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Discovering the Hidden Treasures of Victoria's Chinatown

Victoria's Chinatown district is a mix of old traditions and new style. Every visit uncovers new hidden secrets, secrets only a Lomography camera can capture. Read on to find out what I found one Sunday afternoon in June!

I’ve lived in Victoria, Canada for my whole life, 21 years, but every time I head downtown I find something new in Chinatown.

The view of Chinatown’s Gate of Harmonious Interest from the Tam Kung Temple.

What used to be a maze of over-populated dwellings and businesses, housing almost more than the entire downtown population in just six blocks, is now a thriving neighbourhood of restaurants, galleries, cultural associations, and tourist attractions. It is the oldest Chinatown in Canada and the second oldest in North America, established during the BC gold rush of the 1860s.

With narrow alleyways and trendy shops, Chinatown is visited by millions of people every year, but even the regulars don’t see all of the neighbourhood’s secrets. Across the street from the ornate Gate of Harmonious Interest is the small red door of 1713 ½ Government Street that opens to 52 steep steps. Up the narrow staircase, passing the Yen Wo Benevolent Society’s loud Mah-jong room, is the oldest Tam Kung Buddhist temple in Canada.

Pay the attendant, who speaks next to no English, a small donation for entrance and you can go into the dimly lit temple. Smelling sweetly of incense and musk, the room is a throwback to Chinese tradition and Buddhist ceremony. Sometimes the attendant will let you take pictures, but on my most recent visit he said no.

The old traditions are a sharp contrast to The Milkman’s Daughter, a modern, clean-cut, and trendy DIY shop affiliated with Smoking Lily at the bottom of the temple stairs. Specializing in screen printing and unique handmade fashions, this store is a wellspring of ideas and local goods; very much in line with the analogue lifestyle. There was even a make-your-own pinhole camera book!

Much of Chinatown’s charm can be found in its two main alleys, both leading away from Fisgard Street and the heart of Chinatown. Dragon Alley is an isolated modern townhouse development seemingly miles from the bustle of downtown yet separated by only one ancient brick wall. Bookended by a local favourite coffee shop on one end and a Bubble Tea café on the other, Dragon Alley is a quiet refuge for people living in the neighbourhood.

Dragon Alley’s modern condos.

The darker and more mysterious Fan Tan Alley – with a history of opium dens, brothels, and elaborate escape pathways from gambling houses – was once part of the “Forbidden City” used only by Chinese people, but is today a highlight of the local ghost tour and a favourite of tourists. The narrowest street in Canada now holds alternative clothing shops, an interesting record store, and expensive gallery space.

For food, the photographer is naturally attracted to the Noodle Box, a small shop which makes fresh Asian-influenced food over sizzling woks and serves customers in Chinese take-out boxes. Brace for heat, both from the fires and the spices! Why not also try Silk Road Tea ?

BC/Canadian history is full of horrible stories of racism and mistreatment of this ethnic minority. Whether from the head tax on immigration, indentured labour on the railroads, or the isolated Chinese leprosy colony on Darcy Island when white Canadians were being cured in Halifax, Chinese Canadians have not always had a good life. Reconciliation is finally being attempted by the Canadian government, but at least Chinatown is now able to be a vibrant important part of Victoria’s cultural fabric.

This once-reclusive neighbourhood is a treat for tourists and lomographers. If you’re ever in Victoria, check out the amazing colours (both visual and cultural) of this National Historic Site, and keep your eyes open because you never know what you’ll find!

written by befaster

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