All of your senses engage the moment you set foot in Victoria, BC’s Chinatown. Rows of colorful lanterns greet the eye and the aroma of pan-fried dumplings waft through the air. It’s hard to ignore the feeling that the very streets you’re walking are steeped in decades of historical significance.

Though Canada’s oldest Chinatown doesn’t occupy much space in BC’s capital city, the neighborhood packs a lot of culture, flavor and history into its compact footprint (and is an easy 18-minute walk from Clipper’s Victoria terminal!). Amid a modern mix of galleries, shops and cafes, you’ll also find herbalists, noodle bars and even a Buddhist temple. Stroll down Chinatown’s colorful streets to experience Victoria’s past as it intermingles with the present in real time!

One block south of Chinatown’s entrance, artist Ping Tsingl’s red dragon sculpture hints that you’re nearing the neighborhood. Photo: Elm Alyea

Serving as the entrance to Chinatown, the immense Gate of Harmonious Interest is the perfect place to start your exploration of the neighborhood. As you make your way over to this iconic spot, you’ll notice the neighborhood itself taking shape with shades of red alongside shimmering gold, unique architectural details and strings of lanterns dancing above Fisgard Street. Completed in 1981, the gateway stands at 38 feet tall and is perhaps the most photographed landmark in Victoria’s Chinatown.

“The gate’s name was inspired by the harmony achieved through feng shui, but most importantly, to recognize the harmonious relations that now exist between Chinese and non-Chinese in the city after a history of intolerance,” explains John Adams, Victoria’s pre-eminent historian and owner of the Discover the Past Tours.

Victoria’s Gate of Harmonious Interest is guarded on either side by lion statues, placed there to protect Chinatown. Photo: Behrouz Far

Distinguishable by nothing more than a slender opening between buildings along Johnson St., it is easy to walk right by one of Chinatown’s most famous landmarks if you don’t know where to look. However, once you cross the threshold of North America’s skinniest street (at its narrowest point it is only 35 inches wide!), you’ll likely recognize the iconic Fan Tan Alley from copious Instagram photos and blog posts.

Stroll between the brick-faced buildings dotted with pint-sized shops as you navigate this whimsical and oh-so Victorian attraction. Pop into The Turntable to dig the crates, talk music history with their incredibly knowledgeable staff, and walk away with some killer vinyl. Grab a melt-in-your-mouth meringue cookie at La Tana Italian Bakery, then stock up on fragrant natural beauty products at neighboring Saltspring Soapworks.

Comprised of more than a dozen locally-owned shops, Fan Tan Alley offers a completely unique shopping experience. Photo: Flickr user Non-Paratus

On the opposite side of Fisgard is the charmingly kitschy Dragon Alley. Boasting strings of twinkling lights, itty bitty free library and Harry Potter-esque street address (532 ½ Fisgard Street), this slender passageway is just begging for photo ops. Wander down the meandering brick corridor to experience the rougher parts of the neighborhood’s past fuse with its more refined present.

“Narrow passages at each end of Dragon Alley lead to a bright, modern world inside what had been a derelict lodging house for decades. These cramped rooms have since been replaced with spacious three-level townhouses facing the alley,” adds Adams.

Warm up with a cup of Joe in the alley’s Union Pacific Coffee Co., and stop into The Emporium Dragon Alley to pick up a unique keepsake. You can even embrace a “when in Rome” moment with an acupuncture treatment at Wilson Acupuncture Victoria.

Beyond providing spots to stop and browse, each end of Dragon Alley also offers tiny plazas to relax over coffee or bubble tea. Photo: Flickr user Beken

Duck around the corner to the Yen Wo Society Building, and follow the smell of lit joss sticks to fourth floor. Here you’ll find the oldest continuously active Chinese temple in Canada – the Tam Kung Temple. Built in 1860 to house its namesake deity, the building is the only temple dedicated to Tam Kung outside Asia. Unlike some temples of its kind, it is a place of worship and not merely a tourist attraction – though tourists are welcome!

“The Yen Wo Society recommends that you leave a small donation because that helps them with revitalization,” says Charlayne Thornton-Joe, a third-generation Victorian of Chinese ancestry and city councillor since 2002.

The Yen Wo Society Building may look unassuming from the front, but the side view reveals an enormous, multicolored graphic titled “Dragon Dance.” Photo: Joe Mabel

Stroll down the block from the Yen Wo Society Building, you’ll find the extraordinary silhouette of Victoria’s Chinese Public School. With bright red front doors and matching lanterns hanging along its eaves, the brick structure is impossible to miss. However, the building’s design is more than just attention grabbing, its construction actually served a purpose. “The red tiled roof with its swallow-tail eaves is said to be effective in diverting evil spirits,” explains Adams.

Opened in 1909, the school is a lasting symbol of the Chinese community’s perseverance during a time of segregation in the city. During this era, Chinese-born students were banned from City schools until they’d learned to speak English. Built by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, the Public School served as a means to ensure the continued education of immigrant children. Though it’s no longer the sole source of schooling for Chinese children in Victoria, the school does continue to offer classes on Mandarin and Cantonese as well as Chinese history and culture.

With its whimsical silhouette and bold color scheme, the Chinese Public School is perhaps Chinatown’s most distinctive heritage building. Photo: Charlie Chan

A trip to Chinatown wouldn’t be complete without a dim sum feast. Down the road from the neighborhood’s official entrance, Don Mee Seafood Restaurant has been dishing out a dizzying array of Cantonese and Szechuan eats for more than 80 years. Settle into a table on the restaurant’s second story for a sweeping view of Fisgard Street, and select your fare as it cruises by you on heated trolleys. Don’t leave the table without sampling their Honey & Garlic Spareribs, and save room for their fluffy steamed cake!

Want something to grab on the go? Look no further than the 130-year-old Loy Sing Meat Market. Dig into a heaping portion of their flavorsome Chinese barbecue. We highly recommend their famous barbecue pork. Or try out their crispy-skinned duck –served chopped over rice.

Don Mee’s lively and vibrant atmosphere is sure to make your dim sum dining experience a memorable one. Photo: Flickr user Patrick

For a city of its size, Victoria punches above its weight in historical and cultural significance. With Canada’s narrowest alley, longest-running Chinese temple and oldest Chinatown, you’ll leave the neighborhood having experienced things you wouldn’t be able to anywhere else in the country!

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Feature photo: Morten Pedersen

Contributing Author: Keith Norbury