Remembering Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret

After closing last October, SBC remains in the memories of many Vancouverites as a pillar of underground culture 

Alexis Ola Zygan // Contributor

Paul Cannon  // Photographer

For more than 60 years, the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret (SBC) carved out a multi-functional space that embraced a variety of communities, from 60s psychedelic rockers to 70s punks, and most recently, Vancouver’s skate community. Last October, co-owner Malcolm Hassin announced he would be closing the venue to the public due to mental health reasons. 

SBC embodied the intersection of music, skateboarding and art, fostering a space where “everyone was welcome” as  graffitied above the front door. Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret opened in the 50s as a nightclub and restaurant, and was known as a space that allowed working-class folks to relax and enjoy music, theatre and dance. SBC morphed  into a rock n’ roll mecca in the 60s, with Jimmy Hendrix and Tina Turner rumoured to grace the stage. 

In the 70s, SBC cultivated a budding underground punk-rock scene that launched the career of bands like  D.O.A and The Subhumans. Music enthusiasts would congregate in the venue to drink and listen to live music, watching as the punk scene in Vancouver unfolded before them. 

Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret’s new owners rebranded into SBC Restaurant in 2013, opening their doors to skaters of all abilities with the biggest public indoor skate ramp in BC. Up until their closure,  SBC continued to host punk-rock bands every weekend and would allow inner-city graffiti artists to paint the venue once a month. As a homage to their punk origins, they dedicated a section of their wall to photos of the venue in the 70s, back when they charged only $3 for cover and even less for a pint of beer. 

I have fond memories seeing Vancouver-based punk band Alien Boys performing at SBC. The platform at the front provided a space for musicians, while attendees assembled alongside each side of the ramp, jumping down throughout the set to be closer to the stage and mosh on the slippery beer-soaked structure. 

In a city plagued by persistent rainfall, the indoor skate ramp provided skaters with shelter. But SBC was much more than just four walls and a roof.

 “The autonomy of the space and feeling like this was where I belonged on a Friday night definitely kept me away from self-destructive things like drugs and falling into hopelessness,” said Elly Ryland, the president of the Vancouver-based skateboarding circle Late Bloomer Club who had her wedding party at SBC. 

“The DTES neighbourhood that SBC is a part of is undergoing rapid gentrification—which is essentially a modern colonialism—displacement, and also in the grips of an overdose crisis. Death is daily down there and I’ve seen it first hand. Anyone who has skated SBC has seen how the community is suffering and  dying,” she continued. “SBC was really one of the only safe places on that stretch of Hastings that kept the community in mind. SBC wasn’t a fancy overpriced coffee shop that nobody really needs—it had a positive and profound purpose: community.” 

For many, the glaring lack of music and art venues in Vancouver became even more evident after SBC’s last show and skateboard session in January of 2020. Unfortunately, the closure of SBC is not a one-off, but rather a persistent issue in a city plagued by gentrification and skyrocketing rental rates. 

Following the termination of SBC, underground art space RedGate posted a Facebook event for a fundraiser to keep their venue afloat. Then, Little Mountain Gallery announced a new development application might push them out of the Mount Pleasant community. Before SBC’s closure, a long list of iconic Vancouver venues like Club 23 and the Cobalt have been shutting their doors, in addition to lesser known underground venues like anarchist community organizing space 38 Blood Alley Square.

“It’s really a shame that we’re losing our community spaces and seeing them replaced by businesses that only alienate and push out the Downtown Eastside community,” Ryland reflected. In a city where isolation is ubiquitous, venues like SBC that nurture much-needed community and culture are becoming rarer and rarer. 

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