The discovery of gold in the Fraser Canyon in 1858 led a surge in immigration to British Columbia from California. Approximately one-third of those immigrants were Chinese. Within a year, as news of the gold find spread, immigration directly from China began. Famine, drought, and war in China further encouraged immigration to Victoria, primarily from Guangdong province in South China. In the 1880s, construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway triggered a second wave of Chinese immigration, primarily men who would send for their family when they had earned enough.
Initially a collection of crude wooden huts, Victoria’s Chinatown rapidly evolved into a dense community of businesses, theatres, schools, churches, temples and a hospital. The community gained a dark reputation among Victoria’s European population because of its opium factories, gambling dens and brothels. The area occupied approximately six city blocks in the north end of downtown Victoria, including today’s Centennial Square.
Chinatown’s population grew steadily and, despite the 1886 Federal head tax on Chinese immigrants, by 1911 some 3,158 people called Chinatown home. In 1923 the Federal Government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, prohibiting all Chinese immigration to Canada. The act was repealed in 1947.
Chinatown Today Courtesy of Anton Bielousov – bielousov.com
Significant among Chinatown’s cultural attractions is the Gate of Harmonious Interest. It was constructed in Victoria’s Chinese sister city, Suzhou and installed on Fisgard at Government Street. Another attraction is the famously narrow Fan Tan Alley, originally a private walkway and now home to offices and retail shops.
A number of Chinatown’s historic buildings gracing Government, Herald, Store Streets, and Pandora Avenue have been well preserved. They include the Tam Kung Buddhist Temple, the oldest temple of its kind in Canada; the old Chinese School; and an interesting selection of historic buildings housing Chinese businesses.
Victoria’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in Canada and second in North America only to San Francisco’s. It was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1995. It has also been considered a potential addition to Canada’s list of World Heritage Site nominations, but has yet to be nominated.