to bring their spouses with them.

To summarize in one long sentence: A Chinese-Canadian man, who is the president of an insurance company and a certified financial planner, is also an internationally recognized, award-winning magician who works in the world’s shallowest commercial building where he sells tickets, conducts tours, and entertains visitors with a professional magic show.

That, in a nutshell, is why you must come here. Just make sure he’s your guide.

Rod Chow entertains visitors with amazing card tricks.
Rod Chow entertains visitors with amazing card tricks.

Strangely, as of publication, TripAdvisor ranks the attraction #185 out of 333 things to do in Vancouver. That puts it well below just about everything worthwhile including the public library.

The price of the tour is $15 ($5 for ages 4-12; under 3 free) and includes one of these free, exclusive souvenir gifts:

• A deck of casino-quality, air-cushion finish, professional playing cards
• A “magic mug” that changes from solid black to a picture of the building when hot liquid is added
• A magic shopping bag that folds into a purse
• A magic foldable calendar (which would only be magical if it told you the future)

The "World's Famous Building" souvenir playing cards
The “World’s Famous Building” souvenir playing cards

How to get to the “World’s Shallowest Building”

The Sam Kee Building is located at 8 West Pender Street, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. A small, free parking lot is located behind it. If you park in the lot and aren’t there to buy insurance or take the tour, Rod might perform has greatest magic trick of all – making your car disappear.

How to get to there via the SkyTrain and the shortest amount of walking:

Take the Expo Line to Stadium-Chinatown Station. Follow the exit signs toward Beatty Street and BC Place. Go up the escalator and immediately turn right to exit the station at Keefer Place and International Village. The walk from here takes about 6 minutes.

Once outside, bear right and go down all of the stairs until you get to the little traffic circle at the bottom. In the middle of the traffic circle is a large world globe that says “International Village” on it.

Walk straight through the circle to the other side. You’ll see a T & T Supermarket on your left. Cross Abbott Street and go through the set of doors between the Starbucks on the left and the Rexall Pharmacy on the right.

You’re now in the International Village Mall. Walk in a straight line through the mall. There’s a decent restroom along the way on the right-hand side. Once you exit the mall, turn right and walk through the huge Chinatown Millennium Gate that towers over Pender Street. The “shallowest commercial building in the world” is just a few steps ahead on the right side.

Want to try a unique accommodation in the area? You can’t go wrong with Skwachàys Lodge (pronounced “skwatch-eyes”). It has 18 unique rooms each designed by Aboriginal artists. All of the rooms have individual names, and the lobby doubles as a gallery filled with Aboriginal art. The hotel is located on Pender Street just outside the Chinatown Millennium Gate and directly across from the International Village Mall. Look for the red canopies and the 40-foot (12.2 m) totem pole on the roof. Those who are creeped out by excessive amounts of homeless might not be fond of the neighborhood.

Skwachàys Lodge has a 40-foot (12.2 m) totem pole on the roof.
Skwachàys Lodge has a 40-foot (12.2 m) totem pole on the roof.

Want some good, cheap, healthy eats? Caveman Cafe in the International Village Mall falls under the Paleo category, but any place that makes a gigantic burrito with meat pulled off a chicken’s carcass right before your eyes is definitely worth a meal stop. The cafe, with its welcoming caveman-emoji logo, is owned by an Iranian family that combines a Neanderthal theme and oldies music in a room monitored by the thoughtful gaze of Ibn Sina. If you’re not sure who he is, check out The Physician (2013) starring Ben Kingsley as the Persian polymath. ♦