Arriving in Victoria, British Columbia, after over seven years, one of the first things we noticed were the cranes that dot the skyline as new condo buildings take up every available space.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is Victoria’s sweet little Chinatown on the edge of the downtown. It's history gives some insight into how such a community can endure amidst all the new development.
Chinatown.library.uvic.ca tells us that Victoria’s Chinatown has played a major role in the history of the Chinese community in Canada. It is the oldest in Canada and one of the oldest in North America. It was once the main entry for Chinese immigrants to Canada, with thousands arriving in the mid 1800’s for gold mining and in the 1880’s for the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
It was once the largest Chinese settlement in Canada and provided goods and ‘news’ to the smaller Chinese settlements in the goldmining and railway communities. It was home to the first Chinese benevolent clubs and community associations. For more information, check out “A Diverse Community” on the website.
Hellobc.com in an article ‘Unlock the secrets of Victoria’s Chinatown', notes that by 1911, Chinatown had a population of more than 3,000. It also had a “seedy side” with gambling and opium dens!
One of the most important facts about Victoria’s Chinatown, however, is that it was one of the major forces combating Chinese racist laws (such as the head tax) and also leading Chinese involvement in Canada’s economy, culture, and politics. There is a great section on the Chinatown.library.uvic.ca website entitled “Search for Justice” which provides the history of Chinese racism in Canada.
Today Chinatown covers a very small portion of Victoria with Fisgard Street (which you enter through The Gate of Harmonious Interest) being the main focus. Red lanterns fly over the street. There are still a few traditional Chinese cafes and stores along with modern coffee houses, eateries, and shops.
One of the most attractive ‘streets’ is Fan Tan Alley which was named after the Chinese gambling game Fan-Tan and is a narrow little passageway (3 to 6 feet wide and 240 feet long, according to victoriabuzz.com) connecting two main streets. It was originally a gambling and opium area. Today, there are numerous funky little shops, and it is one great photo opportunity! I imagine there are many weddings and movies shot here.
So it may be very small compared to other Chinatowns, but Victoria’s Chinatown has a vibe.
And it will endure, despite all the development in Victoria. It was named a National Historic Site in 1995 because it is the oldest surviving Chinatown in Canada and has "cohesive groupings of high heritage value" (pc.gc.ca). We were so glad to rent a little Air BnB right in the centre. Not a bad place at all to spend a week walking, eating, and drinking coffee.