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Finding Chinatown in Canada

by Diannek

Fan Tan Alley
Victoria, BC's Chinatown

During a visit to Victoria, British Columbia in March of 1995, I was reading The Concubine's Children by Denise Chong. The book, a Canadian best-seller, and the winner of numerous Canadian literary prizes, was a lively historical biography, set in BC's principal Chinatowns just after the turn of the 20th century. Chong's grandmother was the Canadian wife of a Chinese immigrant. She worked as a waitress in the teahouses and mahjong parlors in the Victoria-Vancouver-Nanaimo triangle of Chinatowns that flourished during that period. A hundred years ago, immigrating Chinese referred to Canada as The Gold Mountain, and they traveled there with the dream of a prosperous life in the New World. Ironically, today it's the wealthy Hong Kong Chinese who are fleeing to Canada with the hope of hanging onto their mountains of gold. 

When I finished reading Chong's story I became intrigued with the notion of visiting those Chinatowns to see for myself how they look and feel today. Would today's immigrants find the same world that Chong so vividly described? With her book as my guide I decided my first stop would be Victoria's Chinatown. 

Victoria once claimed the largest Chinatown on the west coast, second only to San Francisco.  According to Chong, nearly ten thousand immigrants, mostly single male laborers, resided among the trading companies, benevolent societies, markets, herb shops, mahjong and fan tan parlors, tea houses, opium dens and brothels. The Gate of Harmonious Interest and the Tam Kung Temple at the corner of Fisgard and Government Streets marked its entrance.

Gate of Harmonious Interest under construction

On this particular morning in March of 1995, it was very quiet on Fisgard Street. I found the Gate still standing and in process of being refurbished. 

Fisgard Street, Victoria, BC

The Chinatown Chong vividly wrote about is gone. Many of the old buildings, though colorfully painted, were boarded up. The streets were clean, the shops interesting, but nearly empty of traffic. Two vegetable markets were open for business, but there were few shoppers. 

boarded up building
Boarded up building on Fisgard Street

Trendy shopping on the alley

Famous Fan Tan Alley. 

I saw no Chinese faces among the few pedestrians I passed. The shops and restaurants were tidy, mostly vacant, awaiting summer tourists, just like the rest of downtown Victoria. The only Asian faces I saw were on the owner's side of the cash register. Halfway down Fisgard, I found narrow Fan Tan Alley, billed as the narrowest street in North America. The darkened doorways artistically displayed baskets, paper goods, and expensive trinkets. Old smells and old memories have been painted away, as revival efforts appear to be leaning toward a trendy, up-scale clientele. 

A chilly March wind blasted me as I left the lonely alley. March still remembers winter in Victoria, and the wind scattered the pink petals of the flowering cherry trees across my path like spring snow. There were no hanging flower baskets on the city streets, and only a few visitors tramped the gift shops of Government Street. I was eager to move on to the next Chinatown, and although I didn't know it at this point, I would find a very different Chinatown in the city of Vancouver.

Chong's grandmother kept house for her husband and children and worked in Vancouver's tea houses. She visited Victoria occasionally, to see the herbalist, to worship at the temple, and to visit friends. But at times when work grew scarce in Vancouver she'd travel to Nanaimo, BC's third largest Chinatown in the early part of the century. It was a rough town with wild-west store fronts, muddy streets and sawdust floors. She could always get work in Nanaimo because few Chinese women lived there, and fewer still sought jobs in tea houses. 

That would be my next stop. The two-hour drive north to Nanaimo was awesome as the highway traversed the Malahat and then wound its way up the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. I wasn't sure where to find the Nanaimo Chinatown, so I followed the signs leading to the museum, hoping to locate some tourist information. The museum sits on the crowded hillside above the harbour. It's a round, white-painted building, quite homely-looking and ill-at-ease as keeper of Nanaimo's historical treasures. The clerk behind the gift shop counter was helpful. She smiled when I asked where I might find Nanaimo's Chinatown. "It's right here, all that's left of it, that is.  Just follow the signs down the hall."

I did. The story of the Nanaimo Chinatown fire of 1960 was outlined on display boards at the entrance to the Chinatown replica. The museum claims that most of the artifacts used in their displays were rescued from the fire. Visitors see a general store, an apothecary shop and a restaurant kitchen. It only took me a few minutes to respectfully view the remains. boat harbour
Nanaimo's boat harbour

I asked the clerk if any attempt was made to restore Chinatown after the fire. "Oh, no," she said.  "Hardly anyone lived there anymore." I asked her if she could recommend a good Chinese restaurant for lunch. She couldn't think of one. Outside once again, I looked out over the snug and picturesque Nanaimo harbour. The museum grounds would have made a beautiful setting for a Chinatown.

Back in Victoria I was disappointed. So far I hadn't seen anything that was even vaguely reminiscent of the era Denise Chong described. I had one more Chinatown left on my list so I decided to take the ferry to Vancouver. It's a three-hour trip beginning at the Victoria bus terminal and ending at the Vancouver terminal. The bus took approximately forty-five minutes to reach Swartz Bay, where we drove aboard the Vancouver ferry. Its travel time was about an hour and a half. The ferry meandered around small islands and then out into the open sea to Vancouver. It's a memorable ferry trip. The ferry terminal was about half an hour from Vancouver's city center. 

As my bus neared the city, it traveled a long stretch of increasingly urban businesses. I noticed that many of the doctor's and lawyer's offices, restaurants and markets listed Chinese names, and I wondered whether the Chinese even need a distinct Chinatown any longer. When we arrived at the terminal I checked the city map and found that Vancouver's official Chinatown was just a short walk up Main Street, the same area described in Chong's book. 

This was more like it. Vancouver's city streets reminded me of San Francisco, dirty gray pavement, graffiti, electric wires, and heavy traffic. The air was thick with exhaust and big-city noise. As I neared Pender Street, the heart of Chinatown, I was greeted by open-air food markets with their peculiar, yet readily identifiable smells of mingling vegetables, fish, meats and herbs.
a market in Vancouver's Chinatown

One store sold nothing but dried fish. Baskets of bright pink shrimp lined the sidewalk. Inside, more fish and shark fins stood on the shelves. Another store sold herbal medicines in bins and jars of exotic-looking dried ingredients.
lots of traffic in Vancouver's Chinatown
store opening
bustling pedestrians in Vancouver's Chinatown

New businesses were holding grand openings, greeting customers with bouquets of red roses and flowing ribbons. A casino stood across the street with brightly painted advertisements beckoning all comers. The streets were jammed with people, and I was one of very few Caucasians among the hurrying crowd.

I wandered down Pender and eventually found the Sun Yat-sen Gardens. As I stepped inside, I felt a remarkable change of atmosphere. Peace, harmony and quiet prevailed, just a few steps away from the bustle and noise, separated only by a colorful wall and flowers. But the food smells drifting over the wall were making me hungry so I left the gardens and stepped into a nearby restaurant. 

beautiful gardens
Sun Yat-sen Gardens
It was noisy and crowded. The waiter raised his eyebrows at me. I looked around and again saw no Caucasians. He spoke broken English but smiled me to a small table. Lunch was dim sum. Did I understand what that meant? I nodded. I was advised that if I needed help, I should call on him because the servers spoke no English.

Then, there was a momentary embarrassment when he asked if I needed a fork. No, I could manage with chopsticks.  He looked relieved, since they had no forks. Lunch consisted of delicacies, shrimp wrapped in pastry dumplings, sesame seed covered lotus balls, figs dipped in fragrant sauces, spicy soup, sticky rice, all served amid loud, exotic conversations, laughter, and clicking chopsticks. Everyone smiled at me. I felt welcome.

As I sat drinking tea in the friendly crowded restaurant, I was again reminded of Denise Chong's mother. She would have felt right at home here in Vancouver today. Much of what she described looked the same. And I realized I had felt a sense of excitement as I walked around through the markets and around the imposing and prosperous-looking Canadian Bank of Hong Kong. Vancouver is expecting company. And as the new Chinese immigrants pour into British Columbia, they will feel it too, because this Chinatown is not a tourist attraction, but rather is a home away from home, just as it was more than one hundred years ago. 

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