Repurposing Vancouver’s Icons–The Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret

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Fred Herzog photo, 1958
Fred Herzog photo, 1958

You would think that if a couple of young entrepreneurs wanted to bring business to the Downtown east side, one that offered a safe haven from the streets, served healthy, affordable food, and breathed life back into an old icon, the City and the myriad of agencies that have made an industry out of the poor and troubled would be there to help.

Well no, they’re not.

109 East Hastings Street
John Atkin and Malcolm Hassin outside the former Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret

Andrew Turner, 33, and Malcolm Hassin, 30, opened SBC Restaurant last December on East Hastings, near Main Street. They tell me it’s the only indoor skateboard park in Vancouver.

The building has great vibes. As the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret, the outside of the building used to have an 800-pound neon sign featuring a Buddha with a jiggling belly. The plan, says Malcolm is to get the restaurant back up and running, and grow fruit and vegetables on the roof of the building. They want to bring live music back to the venue.

The Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret was an integral part of Vancouver’s music scene from 1952 until the early 1990s.

The Vancouver Heritage Foundation named the building one of Vancouver’s 125 places that matter last year, and according to the heritage plaque, in the ‘50s it was the Smilin’ Buddha Dine & Dance. In the ‘60s it was part of the touring soul and rock music circuit, and in the late ‘70s it became part of the punk and alternative music scene.

Smilin' buddha Cabaret
Avon Theatre Program, 1954

Jimi Hendrix played there, so did Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, DOA and Jefferson Airplane. 54-40 named their 1994 release after the place, bought the sign and restored it.

The building has sat derelict for the last 20-odd years, another blight on the DTES. It’s still no beauty queen, but give the current business owners a break and that will also change.

When I was there on Thursday there was a steady stream of mainly young male customers. Malcolm says that customers range from eight to 56, and there’s a bunch of “older skater dudes” in their 50s that come once a week, plus a lot of people from the film industry.

Eve Lazarus photo, 2014
The skateboarding ramp

Like everything in the building, the skateboard ramp is completely salvaged and repurposed. The ramp is part Expo 86, part donation from skateboarding rock star Kevin Harris, and partly built from several ramps scavenged from various eastside backyards.

BC Hydro wants $30,000 from the guys for an immediate upgrade.

The City is jerking them around about a business licence and stopped them serving food. It’s bureaucracy at its stupidest and I bet the Buddha’s smilin’.


June 1964
June 1964

More stories of the DTES:

The Regent Hotel

The Main Street Barber Shop


© All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Eve Lazarus.

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  1. In the summer of 1983, while attending Simon Fraser University, I wondered off to visit some of the “seedy” downtown pubs on a sunny Saturday afternoon. After enjoying a few venues such as Number 5 Orange and a few beers in the Balmoral, I saw the Smilin’ Buddha sign and ventured inside. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light of the club I first notice the live band on stage, all aboriginals and some great music. I took a seat and had a good look around. I recall that the seating was like an old movie theatre and the place was half full with patrons having quite a good time. The place had character. I shared a bottle of sweet wine with a young woman beside me as she briefly filled me in on the history of the place. I’m glad I got to see it before it closed.

  2. Anyone remember the doorman in the cage when you entered? Was very intimidating and named Igor I believe..Didn’t think twice about throwing you out with the door memories..

  3. I knew better than to go into the Balmoral, Regent or Sunset hotels but the Smilin” Budha was hard to resist. I lived around there from 83 – 90 or so – barely survived some nights.

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