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VICTORIA'S CHINATOWN - A ONCE FORBIDDEN CITY


Story and Photos by Margaret Deefholts

Victoria's Chinatown this May morning is hazy: the flamboyant gold tiles and red pillars of the Gate of Harmonious Interest on Government Street are muted and Fisgard Street beyond the Gate is veiled in chiffon-like mist. I feel as though I'm standing on the edge of a world shrouded in mystery, of whispered secrets and strange, fantastical tales: a hidden culture, viewed through a keyhole. One that was little understood by most white Canadians at the time. Or by many even today, for that matter.

John Adams, host of Chinatown Walks, talks about those times-and the Chinese who came here in search of a dream during the heady days of the gold rush back in 1858. "None of them intended to stay permanently in Canada." He says. "They figured on striking it rich, and going back to China wearing silken robes. Some did. Most did not."

This is the story of those who did not. It was a hard scrabble life, but even so, better than their prospects in China, so those first generation immigrants hung on, tending their backyard vegetable gardens, and selling their produce at street stalls. Many found employment as seasonal cooks at logging camps, or toiled behind the steamy rush of a laundry tub. Thousands left Victoria to build, under appalling conditions, the Canadian Pacific Railway.

This was also a dark time in Canadian history when racism flourished like a parasitic flower watered by discrimination and injustice. In an effort to discourage Chinese immigrants, a head tax of $50 was applied, and when that failed to have the desired effect, it was increased to $500. It meant that few men could afford to bring their families to Canada and spent whatever leisure time they had in the labyrinthine alleyways of old Chinatown, their loneliness relieved only by the oblivion of the opium pipe, and the consolation of prostitutes. They worked hard, but the lure of easy money on the gambling circuit meant that they often lost hard too.

On Fisgard, we pause before mural of this very same street, back in the 1880s. It portrays a squelchy mud road, flanked by houses with wooden balconies, and the artist has prettied it up by including kids and women-none of whom, according to Adams, would have been there at the time. The adjoining mural depicting Way Sang Yuen's herbalist shop is no longer there (it's now in the Burnaby Village Museum) but today's Chinatown still boasts herbalists galore. I drop into one just a few steps away. The room is cramped, the glass display case filled with gnarled roots, twigs, seeds and other bottled potions labeled in Chinese. The herbalist doctor's assistant is busy pounding bundles of leaves in a mortar. She speaks no English, but smiles broadly. Her little daughter offers me her pet kitten to stroke.

Victoria's Market Square is where Chinatown originated, its boundaries demarcated by a stream (now flowing underground). Adams hands out "Heaven Bank" paper notes of $10,000 denominations that are burned at funerals to ensure that the spirits of the departed have money to spend in the afterlife. This is a prelude to the most fascinating of all subjects on this tour-the traditions and rites which shaped Chinese lives, not just then, but also today. Adams is a superb raconteur, and his insights shed light on Eastern beliefs that stand in contrast to our pragmatic Western outlook.

A highlight of the tour is Fan Tan Alley, a narrow lane running like a crack between two-storey red brick buildings. Souvenir shops and trendy clothing racks line the alleyway today, yet it doesn't require a stretch of imagination to visualize the illicit Fan-Tan gambling dens, cheap brothels and opium parlours which flourished in this maze of tributary lanes and hidden courtyards. I can't but notice a red wooden door carrying the number 23 which denotes a mezzanine residential apartment tucked in between floors-at one time it probably housed several men rooming together to save money.

As we end the tour at The Gate of Harmonious Interest, the morning mists have dissipated, and bright sunshine floods Chinatown's Fisgard Street. Nothing could round my exploration of this once forbidden city better than a lunch at the long established Don Mee restaurant where the spicy Sezchwan fare is as welcome as a good-luck Chinese Dragon's blessing.

My fortune cookie says, "Much will soon be revealed to you." Indeed, it already has!

IF YOU GO:

Chinatown Walks take place every Saturday at 10:30 am throughout the year (and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays during July and August). They last 90 minutes and start from the "Bright Pearl" sculpture in front of Starbucks Coffee at the corner of Fisgard and Government streets, opposite the Gate of Harmonious Interest.

No reservations are needed. Adults $12; students and seniors $10; families $30. Purchase tickets from the guide before the tour starts. Group tours any time by prior booking.

For more information on Discover the Past Chinatown walks go to http://www.discoverthepast.com/chinatowndescrip.htm

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PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts (except when otherwise indicated)

1. Mural of Herbalist Shop in the 1880s
2. Mural of Fisgard Street in the 1880s
3. A herbalist shop in today's Chinatown
4. Opium licence costing $250.00
5. John Adams shows his audience a Chinese opium pipe
6. Fan Tan Alley - 3 feet across at its narrowest section.
7. John Adams demonstrates the gambling game of Fan-Tan (Photo: Ursula Maxwell-Lewis)
8. The origins of Victoria's Chinatown were in today's Market Square
9. Prayer shrine in Chinatown's oldest temple, Yen Wo Society
10. Gate of Harmonious Interest - Government & Fisgard Streets

 


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