Taste Your Way Through Chinatown

Savour the historic and modern charms of this important neighbourhood, and a world of good eats to go with.

Taste Your Way Through Chinatown - YAM May/June 2024
Masami Teramachi is a local artist who produces charming hand-drawn neighbourhood maps like this handy guide to Victoria’s historic Chinatown. For more, follow her on Instagram @walk_with_masami.

By Cinda Chavich

Victoria has its share of historic high streets, but few are as evocative as Fisgard Street in the heart of Chinatown.

Its 19th-century structures are home to modern restaurants and retailers today, but were once bustling with Chinese commerce — the oldest Chinatown in Canada and the only one in North America to retain much of its original streetscape. 

Look up as you stop for a bowl of noodles at Bao or wait in line for a steak dinner at Brasserie L’Ecole. Both restaurants are located in historic structures, one built to house an early Chinese clan society, the other for the Chinese Empire Reform Association, founded here to champion democratic ideals in China. 

Climb the stairs to the top of the Yen Wo Society building next door to visit the country’s oldest Chinese temple or marvel at the massive Lim Dat building spanning the entire 1800-block of Government Street. Once a rice mill, it’s now home to the edgy end dive restaurant and neighbouring
Torch Song Café.

Imagine chickens and ducks in the courtyard off narrow Fan Tan Alley, now hidden behind chic Ugly Duckling Dining & Provisions, where the chef’s innovative tasting menus are inspired by its historic locale.

At its peak — between 1885 and 1911 — Chinatown covered eight city blocks and was home to thousands of Chinese residents, many of whom arrived to search for gold and work building the national railway. 

And there’s still history around every corner.

Evolution and Landmarks

Chinatown has had its ups and downs since Chinese immigrants first landed here in 1858, among the 30,000 migrants lured by the Fraser River Gold Rush. Victoria was Canada’s western seaport and the population ballooned overnight, the city’s Chinese community soon the largest and most prosperous in Canada. 

Chinese-owned businesses along Fisgard and Cormorant (now Pandora) streets served the Asian community, whether butchers, grocers, barber shops, tailors and restaurants, or opium factories, gambling dens and brothels. It was a lively place, with Chinese theatres, schools, temples and several clan societies (tongs) to help newcomers.

By 1885 there were 15 such charitable groups and some remain, like the Hook Sing Tong and its circa-1911 building on Herald Street, a spectacular stained-glass dome crowning its meeting room.

The Victoria Chinese Public School, with its tiered pagoda roof, was built in response to racial segregation of Chinese students. It still houses the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, formed in 1884 to advocate for disenfranchised Chinese residents. More recently, it has been a driving force behind the modern revitalization of Chinatown.

Chinatown declined after the Second World War, but a restoration project, beginning in the 1970s and continuing today, turned what was once described as “a dilapidated, colourless, decaying slum” into a modern and multicultural place to live, work and eat downtown. 

Historian John Adams recently published Chinese Victoria: A Long and Difficult Journey, detailing 165 years of Chinese settlement with meticulous research and more than 800 historical photographs.

Even as it evolves with new diversity, he says Chinatown’s Asian character endures.

“Chinatown is alive and it’s wonderful,” says Adams, who also leads Chinatown walks with his Discover the Past tour company and sits on the board of the new Victoria Chinese Museum, located in Fan Tan Alley.

“Chinatown is more popular than it’s been for decades — with no empty storefronts as in many other Chinatowns. It’s become a more relevant place for everybody.”

Food for Thought 

Off the Eaten Track also does walking tours in and around Chinatown, its Hip and Hidden Chinatown + Old Town Tour now focusing on the area’s multicultural flavour.

Taste Your Way Through Chinatown - YAM May/June 2024
For nearly 40 years, Fan Tan Cafe has been dishing out popular dishes like this fan-favourite wor wonton soup. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

Owner Bonnie Todd acknowledges there are now fewer Chinese stops on the walk, but there are others celebrating Thai, Indian, Mexican, Japanese and Filipino heritage, whether traditional tortillas at MAiiZ Nixtamal, handmade Thai dumplings at Dumpling Drop or purple ube-filled Filipino pastries at Friends & Family Bake. 

All are set in historic buildings that have been part of this Chinese enclave for more than a century.

“In the ’80s, Chinatown was mostly a tourist attraction, but now it’s attracting locals,” says Todd. “Back in the day, it was old-school trinket shops. Now it’s fine dining, wine bars, bakeries and funky coffee shops — the cool, hip people have moved in.”

But the authentic Asian charm of Chinatown remains, too. There are three Chinese groceries, with fresh vegetables spilling out onto Government and Fisgard streets, and shelves filled with imported foods. 

Wah Lai Yuen is a beloved bakery café, a place for warm BBQ pork buns, breakfast congee and seafood hot pots. Adams says his favourite wor wonton soup is found at the Fan Tan Cafe, under its distinctive neon sign across the street, and there is daily dim sum lunch at Golden City and Don Mee restaurants, the latter a longtime landmark and still delivering its stacked bamboo steamers on carts circulating among the tables.

Little Yunnan, a restaurant run by a family that recently arrived from Yunnan province, is famous for its Over the Bridge Noodles, while Silk Road Tea offers a variety of rare teas imported from China.

At the end of Fisgard, the circa-1898 brick building facing Store Street is now home to Eva Schnitzelhaus and Korean Chubby Dumpling, but once housed one of Chinatown’s busy rice mills. 

Taste Your Way Through Chinatown - YAM May/June 2024
For a comforting bowl of breakfast congee, Wah Lai Yuen is the place to go. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

Workers at that mill may have stopped for the glazed duck and BBQ pork hanging in the window at Loy Sing, a meat market that has been in business for more than 130 years, the longest continuously running Chinese store in North America. Loy Sing is now for sale as the owners hope to retire, but community members are actively seeking another Chinese family to continue its historic legacy.

Walkabout Through History

Victoria’s Chinatown is a National Historic Site, with more 19th-century structures than any other Chinese neighbourhood on the continent.

The colourful Gate of Harmonious Interest welcomes all into the enclave, with glowing red lanterns hanging over Fisgard Street at night, tufted pine trees clipped like giant bonsai and a riot of cherry blossoms in spring.

Beyond this main street, you can explore Herald, Pandora and even Market Square, once bisected by a stream that formed the Chinatown boundary and sustained early Chinese market gardens.

Imagine the 13 opium factories that operated legally here until 1908, the aroma of opium cooking — a bit like boiled potatoes — in the air, while admiring the colourful murals of early family life in Chinatown on a parking garage wall. Find the five-toed Red Dragon looking skyward on a street corner and the symbols of longevity etched into the pavement.

Taste Your Way Through Chinatown - YAM May/June 2024
Off the Eaten Track Tours, led by Bonnie Todd, introduce visitors and locals alike to the multicultural tastes of Chinatown.

Walk the narrow alleys between red brick buildings — Dragon Alley, Theatre Alley and Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest street in Canada — where opium and gambling dens were hidden from police raids by heavy metal doors and secret passwords, and now hide trendy townhouses. 

When you venture into this corner of the city, whether for dim sum lunch or fine dining, take time to imagine what came before.

It’s all part of the complex history of this colourful neighbourhood and Victoria’s Chinese cultural heritage.