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Victoria BC: Explore Chinatown

Updated: Mar 4

Victoria's Chinatown is the second oldest Chinatown in North America, after San Francisco. The ornately decorated arch, the Gate of Harmonious Interest, marks the entrance on Fisgard Street. Visitors will be greeted by a sensory burst of bright red and gold decorating traditional architecture, signs with Chinese characters, tantalizing smells, and small shops hidden along narrow alleys. Chinatown is a small area easily explored on foot and will delight any visitor to Victoria, BC.

A nightime shot of an ornate Chinese gate arch with two lions in front.
The Gate of Harmonious Interest

 

 

History of Victoria BC Chinatown

Back in the days of British colonial control of British Columbia, this western Canadian province was largely unknown to the outside world until gold was discovered in the Fraser Canyon in 1858. This discovery led to a sudden population boom as fortune hunters from around the globe arrived in the area. Approximately one-third of those new arrivals were Chinese -- the early arrivals coming from the fading California Gold Rush, with the majority arriving about a year later. Not all Chinese sought gold; many escaped famine, drought, and war. The new arrivals soon realized that their finances, the back-breaking work of gold mining, and the racist policies of the day would make their dream of great wealth much more challenging than they had anticipated.

Every miner was required to travel to Victoria for their mining and prospecting licenses, and the city began to grow. The colonial community did not welcome the Chinese, and they were pushed to the edges of the town. Chinatown started as a rather crude collection of wooden shacks serving as residences and businesses reflecting the Chinese culture. Government policies effectively prevented Chinese women from entering, leaving the community over 95% male.

A mural depicting a Chinese store with customers in traditional clothes
Chinatown Mural

Later, when the brand-new country of Canada began building the transcontinental railway, more than 15,000 workers arrived from China and the community continued to grow. A Buddhist Temple and Chinese Public School was built. Community organizations, such as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, dedicated to protecting the rights and safety of Chinese immigrants, were formed. Unfortunately, Chinatown also had a dark and seedy side including gambling halls, brothels, and nearly a dozen opium dens. At its peak in 1911, there were more than 3,000 Chinatown residents.


Modern Chinatown

Today, Chinatown is a National Historic Site, located mainly along the 500-600 block of Fisgard Street, where the Chinese Public School, Fan Tan Alley, and other historic businesses are found. Other well-preserved buildings can be found along Store Street, Herald Street, Government Street, and Pandora Avenue.

A buillding with 3 story roof with hip-and-gable roof style, also known as the xieshan roof style
Chinese Public School

Visitors will find a myriad of tacky souvenir shops and restaurants intermingled with the traditional architecture and culture. Keep your eyes sharp to see small shrines, stylized street signs and lamp standards. Wander through small groceries to discover unusual goods such as exotic vegetables and dried fish.


To get the most out of your visit, consider joining a Chinatown Walking Tour or download the self-guided Mysterious Chinatown tour. The Royal BC Museum also includes an exhibit replicating some of the buildings and telling the earliest residents' stories.


a reconstructed street scene of Chinatown
Chinatown Exhibit in the Royal BC Museum

Eating in Victori, a BC Chinatown

Check out The Don Mee restaurant for a Chinese brunch known as dim sum. Order a take-out box from the kitchen door at Fan Tan Cafe for noodles on the go. Cheap combo meals at Ocean Garde or a large bowl of dumplings and barbeque pork soup at Wah Lai Yuen will satisfy both your budget and your tummy. Tea drinkers will want to stop at Silk Road to choose from their vast selection of delicious blends and flavours.


a bowl of wonton soup in white bowl
Dumpling Soup

Shopping in Victoria's Chinatown

I'm not much of a shopper, but I can spend hours meandering around quirky shops. In Chinatown, some of the best meanderings can be enjoyed in narrow commercial alleys such as Fan Tan Alley, which links Fisgard and Johnson Streets. The lantern-lined alley is less than 2 metres wide but is crowded with interesting businesses, from yoga studios and the Chinatown Museum to boutique clothing shops and tattoo parlours.


 long narrow alley strung with lantern and brightly coloured shop signs
Fan Tan Alley

Final Thoughts

The National Historic Site of Victoria's Chinatown began as a cluster of humble shacks and grew into a vibrant community despite racist public policies and community ostracization. Exploring Chinatown is a feast of sights, smells, and sounds regardless of whether you indulge in a bowl of steaming dumplings, immerse yourself in the community's history at the Chinatown Museum, or discover the delights of Fan Tan Alley. Take a moment to reflect on the incredible resilience and determination of the early Chinese settlers against the challenges of adapting to changes in language and culture while enduring the cruel racist policies of the time. Their stories, struggles, and triumphs are woven into the fabric of Chinatown, making it so much more than a tourist destination.

Street scene showing sign for Don Mee Restaurant

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10 Comments


Guest
Mar 25

Surprised this Chinatown is fairly large, in London or in Antwerp it is just a street or two, but certainly not a whole neighbourhood. It is great to see that the Chinatown was integrated so well and not only offers comfort for fellow Chinese expats but also allows locals & tourists to travel back in time/enjoy the Chinese culture. I'm not too much into it if I am being honest but will never say no to a fortune cookie.


Carolin | <a href="https://solotravelstory.com/">Solo Travel Story</a>

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Replying to

Chinatowns are a big part of west coast culture in the Americas due to the huge numbers who arrived during the Gold Rushes and the building of the transcontinental railway. I'm a big fan and have enjoyed visiting Chinatowns from Canada to Peru. It's fascinating to me how similar they all are.

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Guest
Mar 08

I didn't know that Victoria had the second oldest Chinatown in North America. It's always interesting to see the multiculturalism of a city through these neighborhoods that reflect so much of the culture of other peoples and countries.

It will undoubtedly be a treat for the senses to wander the streets of this block! Angela | Blonde Around The World Travel -

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Dim sum is top of my list when I'm in a group but when travelling solo I will head to a noodle bar.

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Guest
Mar 04

It's always a delight to visit a multi-cultural city! One can really appreciate the richness and the diversity of a place by indulging oneself with its food and having to learn about the culture and the thriving community behind it. I think Chinatown could be my first stop when visiting Vancouver. A friend of mine used to say HongKouver ;-) #flyingbaguette


Jan - https://flyingbaguette.com/

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I forgot how fun Chinatown is to explore. Honestly way better, and safer, than the one in Vancouver. I would love to take one of the walking tours, they're always such a great way to learn about a place. And of course there are so many amazing places to eat there, but I'll definitely take your recommendations for my next trip. With all this Victoria content, I'm becoming inspired for a trip really soon

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I do prefer Victoria's Chinatown for the same reasons. Walking tours are always a treat. Victoria makes a great getaway!

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