Victoria, B.C. has such an inviting and picturesque waterfront, with its majestic Empress Hotel and a delightful downtown area full of wonderful shopping and restaurants. But venture north past the main tourist area, and one runs into the exotic wonder that is Victoria’s Chinatown.
A Storied Past
I have heard tales about the mysterious underground tunnels in Victoria’s Chinatown…with stories about a bygone era of nefarious activities including gambling dens, opium parlors, slavery and prostitution….but do the tunnels really exist? I decided to take a self-guided walking tour to find out. After all, this is the second oldest Chinatown in North America (Canada’s oldest), so it is ripe with history, and legends abound. Can you guess which North American city the oldest Chinatown resides?
During the Fraser River gold rush of the 1850’s, many Chinese immigrated to Canada to get in on the riches, and Victoria was their first port of call. While a few of them did find wealth, most did not, and ended up “stuck” in Victoria, forced to live a life among Europeans, who neither understood, nor wanted to associate with the Chinese.
And so Victoria’s Chinatown was born.
With little else to do when they weren’t eking out a living selling produce or working the land, many Chinese resorted to age old vices such as opium use, gambling and prostitution. (Opium was actually legal until 1908, however gambling and prostitution were not.) To hide from the occasional police raid, it is said that the Chinese dug underground tunnels to retreat to when the fuzz showed up, or to stash the contraband.
The Hunt Begins for Underground Tunnels
I had to see these tunnels for myself. Or at least get some evidence that they did indeed exist. Other notable west coast cities have famous underground tunnels, such as Portland’s Shanghai tunnels, or the awesome Seattle Underground. (Not really associated with the Chinese population, but fascinating nonetheless.) Side note: I’ve been on the Seattle Underground Tour four times, and it never gets old. The tour guides are hilarious.
But I digress. My stroll started at Market Square, where the brightly-colored BC Produce Company has been supplying the residents there with fresh produce since the early days. Cross Pandora Ave. and you run into the infamous Fan Tan Alley, Canada’s narrowest street. ‘Fan Tan’ is actually the game of a gambling game. After consulting with a couple of Chinatown’s shop owners, and after some prodding they reluctantly suggested I might find an entrance to an underground tunnel here!
Fan Tan Xiang (Fan Tan Alley) has gates on either side, which may or may not be open, depending on the time of day. As luck would have it, they were open when I arrived. As I began down the narrow passageway, I felt the solid brick walls on either side of me close in. It was drizzling, and the water trickling down the walls fed the earthy scent of decades of organic stuff growing on the bricks, lending a more sinister foreboding to my hunt. The alley is only about a block long.
I traversed the alley up and down three times, trying to find some sort of entrance leading underground. Nada. What I did find was several very nice shops; among them, tiny clothing and gift shops. Perhaps one of these had a secret back entrance to some forgotten downstairs tunnel?
As I browsed a couple of these shops, my inquiries to the shopkeepers elicited perplexed looks. They simply didn’t know, or probably more accurate, wouldn’t say. As I exited one of the shops, another tourist approached me. He had heard me inquiring about the tunnels.
“I believe there is an entrance to the tunnels in the old Janion Hotel.” He said.
“Oh, where is that?” I asked.
“Over there about a block.” He tossed his head westward. “It was an abandoned building, but now they’re renovating it.”
The Janion Hotel (just north of the Johnson St. bridge, past Store St.) was built in 1891 and was an actual hotel for only two years. Subsequent uses include a railway business office, a warehouse and a cold storage facility. After a quick Google search, I learned that the old Janion Hotel did include rumors of tunnels underneath its foundation, and is currently being converted into micro-lofts (as of this writing). I strolled over there, and indeed, the entire place was under construction; the public could not enter. The building appeared to be gutted. However, I did notice that it seemed to retain its authentic, nineteenth-century storefronts.
Nevertheless, I continued my self-guided walking tour and headed to Fisgard St, the main business area of Chinatown. Red is a central theme here, which the Chinese consider to bring good luck. Look down as you stroll the sidewalks and a particular Chinese character “shou” is prominent (meaning long life).
Further down Fisgard St. is Dragon Alley. You’ll know when you get to it by the big red plaque. The dragon on the plague looks foreboding, but to the Chinese it’s a sign of good fortune. Dragon images abound here. As I reached Government St., I came upon the oldest Chinese temple in Canada. To get there, you must ascend 52 steps up a tall narrow building. It is customary to make a donation for the shrine’s upkeep. This was going in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go (I wanted down to tunnels, not up to shrines!) but it was fascinating, nonetheless.
The Search Continues…
My final stop on the walking tour was the Gate of Harmonious Interest, at Government and Fisgard streets. It’s prominent claim to fame are male and female lions at the entrance, and bells to ward off evil spirits. As the name implies, it promotes the need for all people to live harmoniously. While physical borders exit everywhere, the people on either side of them must strive to break down invisible walls and melt the divide between East and West. It is a sentiment which reverberates through the ages, as we all continue the struggle to get along with each other!
While my quest to find the underground tunnels of Victoria’s Chinatown proved elusive, I’m not convinced they don’t exist. They may just be very well hidden! What I did find, however, is a fascinating and illuminating history of Victoria’s past.
Have YOU been to Victoria’s Chinatown? Did you run into any underground tunnel entrances? Please leave a comment below!
“Nothing and no one can destroy the Chinese people. They are relentless survivors. They yield, they bend to the wind, but they never break”. – Pearl Buck in China Past & Present.