There are Chinatowns all over the US and Canada. The oldest is in San Francisco, the second oldest is in Victoria, British Columbia.
The Chinatown in BC is the oldest Chinatown in Canada and was established shortly after the gold rush of 1858 when there was a massive excursion of miners from all over the world, but particularly California, to the Fraser River. Many migrants liked Victoria and stayed there either after striking gold, or failing to find gold.
Chinatown, Victoria is tiny, only one block by two blocks. So as well as being the oldest Chinatown in the western world, it’s also the smallest.
Chinatown is today a bustling destination for locals and tourists. Locals are mainly Chinese-Canadians who have been in the area for generations. Victoria’s Chinatown is now surrounded by cultural, entertainment venues as well as being a venue itself. Chinatown is now conveniently just minutes away from other sites.
Despite the diminutive side of the place Chinatown has a lot of secrets. Behind the Classical and Renaissance building facades are the remnants of the Chinatown of old: secret passageways, remnants of opium dens, gambling parlors and brothels.
Over the years Old Chinatown reflected the varying amounts of opportunities in this area. Early Chinese pioneers had to overcome great physical and social obstacles to establish today’s prosperous and diverse society. The community has withstood extreme degrees of upheaval and injustice that helps define its unique character.
Post WW2 Chinese Canadians were granted equal rights and full Canadian citizenship. Old Chinatown became less populated as accommodations in other areas were sought. The preservation of Old Chinatown in the 80’s attracted artists and musicians who increased the occupancy rate and helped revive a previously declining Old Chinatown.
Rejuvenation efforts are continually made to restore and preserve Old Chinatown’s unique character and history. Although seemingly small; Old Chinatown once stretched over six square city blocks where thousands lived and worked in the largest Chinatown north of San Francisco. Urban renewal was and continues to be the main reason unique Old Chinatown buildings disappear.
Currently Old Chinatown remains a sanctuary that offers respite from the urban status quo. Much wisdom and many holistic health benefits are continually derived from Old Chinatown’s customs, philosophy, medicine, gourmet cuisine and many cultures. It is a colorful mixed community that endears and prospers.
Here’s a great little tour of an old gambling den in Victoria: