For nearly a century, Victoria's Chinatown captured the imagination of many Western people. To them, it was a sinister place with mysterious interlinking alleys, trap-doors, and underground passages. Chinatown was a “Forbidden City” that any decent white person would stay away from. However, to the Chinese, Chinatown was their home and sanctuary where they felt safe and secure, and found pleasure and companionship.
A few wealthy Chinese merchants from San Francisco came to Victoria by boat in June 1858. They bought properties on Cormorant Street, where they built wooden huts in preparation for the arrival of labourers recruited for panning gold in the Fraser River. Separated from the city centre by the Johnson Street ravine, Cormorant Street was accessible from the south only via three narrow footbridges. The economy of the budding Chinatown was dominated by three Chinese import and export companies, namely, Kwong Lee, Tai Soong and Yang Wo Sang. During the gold rushes, they recruited Chinese labourers to come to Canada, and provided Chinese gold-seekers with goods, equipment and daily necessities. These three companies were also opium importers and manufacturers. The Canadian government received substantial revenues from the opium trade which, during the 1870s, was British Columbia's third largest export item to the United States after coal and furs. The 1870s saw the advent of a class of merchants of moderate means. Although most of the stores were on Cormorant Street, a few stores began to appear on Fisgard Street. Chee Kung Tong, a secret society, was set up in 1876. In the same year, Tam Kung Temple was built. The Methodist Church opened the first Chinese mission school in 1874. Towards the end of the 1870s, the Chinese population in Victoriawas estimated at about a thousand.
Victoria was the gateway to Canada from China and American Pacific coastal cities. Between 1881 and 1884 nearly 16,000 Chinese arrived in Victoria and most of them soon left for the mainland to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Victoria's Chinatown was blooming. By 1886, it covered an area of more than four city blocks north of the Johnson Street ravine, and housed 87% of Victoria's 2,988 Chinese. At that time, the city of Vancouver did not yet exist, and its predecessor, the village of Granville, had only three Chinese stores and fewer than fifty Chinese residents.
Victoria experienced a major building boom between the 1890s and early 1910s, during which many wooden frame houses in Chinatown were replaced by three-storey brick buildings. Victoria's Chinatown reached its apogee in the early 1910s, covering about six city blocks and housing most of the city's three thousand Chinese. In its prime, Chinatown boasted more than 150 firms, over ten opium factories, about twenty voluntary associations, two opera stages, a hospital, three Chinese schools, two churches, and more than five temples or shrines, and a growing class of wealthy merchants. Behind the commercial facades of the buildings was a maze of claustrophobic courtyards, picturesque arcades and narrow alleys. These interconnecting passageways, closed off from public view, led to tenements, opium dens, gambling clubs, brothels and housed a variety of socioeconomic activities.
Having a deeper harbour, and being the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Vancouver gradually took over trade that had formerly passed through Victoria. After the turn of the twentieth century, Vancouver's Chinatown outstripped Victoria's in both population and importance and, by the late 1940s, Toronto's Chinatown superseded Victoria's. After the universal immigration policy of 1967, many of the new Chinese immigrants were upwardly mobile professional people. They chose to settle down in better residential areas. As prejudice and discrimination subsided, more and more Chinese left Chinatown to seek better accommodation in other parts of the city. A 1971 field survey of Victoria's Chinatown revealed that its total area had dwindled to about two city blocks with only 143 Chinese residents. It was in a terribly rundown state and considered by many local people to be an eyesore. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, most new Chinese immigrants went to large cities such as Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary; few would go to Victoria and other smaller cities.
Having languished for more than three decades, Victoria's Chinatown seemed to be doomed to extinction, like other old Chinatowns in Canada. It was eventually saved by City councils during the mayoralties of Michael Young and Bill Tindall. Alderman Bob Wright, who perceived the economic potential and heritage value of Chinatown, was the driving force behind the launch of a rehabilitation program in July 1979. Dr. David Chuenyan Lai was appointed by the City and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association to be the chairman of the program. It included several projects: painting or cleaning old buildings, removing overhead power and telephone lines and installing them underground, improving sidewalks, erecting the Gate of Harmonious Interest, constructing the Chinatown Care Centre and Chung Wah Mansion (a subsidized housing project), rehabilitating Fan Tan Alley, and installing bilingual street signs and directional signs to Chinatown. Today, the number of residents in Chinatown is estimated at about 400 and there are about one hundred shops and businesses.
Although Victoria's Chinatown has a small population and does not have many business concerns, the remaining fragment still retains its nineteenth-century townscape. It is one of the very few Chinatowns in North America to retain cohesive groupings of old buildings with high heritage values. The labyrinthine features behind them remain, defining the special heritage character of the once forbidden town. Victoria's Chinatown was the first Canadian Chinatown to carry out a comprehensive rehabilitation program from 1979 to 1986. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth visited Victoria on 8 March 1983 and included Chinatown in her tour. Chinatown has several times been a location for television and motion picture production. In October 1995, the Heritage Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated Victoria's Chinatown as a national historic district. As of the year 2010 Victoria's Chinatown has remained little changed, because Victoria has not had many new Chinese immigrants. Its Chinatown is now an integral part of the city's downtown centre, a historic district with a rich heritage, one of the early roots of Chinese culture in Canada, and a Mecca for tourists.
This document is a companion insert to A Brief Chronology of Chinese Canadian History: from Segregation to Integration which presents a national overview. These documents offer a more detailed account of specific Chinatowns that are an integral part of Canada's history.
The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Victoria is an umbrella association and a spokesman for Chinatown. Its president and executive members are elected by a Board of Directors which is composed of three representatives from each Chinese association. In 2009, twenty-nine Chinese associations sent representatives to sit on the Board. These associations are as follows:
Table 1 Chinese Associations in Victoria, December 2009
|Group 類 別||Name 名 稱|
|(A) Political 政治||
1 Chinese National League (Guomindang Fenbu) 國民黨分部
|(B) County 鄉邑||
4 Hoy Sun Ning Yung Benevolent Association (Taishan Ningyang Zong Huiguan) 台山寧陽總會館
5 Kong Chow Benevolent Association (Gangzhou Huiguan) 岡卅會館
6 Shon Yee Benevolent Association (Tiecheng Chongyi Hui, Victoria Branch) 鐵城崇義會
7 Hook Sin Tong Charity Association (Zhongshan Fushan Tang) 中山福善堂
8 Yun Ping Association (Enping Huiguan) 恩平會館
9 SamYap Society ( Sanyi Tongxiang Hui) 三邑同鄉會
10 Yue Shan Society (Yushan Fensuo) 禺山分所
11 Hoy Ping Association (Kaiping Huiguan) 開平會館
|(C) Clan 姓氏||
12 Lee Association (Lishi Gongsuo) 李氏公所
|(D) Dialect 語言||15 Yen Wo Society (Renhe Huiguan) 人和會館|
|(E) Recreation 娛 樂||
16 Han Yuen Club (Xianyuan Julebu) 閒圓俱樂部
|(F) Business 商業||19 Victoria Chinese Commerce Association (Huabu Shanghui) 華埠商會|
|(G) Social 社交||
20 Chinese Canadian Cultural Association (Huaqiao Lianyihui) 華僑聯誼會
21 Victoria Chinese Ladies Club (Zhonghua Fu Nü Hui) 中華婦女會
22 Victoria Chinese Cultural Centre (Zhonghua Wenhua Zhongxin) 中華文化中心
23 Hong Kong Chinese Overseas Association (Lüjia Gangqiao Lianyihui) 旅加港僑聯誼會
24 Chinatown Junior Lion Dancers (Huanbu Youtongxing Shituan) 華埠幼童醒獅團
|(H) Religion 宗教||25 Chinese Pentecostal Church (Huaren Shenzhaohui) 華人神召會|
|(I) Others 其他||
26 Victoria (Chinatown) Lions Club (Yuduoli Huabu Shizihui) 域多利華埠獅子會
27 Victoria Chinatown Lioness Club (Yuduoli Huabu Nü Shizihui) 域多利華埠女獅子會
28 Victoria Chinese Canadian Veterans Association (Yuduoli Huaren Tuiwujun Renhui) 域多利華人退伍軍人會
29 Victoria Chinatown Care Centre (Yuduoli Huabu Liaoyangyuan) 域多利華埠療養院
Victoria's Chinatown still has a cohesive grouping of buildings constructed during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It contains 32 buildings with high heritage value of which over 50% were designated in the Italianate style. This self-guided walking tour starts at Centennial Square where City Hall is located, and ends in front of the Gate of Harmonious Interest. The route is about one mile long. At a normal pace, the tour will take about one hour to complete.
The fountain of the square is on the site of former Cormorant Street (600 block) between Government and Douglas streets, which was the oldest section of Victoria's Chinatown. This section of Old Chinatown was demolished in the 1960s when Centennial Square was developed in 1962.
This group of Italianate buildings was a typical Old Chinatown development during the 1880s. In the 1880s and 1890s, about six opium factories were established behind these buildings.
As you walk down the slope, you are going down to the bottom of the former Johnson Street ravine which once separated Chinatown from Victoria's city centre.
Wooden huts perched on the steep northern bank of the Johnson Street ravine were replaced in the late 1890s by a series of two-storey tenement buildings. The Square shopping complex is a quadrangle of nine connected buildings constructed between 1894 and 1900 and was redeveloped in 1974.
The original utilitarian façade “was truly an ugly duckling” until it was converted by Michael Williams, the new owner, into the elegant Swans Hotel.
Walking up Pandora Avenue (formerly Cormorant Street), you will see across the avenue a group of Italianate brick buildings which were once rented to the Chinese. They are now incorporated into Market Square.
On your left-hand side you will pass the location of the former Chinese Theatre and Theatre Alley. The theatre, which was converted into a warehouse in the mid- 1940s, was demolished in the 1980s. In 2011, a housing project with 133 residential units and 9,000 sq. ft of retail space was being built on the former Theatre site.
The building marks the entrance to Fan Tan Alley. In 1904, the Hoy Sun Ning Yang Benevolent Association, which is the largest county association in Victoria, purchased the building and used it as its headquarters.
This 230-feet long narrow brick chasm was formed by four contiguous brick buildings on both sides. Before the 1950s, it had several gambling dens and was a busy centre of Victoria Chinatown.
The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, established in 1884-1885, was the “government of Chinatown” before 1909 and represented the Manchu government in ruling and protecting Chinese across Canada.
Yen Wo Society is an association of Hakka people. The current Hakka association building was constructed in 1912 on the former site of the Tam Kung Temple which was built in 1877 and demolished in 1911. Tam Kung Temple is now housed on the third floor of this building.
The Chinese Empire Reform Association building has twin facades, featuring recessed balconies and arched windows. The association became virtually defunct after the Manchu government was overthrown by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. The Lung Kong Kung Shaw, a clan society, now owns the northern half of the building.
You turn left and walk down Herald Street. After passing the Victoria Chinatown Care Facility, you will reach the Hart's Herald Building which originally housed a livery stable and a carriage repair shop. Next, you walk through Dragon Alley which was once an internal passageway from Herald Street to Fisgard Street.
Across Fisgard Street, is the Lee Chong Building. This simple brick building exemplifies the less elaborate architectural style which became popular in post-1900 Victoria.
Walking up Fisgard Street, you will see the entrance to Fan Tan Alley. On your left is the higher Loo Tai Cho Building built in 1802. It is ornamented with an Italianate cornice and a round second-floor balcony above a splayed corner entry. On the right is the lower Sheam and Lee Building built in 1801.
Walking across Government Street, you can see a two-storey building with a “cheater floor” on the western side of Government Street.
Walking up Herald Street, you will pass the Chung Wah Mansion, a subsidized housing project. Opposite the Mansion is the Hook Sin Tong Building which is known for its interior stained glass dome.
If you walk through the covered parking lot of the Chung Wah Mansion, you will reach the Chinese Public School on Fisgard Street. It is also the headquarters of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. The School runs from Monday to Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. and teaches children Chinese language and culture.
Next to the School is the Gee Tuck Tong Building which displays the Edwardian-Italianate style.
Walking along a narrow alley through the Gee Tuck Tong Building, you will see a small courtyard and a three-storey brick building which is a typical small tenement structure of Old Chinatown. It was completely renovated in 1991.
The building contains a recessed balcony and a “cheater floor,” and has a distinctive Beaux-Arts parapet and pediment panel.
The Gate is the focal point of Chinatown. It was dedicated on 15 November 1981. Its Chinese name is Tong Ji Men, meaning “to Work Together with one Heart” (Tongxin Xieli), and “to Help Each Other to Achieve Harmony (Hezhong Gongji). ” After a decade, the Gate deteriorated and was refurbished and re-dedicated on 6 October 1996.
Victoria was incorporated as a City on August 2, 1862