Victoria Chinatown: Should you plan a visit?

The Victoria Chinatown is Canada's oldest Chinatown although most people usually guess that either Vancouver or Toronto hold that distinction. It is also one of the smallest, but what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in its rich history. Still many people wonder if it is worth visiting. So to help you decide, we put together a list of some of the most commonly asked questions:

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What is the history of the large structure at the entrance to Chinatown?

The structure is known as the Gates of Harmonious Interest and was constructed in 1981. The archway is a fusion of traditional Chinese architecture and Canadian symbolism, reflecting the amalgamation of two distinct worlds. As visitors pass through the ornate structure, they step into a historical realm where the past and present converge.

The Gates of Harmonious Interest are adorned with intricate carvings and sculptures, each carrying profound meanings rooted in Chinese philosophy, folklore and history. 

The calligraphy adorning the arch imparts wisdom and blessings. The characters express sentiments of good fortune, happiness and prosperity, reinforcing the idea that the gateway is not just a physical entrance but a passage to a realm of positivity and cultural significance.

Is Fan Tan Alley a legal street?

Yes. Fan Tan Alley is the narrowest street in Canada and is only 35 inches (90 cm) at its narrowest point. In my opinion, it is probably the coolest street you’ve ever been on and may be worth a visit just to see this. The famous motorcycle chase scene from Mel Gibson’s 1990 movie Bird on the Wire was filmed here.

How far is the Victoria Chinatown from the cruise port?

Depending on your route, it is between 2.5 and 3.5 km and will take 30-45 minutes walking. The shortest route will take you through historic James Bay, past the Legislature buildings, the Inner Harbour and through the downtown shopping district. Victoria’s downtown scores an incredible 99 out of 100 for walkability making this a very comfortable, almost entirely flat walk. Other transport options are booking a private tour in a luxury vehicle or a fun pedicab tour - both include knowledgeable guides who fully narrate the experience, so all you have to do is sit back and enjoy!

Can I walk from the Inner Harbour? 

Absolutely! The Victoria Chinatown is only about 8 or 9 city blocks (approximately 1 km) north of the Inner Harbour. We estimate it will take about 15 minutes straight down Government Street.

Government Street sign in Chinatown

How big is the Victoria Chinatown?

It is one of the smallest in North America encompassing approximately 3 city blocks. Refer to this map from Victoria’s Chinatown – A Gateway to the Past and Present of Chinese Canadians. 

How do they celebrate the Chinese New Year?

The traditional Chinese lion dance parade is performed along with a Kung Fu demonstration and possibly other cultural performances, depending on the year. In 2019, I was fortunate to be in the Victoria Chinatown to witness the lion dance parade first hand (watch the video posted here).

Businesses within the district are encouraged to leave an offering for the lion hanging from above their door. The lion dances at the doorstep of each participating merchant offering good luck and prosperity in exchange for the offering. The entire parade takes approximately 3 hours.

I don’t like Asian food. Can I get something else to eat there?

Asian food is definitely on the menu at almost every restaurant in the area. If you really want to try something else, you’ll find every other option imaginable in Victoria’s downtown core including some of the best food trucks

Should I join a guided walking tour or book a private tour?

A guide turns your visit into an experience. Some of our tour guides have been telling the stories of Victoria for over 50 years. A typical tour might have you exploring Canada’s oldest Chinese temple, stopping at a traditional medicine shop, learning about art studios located in the former gambling dens, sampling Cantonese baking and much more.

I think hiring a guide is one of the best ways to learn about our history and the sights you see. If you prefer a self-guided tour, be sure to pick up a copy of Mysterious Chinatown Self Guided Walking Map available at City Hall and the Visitor Centre. 

How can I learn more about the history, culture and contribution of Chinese Canadians?

The Victoria Chinatown Museum is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the ongoing cultural heritage of the Chinese-Canadian community. Located on Fisgard near the Gates of Harmonious Interest, visitors to the museum have the opportunity to engage with living traditions, learn from local artisans, and participate in the vibrant cultural tapestry that continues to unfold within the district. The museum hosts regular events, workshops and performances that showcase traditional Chinese arts, cuisine and celebrations.

Have you got a question about Victoria’s China Town? Be sure to let us know and we’ll do our best to find you the answer. 

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