It was the discovery of gold in British Columbia, that brought the first Chinese people to Victoria in 1858. When Chinese immigrants first arrived in towns like Victoria, they tended to settle in an area confined to just a few streets, which they called "Tangren Jie" meaning "Chinese Street". They set up tents and shacks along a ravine where Johnson Street currently runs.
At first, the Chinese community was made up of miners preparing to leave for the Fraser River gold rush, as well as Chinese tradesmen, such as tailors and cobblers, who provided services to the miners. Soon Chinese people started working in factories, and in laundries, became cooks, and found work in the logging industry, and fish canneries, operated market gardens, or were hired as domestic servants. Others found work constructing the trails and wagon roads that lead into the interior of the province.
Gradually, the community expanded northward within Victoria to what are now Cormorant and Fisgard streets. This community was operated as a separate town. The Chinese originally referred to it as "Huabu" meaning "Chinese Port", unlike non-Chinese people who called the same area "Chinatown". Eventually the name "Chinatown" was adopted by both the Chinese and non-Chinese communites in Victoria.
The significant Chinese social institutions in those early days were: a "secret society" called the Chee Kung Hong; "fangkou" which were informal groups of men who shared lodgings, and usually came from the same place in China; the Tam Kung temple; and the Chinese Mission School. The school attracted both children and adults, since it offered an opportunity to learn English in addition to providing Christian religious services.
The Chinese New Year's Celebration was the most important and visible social activity. Firecrackers were set off, shops were closed and decorated, and people dressed up and visited each other enjoying the hospitality offered. Other social events included the Dragon Boat festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Chongyang Festival.
Funerals were also significant events, sometimes quite elaborate if the person was wealthy. A custom also observed by the Chinese in Victoria, was to periodically ship the bones of those who had died back to China to be buried with their ancestors. After six years, the remains would be removed from the cemeteries, (Ross Bay Cemetary and Chinese Cemetary at Harling Point), the bones washed, cleaned, dried, and stored temporarily in the bonehouse in the Chinese Cemetary, where they would eventually be shipped back to the home villages in China.
As Victoria expanded during the 1880s and early 1900s the Chinese community also grew. Victoria was an important Pacific seaport, and goods from China arrived to be sent to other parts of North America. Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway brought many Chinese people to British Columbia, who then remained in Victoria after the railway was completed in 1885. Some Chinese people found prosperity as merchants and landlords, and a number of the wooden buildings that made up much of Chinatown were replaced by brick buildings three and four stories high.
Chinatown's "Forbidden City" was a network of alleyways and courtyards hidden behind the street fronts. This section of Chinatown was only open to Chinese people. Among other things, it housed gambling dens that featured elaborate escape routes in case of police raids.
The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) was created to resolve disputes within the Chinese community, and to represent the Chinese community as a whole. It served as an umbrella organization for political parties, church groups, and other clubs and societies.
"In the past, the CCBA was very powerful and influential. Internally it acted as a mediator to help solve personal disputes and inter-village or interclan strife, in an effort to prevent inter-association disputes from erupting into violence. It administered a Chinese hosptial ..., a Chinese school ..., and a Chinese cemetary ... in Victoria. It organized fund-raising campaigns to help local Chinese as well as their fellow countrymen in China. Externally, the CCBA represented the Chinese community, functioning as a spokesman for all the Chinese orgaizations in Victoria."
The Forbidden City within Victoria, David Chuenyan Lai
The period of time from the 1920s to the early 1970s was one of gradual decline for Victoria's Chinatown, due in part to discrimination in terms of immigration, employment, and education. More and more people moved beyond the confines of Chinatown, to larger cities such as Vancouver, or moved back to China. A number of proposals to revitalize Chinatown were scrapped because of lack of funding and apathy in the Chinese community.
In the 1980s Victoria's Chinese community entered a period of renewal. The Gate of Harmonious Interest was constructed as a monument in recognition of, and to preserve, the Chinese heritage in Victoria for everyone. A care facility for elderly people was built, and social activities such as clubs to teach Chinese folk dances to children were formed. Finally, the buildings bordering Fan Tan Alley were redeveloped into studios and workshops for artists and artisans.