Chinatown – Victoria, BC
The Chinatown in Victoria, British Columbia is the oldest Chinatown in Canada and the second oldest in North America behind San Francisco’s. With beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century due to the mass influx of miners from California, Victoria’s Chinatown was apparently a maze of alleyways and courtyards where one could find everything from restaurants and opium dens to theaters and gambling establishments. Even though it still remains somewhat popular with Chinese-Canadians, today’s Chinatown has shrunk to not much more than a city block and really is a far cry from its former glory.
Reaching back in time
The discovery of gold in the Fraser Canyon in 1858 led to a sudden surge in migration to British Columbia from California. About one third of these migrants were of Chinese descent. Not too long after, word of the gold rush spread to China which further fueled the migration. Famine, drought and wars at home added to the tally of Chinese migrants. In the 1880s, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway would continue to bring Chinese workers to the region.
And so began the rapid evolution of Victoria’s Chinatown. Businesses, theatres, schools, churches, temples, schools and hospitals all propped up to support the Chinese community. It also became a home for opium factories, gambling dens and brothels. Chinatown grew steadily over the years until its peak in 1911 when more than 3,000 people called Chinatown home. This was approximately 10% of Victoria’s population at the time.
Even though they did the hard work no one else wanted, these newcomers were often unwelcome. They faced racism, discrimination at work, head taxes, rioting and various other forms of abuse. Anti-Chinese sentiment kept growing in the country culminating in the federal government’s 1923 legislation prohibiting most Chinese people from entering Canada. This law remained on the books until 1947 when it was finally repealed (prompted largely by the Chinese migrants who joined the Canadian ranks during World War II) and Chinese Canadians also won the right to vote. As a result of the systematic oppression, Victoria’s Chinatown suffered a long period of decline between the 1920s and the 1960s, shrinking both its footprint and population.
In the 1980s, concerted revitalization efforts were undertaken. This includes the construction of the Gate of Harmonious Interest on Fisgard Street that stands as a Victoria landmark to this day. Some historic buildings in Chinatown have also been preserved as a part of this effort. Unfortunately, many of Chinatown’s most historical and important places are out of public view, like the Tam Kung Buddhist Temple, which is the oldest of its kind in Canada. The district was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1995 and has been considered as potential addition to Canada’s tentative list of nominations to become a World Heritage Site.
Geopolitics and International Relations
Victoria’s Chinatown served as a major gateway to the development of Chinese communities in Canada. Its merchant networks supplied new laborers, ethnic goods, and homeland news to numerous Chinese immigrant communities across the gold mines of British Columbia and along the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and the Hongmen Society (Chinese Freemasons) are among the many prominent organizations that started in Victoria’s Chinatown.
The community here played a major role in spearheading the attack against anti-Chinese laws in Canada. It also led Chinese engagements with Canadian economic, social and political spheres. From the early twentieth century to the present, it has been a birthplace of Chinese Canadian political leaders in all arenas. Victoria’s Chinatown also produced the first global Chinese political organization, the Chinese Empire Reform Association, as far back as 1899. It also provided crucial support to the revolutionary creation of Republican China in 1911. Thus, Victoria’s Chinatown has also been a gateway to Canada’s engagement in the transpacific political theater.
Let’s get down to brass tacks
Now that you have a brief understanding of Chinatown’s history, let’s discuss how to navigate it.
Completed in 1981, the 38 ft tall Gare of Harmonious Interest is the best place to start wandering through Chinatown.
Probably the second most famous landmark in Chinatown, is Fan Tan Alley, one of the skinniest streets in North America. As we shuffled through this narrow alley between interesting storefronts showcasing everything from vinyl records and handmade soaps, I was surprised to hear our tour guide say that this is one of Victoria’s most visited/famous/photographed landmarks. Its charm made the reason for infamy clear, but I for one had unfortunately not heard of it before my visit. I assume it would be especially picturesque at night with its red brick walls lit by the beautiful Chinese lanterns.
On the opposite side of Chinatown’s main drag is Dragon Alley. Its winding brick corridor is also rife with photo ops (Instagram husbands be warned!).
Gazing at the impossible to miss, picture perfect Chinese Public School with its red brick structure, bright red front doors and lanterns hanging along its eaves should be next on your Chinatown list. It was born out of necessity in 1909 due to a ban on Chinese-born students from City schools due to their inability to speak English. Today, the school serves a dual purpose as a symbol of perseverance of the Chinese community and as a learning center for Mandarin, Cantonese, Chinese History and Culture.
In my post visit research, I learned that Victoria’s Chinatown is also home to the oldest Chinese temple in Canada, the Tam Kung Temple. Built in 1860 and housed in the Yen Wo Society Building, I am told it is worth a quick visit. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you much more about it.
I honestly have mixed feelings about adding Chinatown to a Victoria itinerary. I have visited many Chinatowns throughout my travels and felt that Victoria’s was extremely underwhelming. However, if you have an hour or two to spare, a stroll through Chinatown probably isn’t a bad idea.
Perhaps going with someone that knows more of the back story and can show you the hidden nooks and crannies would be worth your while. For that I would recommend checking out a Chinatown Walking Tour. Due to a different tour I took with them, I would recommend the folks at Discover The Past. There are several other options to choose from as well. If you’d still rather go it alone, I recommend downloading this self-guided tour pamphlet by the City of Victoria.
Whether you have a hankering for dim sum, want to sip on some Chinese tea, feel like getting a massage or an acupuncture treatment while you’re in beautiful British Columbia, you now know where to go!
Here’s who helped
While I ONLY write about places that I have visited, I get more information on these places from others, both for my edification and yours. Here are the online resources I used when writing this post.
- Royal BC Museum – “Seeking a New Home”: https://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/exhibits/journeys/english/city_2_3b.php
- Visitor in Victoria – “Chinatown”: https://visitorinvictoria.ca/chinatown-in-victoria-bc/
- Clipper Vacations Magazine – “East Meets West: A Walking Guide to Victoria, BC’s Chinatown”: https://www.clippervacations.com/magazine/victoria-bc-chinatown-walking-guide/
- Super Natural British Columbia – “Unlock the Secrets of Victoria’s Chinatown”: https://www.hellobc.com/stories/exploring-victorias-chinatown/
- Victoria’s Chinatown: http://chinatown.library.uvic.ca/index.html