Take a walk through the oldest Chinatown in Canada and the second oldest in North America behind San Francisco. Although on the smaller side, Victoria’s Chinatown has some incredible sights.
Location: 500 Fisgard Street.
A Bit of History
Victoria’s Chinatown is the oldest and most intact Chinatown in Canada, and represents an important part of the complex history and heritage of Chinese Canadians. The district was designated a National Historic Site in 1995.
What started as a crude collection of wooden shacks built by Chinese immigrants seeking gold in BC’s interior, the area grew significantly with the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Approximately 16 000 Chinese builders travelled through Victoria to work on the railroad, and by 1911, Chinatown had a population of more than 3000.
From the late nineteenth century to the early 1900s, it was the largest Chinese settlement in Canada. And with population growth, many of the shacks were replaced by multi-storied brick buildings used as housing, stores, temples, theatres, and headquarters of clan and county associations.
By 1971, however, Victoria’s Chinatown had a population of only 173 people. Due to the lack of inhabitants, the old buildings deteriorated, and many were condemned or demolished. In the late 1970s, the Victoria City Council finally recognized the area’s heritage importance and tourism potential. As a result, a revitalization program began with the help of historical geographer Dr. David Chuenyan Lai. This collaboration resulted in the beautification of Chinatown and included the renovation of Fan Tan Alley and the construction of the Gate of Harmonious Interest (image above).
Today you can find a vibrant mix of businesses in Victoria’s Chinatown, many of which are ethnically diverse.
Must See’s in Victoria’s Chinatown
While wandering the area, keep watch for:
- The magnificent entry arch (Gate of Harmonious Interest)
- Historic Chinese Public School building (which is still in use)
- The “Apology Plaque” issued by the BC Government to Chinese citizens
- The narrow alleyways, including the famously narrow Fan Tan Alley
Chinese Public School Building
Location: 636 Fisgard Street
In 1908, the Victoria School Board passed a law that Chinese-born students could no longer attend public schools. Up until that point, many Chinese-speaking children used public schools as a way of learning English. Those that chose not to go this route received their education at the Lequn Free School founded by the Chinese merchants. However, this small location soon became overcrowded after the ruling. In response, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) built a new school designed by Scottish architect David C. Frame.
The CCBA raised $7000 from Chinese communities across Canada to purchase the city lots on Fisgard Street. The unique freestanding two-and-a-half-story building combines Chinese elements, seen in the pagoda-style roofline and tower, with an eclectic blend of Western and Eastern architectural detailing.
Although no longer used as it was originally intended, the school continues to provide education to community members.
Fan Tan Alley
Location: A narrow alley that runs between Fisgard Street and Pandora Avenue
Fan Tan Alley was originally a gambling district, filled with opium dens and shady pubs. Fan Tan is the Chinese name for one of the more popular gambling games played in this alley. Up until 1908, opium was legal in Canada. Fan Tan alley became a popular location for opium factories, and consequently shady pubs and gambling clubs.
Gambling at the time was illegal, so to protect the gamblers, Fan Tan Alley business owners put ‘Watchmen’ at both ends of the alley. They also put in trap doors to second floors and secret escapes in case of a police raid. These illegal gambling clubs continued well after the opium dens became defunct. In fact, the area, including the gambling clubs, was at the height of popularity in the 1940s.
By the 1950s attendance of the clubs was lacking, mainly due to heavy police crackdowns. And by the 1970s, the unmaintained buildings were condemned. However, during Chinatown’s revitalization, spearheaded by David Chuenyan Lai, it was recommended that the city offer low rent to emerging artists. In exchange, these artists helped renovate the alley.
As a result, Fan Tan Alley is now a popular tourist attraction full of unique shops, with a claim to fame as ‘Canada’s Narrowest Street.’
Fun Fact about Fan Tan Alley: Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn were filmed on this street in the movie Bird on a Wire.
To help you navigate through the colourful streets and narrow alleyways of Victoria’s Chinatown, download this self-guided tour pamphlet created by the City of Victoria. Or better yet, join a walking tour of the area! This one is fantastic if you like both history AND food: Victoria’s History and Food Walking Tour
Grab A Bite
As mentioned above, many of the shops and eateries in Victoria’s Chinatown are ethically diverse. You can find French pastry shops, Italian bakeries, and, of course, Chinese grocery stores selling a variety of strange and wonderful eatables.
A few of my favourite spots, include:
- Just Matcha Tea Shop (544 Pandora Street)
- Bean Around the World – for coffee (533 Fisgard Street)
- Fan Tan Cafe – for noodles and bubble tea (549 Fisgard Street)
- La Roux Patisserie – for their macaron’s (519 Fisgard Street)
Parking and Getting There
Pay parking is available on Fisgard Street and many of the other side streets close by. During the summer, especially, it can be hard to find a spot. There are also several parkades in the area that allow for longer stays. You can expect to spend one to two hours exploring the area, and even longer if you plan on eating at one of the establishments.
It’s approximately 8 to 9 blocks north of the Inner Harbour, making it an easy destination to walk to as well. You can find it by walking straight down Government Street.
Even More Sites to Enjoy
Victoria has many unique sites one should see and learn about, most of which can be found in our very own e-book: Victoria’s Historic Sites. I took much of the above information from that e-book, which includes 20 more historical sites to explore in and around Victoria. If learning about Victoria’s history and where to find the sites is of interest to you, then get this e-book!
Have you been to Victoria’s Chinatown? What business, eatery, or attraction is your favourite to visit there? Let us know in the comment section below.
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