This Week in History


A Gateway to Another Culture

For the week of Monday April 28, 2014

On May 1, 2013, Canada Post issued a stamp and postcard set featuring Chinatown gates to celebrate Canada’s Chinese heritage. This set includes the “Gate of Harmonious Interest,” located in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada’s oldest Chinatown.

Postcard of the Gate of Harmonious Interest, part of the Gates of Chinatown series.
© Canada Post Corporation, 2013.
Victoria’s Chinatown was established in 1858 when the discovery of gold on the Fraser River attracted Chinese immigrants to the West. The community grew when a second wave of Chinese came to build the national railway in the 1880s. Originally the biggest Chinatown in Canada, its population declined in the 20th century and buildings fell into disrepair. A revival in the1980s, however, saw the area restored.

The construction of the “Gate of Harmonious Interest” in 1981 contributed to this revival, and its name honours the city’s co-operative effort to preserve the community’s heritage. The gate conveys this harmony with a balance between colours (blue, green, red and gold) and symbols. The two stone lions that flank the gate were donated by Victoria’s sister city Suzhou, in China.

The Chinese Public School was built in 1909 for Chinese-born children who were not allowed to attend public school. It is now a cultural centre.
© Parks Canada Agency / Andrew Waldron / 2011

As the only Chinatown in North America with surviving buildings from the 19th century, it has a variety of architectural styles. Most early commercial buildings were designed in the then-popular Italianate style, characterized by flat roofs, rectangular windows, classically inspired detailing and oversized cornices. Then in the early 1900s, architects began to incorporate Chinese architectural elements into a fusion style, as seen in the Chinese Public School. In addition to Italianate cornices and Tudor windows, it has an Asian-inspired flagpole, sloping tiled roof with upturned eaves and corners, and red motif.

Chinatown’s crowded layout forms many secret courtyards and narrow passageways. One such lane is Fan Tan Alley, which is just one metre across at its narrowest! At one time, it was lined with opium and gambling dens and was named after the betting game Fan Tan. Gamblers would evade the police by escaping through the alley’s many exits. Today, it remains popular as a home to artisans’ shops and as a shooting location for television and film.

Victoria’s Chinatown is a National Historic Site, as is Vancouver’s Chinatown. Chinese Construction Workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway is a National Historic Event, and community members such as Wong Foon Sien have been commemorated as National Historic Persons.

May is Asian Heritage Month! To learn more about Chinese Canadians, please see Victoria's Chinatown: Not Enough Women, Vancouver's Chinatown: A vibrant neighbourhood! and Commemorating Chinese Railroad Workers.

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