One of Aman Johal’s current jobs – talking about “Vancouver’s dirtiest Prohibition-era secrets” – could involve a bit of his own history as a bouncer at a Gastown-area bar.
Back in the mid-1990s he worked at Sonar, a Water Street dance club that opened in the space where the Town Pump had previously staged live bands.
But before he was hired at Sonar, the longtime Surrey resident was a patron there.
“I was underage and we went there one night, a brawl breaks out and we got thrown in a paddywagon,” Johal recalled. “So as I’m getting in, the owner comes out and slips his card in my pocket and says, ‘Call me,’ figuring I handled myself pretty well. But I tell him I’m not 19 yet and he says, ‘You look 34! Don’t worry, I’ll pay you cash.’ And how could I say no?”
More than two decades later, Johal works as a tour guide on Forbidden Vancouver walking tours, and on the namesake tour he brings tourists by the old Sonar bar location where he once bounced unruly customers.
It’s a full-circle story of a skilled storyteller who recently won an award for his work at Fort Langley National Historic Site, where he took a summer job in 2001 and has worked ever since. Today, he’s the head interpreter at the riverside attraction.
Meantime, this is Johal’s seventh year with Forbidden Vancouver tours.
“When I first heard about it,” he explained, “it was mainly because I wanted a hobby thing to do, which is walking tours, my passion as a career, and I do those with Parks Canada, mainly in Fort Langley with tours like Grave Tales, Hidden Histories of Fort Langley – I like to call those my babies.”
“I wanted to get into Vancouver history,” Johal continued, “because in my teenage years, which weren’t the most productive, it would be, ‘Oh, let’s go downtown,’ and my passion was well, ‘Why is this building shaped the way it is?’ and I’d have to find things and just do research to figure it out.”
A graduate of Johnston Heights Secondary, Johal now lives in the Sullivan area of Surrey.
In Vancouver, he also leads the Dark Secrets of Stanley Park tour.
“We have a solid team of storytellers who do a plethora of these tours,” Johal explained. “Will Woods, who created the company, has a real passion for this. He started off with an accounting background but realized, ‘I need to tell stories,’ to tell people and engage in a way to learn the history of the city, and he created what this is today.”
Johal’s Forbidden tour involves tales of the city’s Prohibition-era saloons, rum-running routes, mob bosses, Gastown’s “grass” riot and the checkered past of “Gassy” Jack Deighton, among other subjects.
Such public tours were on hiatus for a time last year, during the pandemic, but Johal and other guides kept busy hosting private tours.
“It’s great just to walk and tell people stories,” he enthused. “I think it’s a dying trade, but it is a trade in its own right, telling stories that are entertaining. A normal tour guide would be like, ‘This is the Lamplighter Pub.’ I like to tell more, like, ‘It would allow in Americans for a buck-25 and Europeans for only 75 cents.’ Then I can get into my own anecdotes, my own stories.”
Such as the time he had “a bad day” working at Sonar.
“We came here to the Lamplighter after, and I was off, just angry,” Johal recalled. “There were some dockworkers in there, and I sized up a guy about my size, grabbed a pitcher of the cheapest beer and dumped it over his head. He’s enraged, and he stands up and he’s a head taller than me. At this point I thought I was in trouble. So we’re out here on the street and he actually ripped one of those chains off the black bollards and swung it. So I booked it to the parking lot and got out of here, in a trail of dust. I’d never run so fast, becuase that guy was angry. You can also tie in anecdoates like that, to entertain people.”
During BC Historical Federation’s virtual conference in June, Johal was given an Inspiration award for developing and running a series of history and trivia quizzes virtually for colleagues, as staff adapted to working from home during the early stages of the pandemic.
Under his leadership, award presenters said, the quizzes sparked “lively discussion, laughter and debate amongst participants, promoting a sense of togetherness and connection during a time of social disruption.”
Years ago, Johal studied theatre at university.
“Those skills come in handy now, and I was big into theatre in high school and then got into the theatre program at UBC but it got a little too abstract. So when the movement teacher said, ‘Show me magenta,’ I was, ‘OK, I’m done here. I’m going to find another route in life.’
“Someone told me to improve my interview skills and get a summer job, and Fort Langley was hiring,” he added. “I tend to have, maybe not a photographic memory, but I do retain a lot of odd history. I’m full of useless facts, is what my wife says. I’d be good at Jeopardy, maybe.”