Located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, The Sam Kee building holds the record as the narrowest commercial building in the world. The property, situated at 8 West Pender Street, was purchased by the Sam Kee Company in 1903. The Sam Kee Company was owned and operated by Chang Toy. Mr. Toy was one of the wealthiest and most successful businessmen in Vancouver’s Chinatown district.
When Toy purchased the property, it was a 30-foot deep stretch of land. The original structure built on the site housed public baths in the basement, commercial and office space on the first floor, and living quarters on the second story. The property proved to be a good investment for the Sam Kee Company until 1912. That was the year Vancouver annexed roughly 24 feet of the property to widen Pender Street. Initially, the remaining narrow six-foot strip of land was considered commercially unusable. Chang Toy sought compensation from the city of Vancouver for his losses. No one is certain whether the city offered any payment for the land they took from the Chinese businessman. However, at the time, there was widespread prejudice against the Chinese community within Canada. So, it is likely that any compensation offered would not have been adequate to cover his loss.
According to local legends, there are two potential reasons Mr. Toy built the narrow building on the remaining section of land. Some believe he was frustrated with the refusal to offer fair compensation for his property loss. So, he erected the narrow building as a form of protest. Others believe the building was born when Mr. Toy made a $10,000 wager with a fellow businessman that he could utilize the remaining six feet of property to build a commercial structure.
Regardless of his reasons, in 1913, he hired the architectural firm of Brown and Gilliam to design a building that would fit onto the remaining small section of land. Brown and Gilliam designed a narrow, steel-framed building that measured only 4’11” deep on the ground floor. The second floor makes use of overhanging window bays to achieve a depth of roughly six feet. The basement, however, is still the original ten feet deep, extending four feet under the only remaining glass sidewalk in the area.
Initially, the basement level of the building housed public baths and barbershop stalls that served the local Chinese community. At that time, the basement of the Sam Kee building offered the only hot baths in Chinatown. In addition to the public baths, there were also rumors of tunnels that led under the structure. These tunnels were allegedly used as escape routes for patrons when police raided Chinatown opium dens. Over time two of Kee’s sons came to own and operate shops of their own out of some of the spaces available within this small building.
The historic building has undergone renovations twice since its initial construction. First in 1966 by architects Birmingham and Wood. Then again, in 1985, when Chinese business mogul, Jack Chow, purchased the aging building. He planned to renovate the property to preserve its unique history and architecture. Workers completed renovations in time for the building’s 100th anniversary. The designers used updated materials such as glass, lights, and mirrors to bring a modern twist to the old building. These new features breathe new life into the building while maintaining the historical integrity of the structure.
Today, the Sam Kee building is not just an architectural oddity. The building is also a tangible reminder of the history of the Chinatown District in Vancouver. It is also still a functioning commercial building. The offices of Jack Chow insurance still call the space home.