Fan Tan Alley exhibition offers insight into Chinatown’s history

A new pop-up exhibit in Fan Tan Alley gives visitors to Canada’s oldest Chinatown a sneak preview of a future regional hub of the recently announced Chinese Canadian Museum.

The exhibit, Peering into the Past: Celebrating Canada’s Oldest Chinatown, was curated in partnership with the Royal B.C. Museum.

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It gives visitors a taste of the historical significance of Victoria’s Chinatown, which was established in 1858 at the beginning of the gold rush in the Fraser Canyon. The district, centred around mid-19th-century and turn-of-the-20th-century buildings on Fisgard Street, was designated a National Historic Site in 1995.

Alan Lowe, chairman of the Victoria Chinatown Museum Society, said it’s the oldest intact Chinatown. While San Francisco’s Chinatown might be the oldest in North America, an earthquake in 1906 destroyed many of the original buildings, he said.

Victoria’s Chinatown, by contrast, still retains the original topography, “with historical buildings, alleys, courtyards and secret passageways still intact.”

The Royal B.C. Museum has contributed its expertise to give visitors to the pop-up exhibit a museum-style experience.

Tsu-I Chung, a curator with the Royal B.C. Museum, said it worked closely with the Chinese-Canadian community to honour the wish for a Chinese museum in Chinatown, the cradle of the oldest Chinese settlement in Canada.

The vision of a Chinese Canadian Museum — a first for Canada — was given a boost with a $10-million commitment last week by the province.

The museum is expected to include a provincial hub in Vancouver’s Chinatown, along with regional hubs, an online portal and digital experiences for historical locations throughout the province.

“We were lucky because, while there are larger Chinatowns, we have been able to focus on preserving our history because of its small size,” said Lowe, a Victoria architect and former mayor.

“In three to five years, hopefully, you will be able to visit a museum that showcases Chinese Canadian heritage and then step outside to experience Victoria’s Chinatown, a living museum.”

The pop-up exhibit is free to visit at 103-3 Fan Tan Alley.

It will be open after a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 2 p.m. today attended by George Chow, minister of state for trade, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and Lowe.

The exhibition is expected to be on display for up to a year.

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