For a true taste of the Orient in British Columbia, Victoria’s Chinatown is the place to visit. Near the waterfront, the district is the oldest in Canada with its roots dating back to the mid-19th century. From a collection of huts, Chinatown has evolved into a major social hub for Victoria’s residents, Chinese-Canadians and tourists. In the early 1900s, more than 3,000 people called it home, but it suffered a dramatic decline in size and population over a 50 year period. In the 1980s, however, there was a major revival.
Building the Gate of Harmonious Interest on Fisgard and Government Street was the most notable. It was built as a lasting monument in recognition of Victoria’s Chinese heritage. More recently, that re-generation has included workshops, condos, vibrant coffee shops, studios and cafés. Today’s Chinatown is a bustling community for both tourists and artists alike, playing a major role alongside downtown Victoria’s many attractions.
Chinatown’s main hub is the large expanse around Fisgard Street. This is where you’ll discover the narrowest street in Canada – Fan Tan Alley – which provides one of many photo opportunities. It’s barely three-feet wide at its narrowest. Why not explore the Alley and look out for its old gambling houses and opium dens which are now souvenir and novelty shops. This unique tourist spot has remained virtually unchanged and is certainly worth seeing.
Be up bright and early on Sundays and head for Government Street which becomes a sprawling Sunday Market. Soak up the amazing atmosphere as you search for the best bargains. Stop off at the Silk Road Tea House for a great selection of teas, sleep remedies, gifts and bath products. Wander through the Neverending Store. Take a break for some bubble tea at Panacea with more than 50 flavours to choose from. The district offers so much variety.
To uncover Chinatown’s history, the district offers some fascinating guided tours. To experience the history of Old Chinatown, Hidden Dragon Walking Tours are superb. Top of the list is their “Lantern Tour.” This lasts for more than three hours and features up-close sightseeing with some incredible “hands on” experiences. Witness the district’s secret alleyways, courtyards, herbalist clinics , schools and temples. Described as “the perfect walking adventure”, you’ll finish the tour wide-eyed with amazement: www.oldchinatown.com has all the details.
For a taste of contemporary art in Chinatown, visit Dales Art Gallery and Framing on Fisgard Street. They offer a comprehensive range of framing services as well as photographic exhibitions. Voted one of the Best Galleries in Victoria, one visit will show you why.
To find the “Heartbeat of Chinatown,” head for Fisgard Street’s Don Mee Seafood Restaurant. You’ll soon discover why it has been a family run tradition for 80 years. Its superb Cantonese, Western and Szechuan dishes and friendly, vibrant atmosphere brings diners back from all over the world. For details visit www.donmee.com.
Just one block east of Chinatown’s Gate, is the Golden City Restaurant. Specialising in vegetarian, Cantonese, dim sum and live seafood, they offer a full lunch and dinner menu, with something for everyone. This bright and cheery restaurant is at street level, making it easier for wheelchair or disabled access.
Foodies will also love The Noodle Box. Sizzling woks and Asian food combines to suit all palates. Black bean and garlic, Malay style fried rice or a Singapore cashew curry. Take your pick from an extensive menu.
The Ocean Garden Restaurant at the entrance to Chinatown, is where tourists and regulars form a perfect cultural mix. Their speciality is Szechuan and Cantonese with extensive menu. Open seven days a week, they offer free home delivery after 5 p.m. – www.oceangardenrestaurant.com has more details.
There are several hotels within walking distance of Chinatown. The Swans Suite Hotel is very close by. This fully renovated Heritage building is minutes from the harbour and offers suites with full kitchens as well as its own on-site brewery. The Wild Saffron Bistro offers guests diamond rated service, and live music is a nightly feature in the Brewpub. Equally close is the Hotel Rialto. This elegant, historic hotel features Italian marble floors, and all rooms include a wine bar. Guest’s bathrooms include bathrobes and luxurious toiletries. The hotel’s Veneto Tapa Lounge is a delightful modern café serving sandwiches, coffee and cocktails.
In its early years, Chinatown was a ghetto for newcomers. Today, the district is a heritage area. A designated National Historic Site and a vibrant commercial community. On your next visit to the city, why not stop by and explore this fascinating part of Victoria’s past, present and future.