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‘Fan Tan Girl’ has 40 great years operating Chinatown business

Back in 1973, Bette Patrick and some partners took over an old noodle factory and boarding house on Fisgard Street and rolled up their sleeves to sand-blast, paint and rebuild it into a weaving and pottery shop.
Fan Tan Gallery owner Bette Patrick, left, and manager Tracey Nolan inside the popular Chinatown shop surrounded by fair-trade rugs from overseas. The 541 Fisgard St. store is an attraction itself with nooks and crannies and a shade garden in the back.

Back in 1973, Bette Patrick and some partners took over an old noodle factory and boarding house on Fisgard Street and rolled up their sleeves to sand-blast, paint and rebuild it into a weaving and pottery shop.

They were a bit of novelty in Canada’s oldest Chinatown as Patrick hung the shingle on Fan Tan Gallery. “We were old hippies, the first Caucasian girls here,” Patrick says with a smile. “The Chinese people would stare in the windows. They called us the Fan Tan Girls.

“But they did make us feel welcome. They would sweep our stoop and bring us lychee nuts.”

Her two partners left within the first few years, but Patrick has remained for four decades.

And a month shy of her 74th birthday and still active in her business every day, she’s now one of Chinatown’s most durable retail veterans. 

She’s taken Fan Tan Gallery from its humble beginnings as a supplier of textiles and pottery clay to a local and import shop full of fair trade baskets and fabrics, stylish room dividers, unusual folk art pieces and other eyebrow raisers that have made it a destination in the design world.

The gallery itself is an attraction, with its big, friendly shop cats, Coal and Scrat, wandering about mixing with shoppers (and working at night).

The 2,000 square feet is split into two rooms divided by a weathered brick wall. One side includes a loft that Patrick, her partners and friends built themselves. It crosses over to a second room with vaulted ceiling, red brick walls and a shiplap floor that meanders to a small outdoor shade garden of ferns and native maples.

Long before it was fashionable, the main counter was built from slabs of 20-foot-long, six-inch thick old growth timber salvaged from a dock somewhere on the coast.

The top floors, where Chinese railroaders used to stay, is storage. A large walk-in vault, installed sometime in the 1890s (nobody really knows) and which likely served as a community bank, acts as Patrick’s office, den, archive and sanctuary.

For the first 20 years, the shop was heated by an old potbellied stove.

“When we first started we sandblasted. I did it myself,” says Patrick, laughing as she thumbs through an album of fading photos. “We built all of the things in here, including the loft. We were scared of power tools, though. We would have an electrician in for something and have all the boards measured and marked and they would say, ‘I can cut that for you ...

“It was lots of fun.”

And it still is.

Fan Tan Gallery continues on the cutting edge of interior design products, and has helped set new trends. Although Patrick still attends major North American buying shows three times a year, she leaves international picking to a trusted set of bird-dogs overseas. She’s bringing in rugs made of hemp, jute and other natural fibres and baskets from a Senegal housing co-operative fashioned from cattails and recycled prayer mats. It’s interesting, exotic stuff, and fitting that the once-fringe principles of “an old hippie” are being embraced by all ages today.

“Fair trade and supporting other cultures, it’s a no-brainer. We really have to do that,” Patrick says.

And there’s a local edge, too. She commissions a Victoria handicapped carpenter to built craft-style furniture pieces such as tables and cabinets from her own designs, including a narrow chimney cupboard common in households of old.

Tracey Nolan, who has managed Fan Tan Gallery for the last 12 years, says although Patrick has cut back her hours, her love of the business never wanes.

“She never tires ... she’s more passionate about what she does than she ever was,” says Nolan. “She loves this place. She loves people. Her favourite thing is to be on the floor and that’s why she’s successful. She has an artistic and amazing eye.

“She’s shown me that if we do what we love, we never get tired.”

A former legal secretary, Patrick left that behind in 1972 and tapped her creative side. She and Rene Fairbrother opened a weaving and pottery collective with other artists in Gene Miller’s Open Space property behind Bastion Square. They provided the looms and clay and started classes.

It sprouted Fan Tan Gallery a year later and Patrick continued for about a decade until do-it-yourself weavers and potters faded. The looms were donated to Silver Threads and the pottery clay sold out and she started the home decor business.

Although the store is packed with cruise ship passengers and tourists on a hot July afternoon, they aren’t the big buyers. Patrick said it’s been locals who keep her going.

“It’s a good business, but tough at times,” she says. Four decades have brought several economic cycles.

“So you have to stay ahead of the curve, know what people want.”

Including herself, there are four full-time staff and a part-timer.

Nolan said that while Patrick has embraced some of the new technology (she has an iPad), operations have remained old-school. There’s no website. “We only started using a cash register a few years ago,” laughs Nolan. “I finally got us on Facebook.”

If she’s planning retirement, Patrick isn’t saying. She has two grown sons and four grandchildren. She lost her husband, Jack Patrick in 1980 at age 50 to a heart attack while he was playing rugby. She and Iain Barr have been partners for the last 30 years and he helps with graphic design and handles the bookkeeping.

There are plans in the works to mark the 40th anniversary later this year.

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