History, East Asian, Editorials & Essays
By David Chuenyan Lai
Victoria Chinatown, the earliest Chinatown in Canada, celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2008. In June 1858, a few wealthy San Francisco merchants arrived at Fort Victoria in response to the Fraser River Gold Rush. They bought properties on Cormorant Street (the present site of Centennial Square) where they set up wooden huts for their recruited labourers from San Francisco and China. Most of the labourers were sent to pan for gold in the lower Fraser River whereas the merchants stayed behind to set up stores on Cormorant Street between Douglas and Government Streets. When Fort Victoria was incorporated as the city of Victoria in 1862, its population stood at about 5,000, of which 300 people were Chinese. All of them resided on Cormorant Street where the embryo of Canada’s first Chinatown was formed.
The Province of British Columbia was included in the national census of 1881 for the first time. The headcount in the census listed 693 Chinese in Victoria and 485 in New Westminster, making Victoria Chinatown and New Westminster Chinatown the first and second largest Chinese settlements in Canada. At that time, the City of Vancouver was not yet in existence and its predecessor, the town of Granville, was but a small outpost on the Pacific coast. No Chinatowns were found outside British Columbia because the census of 1881 listed only 33 Chinese outside BC: 10 in Toronto, eight in the town of Barrie, seven in Montréal, four in Winnipeg, and four in three other cities.
As Victoria was the gateway to Canada from China, its Chinatown prospered. Many Chinese voluntary associations purchased properties during the building boom between the 1890s and the 1900s. By the early 1910s, Chinatown has reached its apogee, expanding to cover about six city blocks and housing most of Victoria’s 3,000 Chinese The city block on both side of Fisgard Street was the “Forbidden City” of Chinatown, within which were situated a theatre, two temples, a hospital, cafes, several opium factories, gambling dens and brothels, and numerous closely-packed tenement buildings and shacks. Fan Tan Alley and Theatre Alley, for example, were the major access points to the core of the southern city block of Fisgard Street and both alleys were closed to the outside world by heavy wooden doors or gates. Fan Tan Alley was at one time a busy, boisterous street with numerous gambling dens on both sides and the main entry to the labyrinth of the “Forbidden City.”
The Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1886 with Granville village as the western terminal. On 2 April 1886, the village was incorporated as the City of Vancouver. Having a deeper harbour and being the western terminal of the trans-Canada railway, Vancouver gradually took over the trade that formerly passed through Victoria and replaced Victoria as the premier port on Canada’s Pacific coast. The national census of 1911 listed 3,559 Chinese in Vancouver and 3,458 in Victoria; this made Victoria the second-largest Chinese settlement in Canada after Vancouver. The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which virtually prohibited Chinese from entering Canada, hastened the demographic and economic decline of Victoria Chinatown.
Victoria Chinatown retained its secondary position for over 40 years after the 1910s. The national census of 1941, for example, listed 7,174 Chinese in Vancouver; 3,037 in Victoria, 2,325 in Toronto, 1,703 in Montréal, and 719 in Winnipeg. After the Immigration Act of 1923 was repealed in 1947, most of the Chinese immigrants went to large cities such as Vancouver, Toronto, Montréal, and Calgary; only a few came to Victoria. Both the area and population of Victoria Chinatown continued to decline throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. A survey of Chinatown in 1971 revealed that its size had dwindled to about two city blocks and its residents decreased to 143 in number. Many dilapidated tenement buildings were condemned, and their upper floors left vacant and boarded up. Some old buildings were demolished, and the space converted to parking lots.
Although Victoria Chinatown has lost much of its former luster and mystery, the original characteristics of nineteenth-century Chinatown have not been drastically changed. Its intricate networks of picturesque arcades, narrow alleys and enclosed courtyards are still found behind the commercial facades of the old buildings. This hidden sector, largely unknown to the white public and considered by them as the “Forbidden City,” is looked upon by many Chinese old-timers as a socio-psychological well to which they can return and refresh themselves. Chinatown still has a cohesive grouping of structures that were built between the 1880s and the 1910s. In August 1977, the Ministry of Recreation and Conservation of British Columbia identified 30 heritage structures in Chinatown. All buildings were designed by western architects and are basically variants of architectural styles that prevailed in Western Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of them are characterized by Italiante facades, Romanesque appearance or Edwardian Classical style. However, all Chinatown buildings contain decorative Chinese architectural elements such as upturned eaves and roof corners, extended eaves covering the main balcony, Oriental motifs such as dragons, phoenixes and tigers, Oriental colours such as imperial gold, mandarin red and emerald green as well as inscriptions in Chinese characters.
In September 1979, Victoria City Council carried out a Chinatown rehabilitation program that included the painting or cleaning of heritage buildings; sidewalk improvements and ornamental planting; installation of Chinese-styled lamp posts and bilingual street signs; the construction of a Chinese arch, a care facility and a subsidized housing project. On 8 March 1983, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Victoria Chinatown. Up to now, Victoria Chinatown is the only Chinatown in Canada that a British monarch has visited. In December 1995, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated Victoria Chinatown as a historic district of national and architectural significance.
Historically, Victoria Chinatown is the oldest surviving Chinatown in Canada. It is the only Chinatown in North America that still possesses its nineteenth-century townscape, retaining cohesive groupings of old buildings with high heritage values. The labyrinthine features behind them remain, defining the special heritage character of the once “Forbidden City.” Today, Victoria Chinatown is small with about 300 residents and 100 business concerns. However, recent influxes of tourists and curious visitors reflect Chinatown’s growing economic and historic significance to the City of Victoria.
About the Author:
Dr. David Chuenyan Lai, Professor Emeritus of Geography, taught for five years at the University of Hong Kong, and 35 years at the University of Victoria. He retired in 2003. His research interest is the urban development of Chinatowns and overseas Chinese history. He surveyed over 30 Chinatowns in North America and is the author of many publications on Chinatowns in Canada and the history of Chinese Canadians.