Saturday, September 22, 2012

Victoria's "Forbidden City" Chinatown

Gate of Harmonious Interest Victoria BC
The Gate of Harmonious Interest

We'd picked up a walking guide created by the Heritage Legacy Fund of British Columbia, called the "Secrets of the City."  Part of a series, this particular walk focused on Chinatown in Victoria and was called the "Forbidden City Walk."  Our brochure promised to "take us back to a time when a collision of cultures defined the secret city within a city."  Who could resist that bit of marketing?  Well, to its credit, we did feel immediately transported to another time and place as soon as we crossed under the Gate of Harmonious Interest into Chinatown.  
First Chinese Public School

The first Chinese came from Guangdong Province to Vancouver Island for the Frasier River Gold Rush in 1858. Those that stayed made their living farming and supplied fruits and vegetables to the stores in Victoria. Over time Chinatown evolved into its own little city with temples, benevolent associations to help each other assimilate, shops that sold medicinal herbs, markets, and brothels.  (You can't have a gold rush without brothels can you?)  By 1909 the Chinese were well established in Victoria but their children were still banned from public schools unless they spoke English.  So, the Chinese community created the first Chinese Public School. Today the school is a cultural center that teaches children Chinese traditions and, ironically, how to speak Chinese!

As the walking guide promised, we did feel a bit like we had time traveled back into history, especially when we found the unmarked doorway leading up to the oldest Chinese temple in Canada.  We looked up the 52 steps and saw an older Chinese gentleman sitting on a stool.  He waved to us encouragingly to come up and then guided us around the small temple all the while speaking to us in Chinese.  Incense pots burned on every surface and a simple alter held a tea offering to the god Tam Kung to whom the temple is dedicated. Beautifully embroidered fabrics hung from the ceiling and ceremonial items and small shrines lined the walls. It was very peaceful and we felt honored to see this important place in the history of the Chinese who've made Canada their home.

Close up of Alter to Tam Kung in Canada's oldest Chinese temple
Alter to the god Tam Kung to whom the temple is dedicated.

Excerpts from Chinatown wall murals


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