Chinatown Myths & Realities
Immigrants of Chinese origin were among the earliest to arrive in Victoria. The first record of their arrival is from 1858, when a group arrived from San Francisco. They, and thousands of others, came in search of gold in the Cariboo. But some saw opportunities here in Victoria. They stayed and the formation of Chinatown began.
From its beginning in the area of Cormorant (now Pandora) Street, Chinatown grew over the years as thousands of immigrants arrived from China. The CPR had a huge need for labour — as did coal mining and other activities. Chinatowns developed in many towns and cities in North America, but Victoria’s was easily the largest. It was physically separate from the rest of the community. Because it was on the north side of the Johnson Street ravine it could only be reached by three narrow foot-bridges. This changed over the years as Victoria and Chinatown grew. But the sense of separateness remained. It was to remain a factor in relations between residents of Chinese and European origin far into the twentieth century.
In his book The Forbidden City Within Victoria David Chuen-yan Lai examines why Chinatown was so remote and mysterious to the white community. It was composed, for the most part, of young, single men who spoke little English. The cultural gap between them and the Caucasian population was very wide, and members of the Chinese community were frequently persecuted. They were, for example, the target of frequent police raids. In consequence, the Chinese community needed a “forbidding” Chinatown to protect themselves. The result was a community physically and psychologically impenetrable to Victoria's white community.
Physically, for instance, New World Chinatowns were modelled on the old villages of China — narrow, meandering alleys and inner courtyards were common features. This provided a familiar environment and a sense of protection for the Chinese. But it gave rise to prejudice: "Criminals could be lurking in any dark alley." "Your money and your life would be at risk." "Women should not walk there alone." Scanning old newspapers you can quickly see the morbid fascination Chinatown held for the rest of the community.
Out of this fascination two major legends arose. One is the myth of tunnels in Chinatown. To some members of the Caucasian community it appeared Chinese residents could easily escape pursuers down dark alleyways, into hidden courtyards, and through doors that led in many directions. Hence the myth arose that there must also be tunnels. In fact, because some Chinese residents had been involved in the opium business, a legend arose that they had a tunnel to the harbour for smuggling. Members of the Caucasian community would point to an outlet on the harbour as the exit for this tunnel. In fact, it was an outlet for the storm drainage system. But the myth persisted, and a discovery in the 1950s renewed it. A very large cistern was discovered buried under Store Street. Speculation arose that this was part of the tunnels, which it was not. It — and others discovered since — were part of Victoria's early fire-fighting system. There is no credible evidence these tunnels ever existed.
A second legend arose about Chinese tongs. A “tong” means a “meeting place” and is loosely applied to many kinds of Chinese associations. Thus a clan association and a charitable organization are both examples of tongs. To the Caucasian mind, fed on cultural misunderstandings, these were sinister organizations. Lurid stories in the local press would dwell on tong violence and warfare. There were of course occasional conflicts within the Chinese community. Tong membership might exacerbate a situation if a whole tong lent its support to an individual’s dispute. And there were disputes and animosities from the old country that were carried over into the new. David Chuenyan Lai mentions, for example, a long-running feud between the Taishan and Hakka peoples, who had fought for many years in China, and carried the dispute to the New World. But this was really no different than some other ethnic groups. The history of the Irish Fenians in the early years of post-Confederation Canada, and their assassination of D’Arcy McGee, serve as reminders of that.
These are a few stories in the life and history of Chinatown. If you want to learn more, come visit our Local History Room. We have many historical newspaper clippings — from the past several decades — about Victoria's Chinatown. In our Magazines & Newspapers department we have microfilms of local papers from 1858. Enjoy discovering Victoria's Chinese heritage!
For further reading:
Forbidden City within Victoria by David Chuenyan Lai.
Call number: 971.1 LAI
Chinatowns: Towns within Cities in Canada by David Chuenyan Lai.
Call number: 971.004951 LAI
Chinese and Japanese Immigration: Report of the Royal Commission, 1902.
Central Library Local History Room
Call number: 325.25 C212
Stephen Ruttan, Local History Librarian