Chinatown is Changing

On the streets and in the narrow alleyways of one of Victoria’s most culturally and historically significant neighbourhoods, a new vibrancy is emerging. Urban dwellers, culinary curators, boutique owners, designers, architects and live/work artisans are flocking to an increasingly refurbished Chinatown. But even as they think of the future, these new residents are ever-mindful of Chinatown’s compelling past.

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Photograph by Simon Desrochers.

Victoria developer Chris Le Fevre remembers that momentous day 25 years ago when he first came to the city on a “quiet walkabout” and found himself in Chinatown. “I walked along Herald Street and thought, ‘There will come a day when this will be a really cool place to live.’”

And that day has arrived. Two major heritage restorations and the big, new Union building at the foot of Fisgard and Pandora have transformed the west end of Chinatown in the last two years, adding 191 condos and a whole lot of new retail to Victoria’s original live/work neighbourhood. The streets are bustling with shoppers checking out an array of independent retailers selling everything from locally made soaps to French pastries to organic juices. New mid-block alleys are drawing shoppers and tourists ever farther north, and the funky “design district” developing in Chinatown is adding to its Old Town charm.

That it has all happened without Chinatown losing its multicultural character speaks to the determination of almost a half-century of heritage-aware municipal councils and city planners, and a handful of developers and architects with a passion for working with the bones of old buildings to create something new. Chinatown may be gentrifying, but everybody involved in the process say they’re committed to maintaining the distinct character of the historic 160-year-old neighbourhood that was home to Canada’s earliest Chinese immigrants.

“The mix is really appealing — the restaurants, the residential, the vegetable-sellers,” says Daniela Cubelic of Silk Road Tea, which first opened its doors in Chinatown 25 years ago. “Other neighbourhoods are trying to replicate that, but no one has it like Chinatown.”

Of course, artists have known about the charms of living and working in Chinatown for quite some time, having moved in during the late 1970s as the neighbourhood underwent its first major revitalization. But the rest of the world was slower to catch on.

Designer JC Scott, a Fan Tan Alley resident, says Chinatown definitely wasn’t a cool address for retailers back when he moved into the ’hood in the winter of 1979 — a time when having a live/work space in Chinatown meant flouting City of Victoria regulations.

“We had to pretend we didn’t live here,” recalls Scott of the group of four artists who first took up residence in the dilapidated second- and third-floor spaces above Chinese-run stores. “People were afraid to come to Chinatown in those days. A friend of mine told me that when they were kids, the biggest dare of his day was to run through Fan Tan Alley.”

Not anymore. With its twinkly lights, cheery Chinese lanterns and string of intriguing little stores, Fan Tan Alley has never looked better. Gone are the days when Heart’s Content store owners Tony Kane and Pearl Jung had to stand outside the quirky clothing store blowing bubbles in hopes of luring passing shoppers into the alley for a look. “Now when tourists come, Fan Tan Alley is a destination,” says Jung, whose store will mark its 30th anniversary this year.

Spirit of Survival
Dig into the wild history of Victoria’s Chinatown — once the largest in Canada — and perhaps it’s not surprising that the neighbourhood still retains the fighting spirit of the Chinese-Canadian entrepreneurs and change-makers who lived and worked in Chinatown during some of the most disturbingly racist decades in Canada’s history. Denied the vote, the right to an education, the right to hire who they wanted or to move freely through the city without fear of harassment, early Chinese immigrants responded by creating a vibrant space for themselves and their businesses in a part of town that no one else had any interest in.

On the upside, Chinese Canadians eventually achieved equality, and by the 1960s were no longer constrained to living in Chinatown or limiting their career dreams to owning a laundry or a corner store. On the downside, Chinatown was looking pretty dilapidated by then. By the time a UVic student named David Chuenyan Lai surveyed Chinatown in 1971 for an urban development project, little was left of it beyond two blocks of crumbling buildings and a few dozen elderly Chinese Canadians and low-income families living in the shabby neighbourhood.

But change was afoot. Unsettled by Lai’s influential report and encouraged by his recommendation to use economic incentives to lure people and businesses back into the neighbourhood, city council set about making plans to revitalize Chinatown.

City planners and urban designers including Rod Clack, Steve Barber and Mickey Lam were integral to the revitalization of Chinatown, and integral to creating the vision that still guides development in the neighbourhood. In 1979, the city launched a “paint-up” project that reimbursed Chinatown building owners for half the cost of painting if they’d agree to adhere to city design. Unsightly power lines were moved underground, planters built, sidewalks widened. The now-famous Gate of Harmonious Interest went up in 1981. In years to come, the city would use tax incentives to encourage building owners and developers to do seismic upgrading and redevelop upper stories.

The appeal of Chinatown for new live/work development took root in the late 1990s with architect Tom Moore’s award-winning Dragon Alley project between Herald and Fisgard streets. Moore took “two of the most derelict buildings in Victoria” and created 12 live/work units and a new mid-block passageway. (Ask Moore to tell you the very funny story of how it came to be named Dragon Alley.) The 2010 relocation of a controversial Store Street shelter for people living homeless also awakened new interest among developers, and the development of the long-vacant Janion Hotel building — though not technically in Chinatown — brought the promise of new life to what was then a dead zone at the foot of Fisgard.

A Tricky Business
Doing a development in Chinatown is tricky, not only due to the delicate nature of construction and restoration work amid heritage buildings on all sides, but also because many properties are still owned by Chinese societies, associations and family trusts uninterested in selling. “It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got, you still need a willing vendor,” notes Chris Le Fevre, president and CEO of Le Fevre & Company.

So when two buildings in the 500 block of Fisgard came on the market recently, Le Fevre jumped at the chance to redevelop them. The newly christened Lee Chong and Lum Sam buildings — named for their original developers — will introduce 26 new condos to the neighbourhood when the project wraps up early this year, restoring original Chinese tenements. “Of all the things I’ve been involved in, nothing has been as funky-core-residential-with-soul as that project is,” says Le Fevre.

The Union development started in challenging circumstances, with Anthem Properties invited to join the project just as the financial meltdown hit in 2008, says Rob Blackwell, Anthem’s senior vice-president of development. Nothing happened on the block-wide vacant lot next to Swans Hotel until 2012, when Anthem turned the ground on the Union project. News stories at the time noted “tepid” pre-sales for the building’s 133 condos, but interest picked up as the project approached completion. “What it took to find buyers for that project was a finished building,” says Blackwell. “We needed to be able to walk people into the building to show them how cool and rich and unique it was.”

That 2014-15 project added a new mid-block passageway between Pandora and Fisgard, dubbed Theatre Alley. With the help of a heritage consultant and Chinatown’s Dart Coon Club, Anthem learned that the original building — long gone by that point except for a brick façade spared after a 2005 fire at the site — had a passageway providing street access to an internal building that housed a Chinese theatre (a common practice in Chinatown, says Tom Moore, and the reason for addresses like 624½ Fisgard). 

Wanting to acknowledge that history, Anthem recreated the passageway. Blackwell hopes that once a restaurant rents the purpose-built space that fronts the alley (the only vacant commercial space left in the Union), the hustle and bustle of the passing scene will evoke the feel of bygone days when people arrived for a night at the theatre.

Anthem’s $1-million renovation of its Market Square property last year opened the square up to the light by tearing down a (non-heritage) building amid the collection of buildings that comprise the square. Market Square’s storefronts are fully leased for the first time in “a long, long time,” notes Blackwell.

Can We Still Dream?
One niggling concern for those watching the latest wave of development is that few of the retailers and even fewer of the new residents in Chinatown are actually of Chinese heritage.

“Can you preserve the culture when the stores change to Western stores?” wonders city councillor Pamela Madoff, a fierce supporter of heritage conservation during her 24 years on council. “You don’t want it to be phony or manufactured, but when there’s no reference, it’s difficult to know what will happen.”

Seeing Chinatown thriving is wonderful, adds Madoff. But it’s also just a little sad to realize that as each building is revitalized and empty lots fill in, there’s no more “room to dream.”

“You can call what’s going on ‘gentrification,’ and there’s a lot of good that results, but what made Chinatown special over the years was that there was that room to dream,” she says. “You could look at those buildings and imagine.”

Oriental Emporium owner Sylvia Lau says some of her Chinese-Canadian customers complain about how few of the stores cater to traditional Chinese tastes anymore. “People come in thinking they should still be able to buy something their grandmother bought 50 years ago,” she says. “But time changes things. We can’t stop market changes.”

Marc Morrison, whose restaurant Brasserie L’Ecole opened 16 years ago across from the Gate of Harmonious Interest, says the gentrifying of Chinatown has him feeling “excited and a little worried.” The neighbourhood feels increasingly vibrant, “but it’s a little disappointing it’s not with Chinese business owners and residents.”

Daniela Cubelic thinks businesses that set up shop in Chinatown ought to feel an obligation to acknowledge the culture and history of the area. “I think it’s important to find ways to contribute to that,” she says. “So often an area becomes increasingly gentrified and all of a sudden, you’ve lost what made it special.”

Chinese at its Core
But the outgoing chair of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association says that while Chinatown may appear increasingly westernized, a lot of Chinese action carries on behind the scenes. Accountant Thomas Chan notes that at least 10 of the long-standing Chinese societies and associations that own or control buildings in the neighbourhood continue to maintain their head offices and social clubs in Chinatown. The area still has an active Chinese school, a temple and low-income housing run by the Chinatown Care Society. “You want to walk in Chinatown and still hear mah-jong being played? Come down here on a Saturday or Sunday,” says Chan.

Where to next for Chinatown? Presuming city council maintains current height and heritage requirements, those observing the scene say they aren’t anticipating any big changes. Aside from the roomy parking lot that stretches across Store Street at the feet of Fisgard and Herald streets, “there’s not enough land and not enough high-rise permits” for additional development, says Le Fevre. “Instead, we can judiciously embellish what we’ve got.”

Chinatown could live on indefinitely as a cool and cultural destination as long as future city councils continue to be “stewards of visionary policies,” adds Madoff.

“There was a wonderful presentation recently on Old Town. One of the questions was: What’s the most pressing threat to Old Town? My answer: Mayor and council. We have all the policies in place now, but the threat is a council that would change that.”

The neighbourhood is quite perfect right at this moment, adds Le Fevre. “I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’d ever want to change the face of it. I wouldn’t advocate that it should change,” he says. “Victoria’s Chinatown has found its way into the modern era holding onto its originality.”