Tess van Straaten
Monday Magazine columnist
Nestled in a corner of downtown Victoria is Canada’s oldest Chinatown – the second-oldest in all of North America. Dating back to the mid-1800s, it’s a special spot filled with hidden gems and it’s one of my favourite places to explore on a Saturday afternoon.
“For me, what makes Victoria’s Chinatown so special is the long history,” says city councillor and community champion Charlayne Thornton-Joe, who spent much of her childhood in Chinatown. “There are stories of hardship, sacrifice, opportunity and family. If the walls could talk, there would be so many stories to fill many books.”
|Tess van Straaten|
One of those stories belongs to a tiny shop in the heart of Chinatown you may have walked by without even noticing. Loy Sing Meat Market may not look like much, but it’s the oldest continuous Chinese business in North America.
“We used to pluck duck feathers and after my mom would roast the duck, my brothers used to pull the wagon down Chinatown and deliver it to the stores, so we’re proud of our heritage here,” says Bonnie Mar, whose family used to own Loy Sing.
If you stop by, be sure to try the barbecue pork or other delicacies, like the crispy skin roast pig, prepared in the back. Other favourite food spots for regulars include Ocean Garden, where they’ll make things like honeymoon friend rice for special orders; Golden City, for its lettuce wraps, and Fan Tan Café, which is known for serving up great Wor Won Ton soup from its location tucked next to famous Fan Tan Alley.
“Chinese food is diverse – some restaurants are known for their noodles, some are known for dim sum dishes, some for bubble tea, some for spicier dishes and some are known for their pastries,” says Thornton-Joe. “I love them all!”
Walking down narrow Fan Tan Alley – the narrowest official street in the country – I’m immediately transported back in time. Filled with unique shops and colourful paper lanterns, this popular tourist spot named after the Chinese gambling game Fan-Tan used to be a gambling district filled with opium dens.
It’s one of Thornton-Joe’s favourite spots and she also recommends visiting the Tam Kung Temple — the oldest Chinese temple in Canada – and the Palace of Sages at the Chinese Public School on Fisgard Street.
“It’s located on the second floor and is a large, gilded shrine which houses statuettes of five sages: Zhao Yuen Tan (the God of Wealth), Hua Tuo (the God of Medicine), Tian Hou (the Queen of Heaven), Kwan Yu (the God of the Military) and Confucius, China’s greatest philosopher,” she says.
Another gem is the Hook Sin Tong Building on Herald Street. It has a stained glass dome, consisting of 20 panels of about 5,000 pieces of stained glass, each with a tulip motif.
Standing by the ornate and beautiful Gate of Harmonious Interest after an afternoon of exploring, I watch a vendor stack vegetable boxes on the sidewalk. Taking in the colourful streetscape, it’s hard not to be in awe of the rich culture and history of this vibrant town within a town.