Victoria’s historic Chinatown is a photographer’s dream at any time. But the night brings out even more opportunities.
Rich textures, bold colours and a new digital camera to soak it all in: That is why I went to Chinatown on a rainy night. Chinatown has a great vibe — when it is isolated on a rainy night, it is quiet with no people but noisy with its compelling colours.
I undertook the night photographs as a personal project after completing my assignments for the day. I had a new camera that I wanted to experiment with under low-light conditions in the pouring rain with high-ISO settings. (ISO is the digital equivalent to film speed.)
I did not use a tripod. I wanted to keep moving, not restricting myself to one area.
Some of Chinatown is closed off during the evenings, so I stayed primarily on Fisgard Street between Wharf Street and Government Street.
The resulting photographs amazed me in picture quality and dynamic range.
The camera I used is the Canon EOS 1DX. The lenses were the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 and the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L.
The ISO ranged between 3,200 and 10,000.
Victoria’s Chinatown is a neighbourhood of firsts. It traces its roots back to 1858, the year of the gold rush, when Chinese men joined the flood of fortune-seekers coming north from California to the Fraser River gold fields. Many were fleeing discrimination in a state that had just passed a law banning all Chinese immigration. Those who arrived on Vancouver Island created the first Chinatown in Canada.
By 1862, Victoria, newly incorporated as a city, had about 300 Chinese residents, most of them young men living in an area of shops in what is now Centennial Square. Twenty years later, 693 Chinese made Victoria the largest Chinatown in Canada and it expanded to cover four city blocks.
The community grew steadily into the early 20th century, eventually housing three Chinese schools, two churches, 150 businesses, two theatres, a hospital, gambling dens, brothels and more than 10 opium factories.
Despite the early welcome and their success, the Chinese began to face the kind of discrimination that had emerged in California. A head tax on immigrants from China had been established in 1885, but in 1923 it was replaced by an exclusion act that barred almost all Chinese from Canada. The exclusion act remained until 1947, but laws continued to be restrictive.
Stores were boarded up or demolished and Chinatown began to decline.
It was not until 1979 that a report by David Chuenyan Lai inspired a revitalization campaign, the first such project in Canada. The sidewalks were widened, buildings repainted, overhead wires buried.
The crowning touch was the Gate of Harmonious Interest, another first because until that time, no other Canadian Chinatown had a permanent arch.
And in 1995, its unique place in Canada’s history was marked by designation as a national historic site.
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