Victoria, British Columbia on the southern tip of Vancouver Island is home to the oldest Chinatown in Canada. It is also the second largest in all of North America next only to San Francisco’s Chinatown. The Gold Rush in the Fraser Canyon in 1858 along with drought, famine and war saw an increase in the immigration of Chinese citizens to Canada and specifically to British Columbia. The building of Victoria’s Chinatown began modestly with simple huts made of wood but soon turned into a vibrant and dense neighbourhood. By 1911, this six block area in downtown Victoria’s north end reached its peak in development and residents enjoyed theatres, churches, schools, temples, a hospital and many family businesses with a population of more than 3,000 Chinese residents.
Today this unique neighbourhood attracts people from all over the world as well as the local artistic community. Many of the original buildings have been meticulously preserved in and around Chinatown, the most famous being the amazingly narrow Fan Tan alley. It sits in the heart of Chinatown and is a mere five feet wide flanked by three story buildings. Tourists can visit a variety of small shops, an art gallery, and a Chinese Café while enjoying the many colourful signs that adorn the brick walls on either side. Originally the local gambling district, Fan Tan Alley housed numerous shops, restaurants and opium dens.
Visitors to Victoria’s Chinatown can take one of the many walking tours or a more relaxed Pedicab tour that allows one to take a step back in time and wonder about what life was like in the late 1800’s for these hard working Chinese immigrants. Learn how to play Fan Tan, a popular game of chance for which Fan Tan Alley was named. One will also pass by a red door with the address 23 1/2 signifying a mezzanine level of residential apartments snuggled in between two floors. A labyrinth of hidden passage ways were part of the original construction of the neighbourhood which allowed a quick get-a-way for those that needed to escape quickly and unnoticed. For the more adventurous, a climb of the 51 steps to the Tam Kung temple atop the Yen Wo Society building holds in own rewards. Here one can view a statue of Tam Kung, who is the patron saint of seafarers, magnificently adorned in red and gold brocade robes sitting within an ornate gilt framework.
There is certainly something for everyone to enjoy and marvel at in downtown Victoria’s Chinatown. With street festivals, shops, artisans and opportunities to sample the local cuisine, tourists and residents alike know that more than one visit is needed to fully appreciate and take in all that Chinatown and its famed hidden passege ways and Fan Tan alley have to offer. With plenty of local attractions and accommodations to suit any budget all within walking distance, Chinatown and the surrounding area brings visitors back year after year. The more moderate climate on Vancouver Island easily lends itself to great holidays in any season.