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Sandra Richardson: Honouring a deep legacy of Chinese history in our region

Victoria’s Chinatown: There’s a life to this National Historic Site that celebrates and inspires.
Fan Tan Alley in Victoria’s Chinatown. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Victoria’s Chinatown is a treasure to our province. Its streets hum with a rich heritage as you walk past crowded shops, vibrant alleyways, and festive decorations. There’s a life to this National Historic Site that celebrates and inspires.

This Asian Heritage Month, I’ve been reflecting on the many contributions of Victoria’s wonderful Japanese, Filipino, Thai, and other Asian communities. In particular, our deeply embedded Chinese community and the remarkable history of Chinatown.

Not only is it our country’s oldest, but one of the only in Canada to maintain its original streetscape. Chinese immigrants founded it during the Fraser River Gold Rush in 1858. At its height, Chinatown covered over six blocks and housed over 3,000 residents.

Today, it is a global tourist destination, and it’s easy to see why.

Traditional shops, bakeries, and restaurants abound. You can explore Canada’s oldest Chinese temple, the 130-year-old Loy Sing Meat Market, and the colourful Fan Tan and Dragon Alleys with hidden shops and hanging lanterns that seem almost magical.

The alley walls contain a wealth of history, including our new Chinese Canadian Museum, which honours the community’s profound contributions to B.C.

And if you’re downtown today, May 26, be sure to attend the Museum Society’s “Awakening Chinatown”, beginning at noon. It’s a celebration of Asian Heritage Month with a lineup of cultural music and dance in the heart of the neighbourhood.

Chinatown is also home to the Victoria Chinese Public School at 636 Fisgard St., built with the help of Lee Mong Kow in 1899, for Chinese children barred from the city’s public schools at the time.

Lee Mong Kow is revered in Victoria history for having been an avid volunteer and strong advocate for education, and served as the school’s principal for over a decade.

In 2004, his family established the Lee Mong Kow Fund at the Victoria Foundation — a wonderful legacy of annual support for students at the Public School and at the University of Victoria.

Today, we have many notable leaders who have shaped our community with their proud Asian heritage. One is Alan Lowe, a director with the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, and the first mayor of Chinese heritage to be elected in Victoria. He’s now one of the Foundation’s Honorary Governors, and a fundholder.

Another is Dr. Grace Wong Sneddon, Honorary Governors President, who spent much of her childhood in Chinatown. She has since taken many non-profit leadership roles and has greatly advanced research in Pacific and Asian Studies at UVic.

As the Foundation’s Board Chair a few years ago, she helped establish the Victoria Chinese Cultural Legacy Fund to preserve heritage for future generations. “This is a place of belonging for many Chinese,” she said. “It’s part of who we are and it’s vital that, as we grow and evolve, we don’t forget our path.”

With that, I’m grateful for all those dedicated to educating and celebrating our region’s important Asian histories. I encourage you to take a walk in Chinatown, to purchase from a shop there, and to connect with other Asian organizations, such as the Nikkei Cultural Society and the Bayanihan Centre.

Your support is an important piece in our region’s beautiful cultural tapestry.

Finally, I encourage you to take the annual Vital Signs survey before May 31, for a chance to win a $100 gift card to Country Grocer. Your opinions are vital and will help us gather a snapshot of Greater Victoria’s vitality through the annual Vital Signs report.

The survey can be accessed online at

Sandra Richardson is CEO of the Victoria Foundation.

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