Exploring British Columbia's Chinatowns
Exploring British Columbia's Chinatowns
Discover the Working Chinatowns of Vancouver and Victoria
Visiting Vancouver or Victoria without exploring their working Chinatowns is like biting into a cake, only to miss a delicious gold nugget hidden inside. It is difficult to imagine British Columbia today without the immense contributions of its early Chinese immigrants. Unlike other present-day ethnic groups in Canada, Chinese immigrants arrived early to British Columbia, prior to Canada’s becoming a nation in 1867.
The first Chinese to arrive in BC came aboard fur-trading vessels in the late 1700s. Their numbers are estimated at less than 150, and their eventual fate is unknown. The next wave of immigrants arrived in 1858, when Chinese miners and shopkeepers flowed north from California with the discovery of gold.
Prior to 1880, there were no Chinatowns outside British Columbia. The first (and oldest) Chinatown in Canada was established in Victoria in 1858. At the time, Victoria was a bustling frontier port that was a far cry from the refined urban capital city we know today. White fortune-seekers from California, Oregon, and Washington poured into Victoria, enroute to the beckoning Fraser gold fields beyond.
At the same time, Chinese residents in California, tired of enduring White-based prejudice and discrimination, set north for Victoria in search of fresh opportunity. The influx of miners gave rise to secondary support industries, such as laundry and cooking services, and many Chinese immigrants arrived to fill these jobs. The Chinese referred to British Columbia as Gold Mountain. Soon word got back to China, and more immigrants flowed into British Columbia. Some of them mined for gold in areas the White miners had abandoned. Others tilled food gardens that nourished the exhausted miners and enabled them to work the next day.
Chinatowns are enclaves that sprang up against the harsh realities of history. When Chinese immigrants arrived from California, they were met by the same White prejudice they had hoped to escape. The creation of Chinatowns was an outcome of the segregation these immigrants faced.
Chinatowns also functioned as a natural adaptation of a culture to a new environment. Separated from the dominant culture by language, beliefs, customs, and traditions, Chinatowns operated as cultural centres in which Chinese immigrants could band together for support, as well as practice and preserve their cultural identity.
British Columbia saw a number of Chinatowns established on Vancouver Island and on the BC mainland. Besides Victoria’s Chinatown on Vancouver Island, the coal-mining regions of Nanaimo, Wellington, and South Wellington each had a Chinatown. Victoria’s Chinatown is the only remaining working Chinatown on the Island today. Across Georgia Strait, Vancouver’s Chinatown is the last remaining working Chinatown on the BC mainland. Other notable mainland Chinatowns included communities at Barkerville, Lytton, Yale, and New Westminster. Other short-lived settlements sprang up throughout the Cariboo region of the province.
In 1880, some 15,000 Chinese immigrants arrived to work on the great Canadian railroad. The men were used as cheap labour, making half the wage of their White counterparts. The Chinese labour force suffered enormous hardships in their daily work. The work was extremely dangerous, and accident and death rates were very high.
When the railroad was finally completed, thousands of these Chinese workers made their way to Vancouver in search of new work. Here, they faced massive unemployment. Vancouver’s Chinatown arose out of these harsh circumstances and the Chinese immigrants once again banded together for sustenance and support.
The vast majority of Chinese immigrants at this time were male workers. They were eager to have their wives and children join them in British Columbia. Discrimination was institutionalized by this time, and a head tax was imposed on each man, woman, and child who wanted to enter the province. The head tax was $50 per person, while the wage for a Chinese railroad labourer was only about $1 per day. In 1900 the head tax was increased to $100 per person. And in 1903, it was raised again to $500.
Through much travail, the Chinese community of British Columbia was born. Against this historical backdrop, the Chinese population not only survived, but now thrives as a linchpin of British Columbia’s past and as a vital partner in the province’s economy today. The working Chinatowns of Vancouver and Victoria are the heartbeat of British Columbia’s Chinese community. Within their gates lies a robust nursery in which the Chinese culture is celebrated and nurtured, ensuring its growth and development for years to come.
Victoria and Vancouver Chinatowns burst with sights, scents, sounds, flavours, and performances. Step inside these working communities, and you will be immersed in a typical market that is found in today’s China.
Peruse the brightly decorated shops at streetside, where you can handpick locally grown produce that is brought in daily. Choose from a wide selection of fresh, locally-harvested seafood, including BC’s famous Dungeness crab. Explore the seemingly endless variety and supply of herbs, roots, teas, sauces, and other foods and goods too numerous to list. Step inside a traditional Chinese medicine shop and you will gain immediate respect for this ancient culture that has tended its people’s health for millennia.
Both Vancouver and Victoria Chinatowns boast beautiful, imposing gateways to welcome your arrival. Victoria’s Gate of Harmonious Interest was built in 1981 as a tribute to the Chinese community’s proud heritage. Vancouver Chinatown’s monumental Millennium Gate was erected nineteen years later, in 2000. Step through these gates and immerse yourself in one of the oldest, richest, and most exotic cultures in the world.
Be sure to take in Vancouver’s annual Chinatown Night Market. This popular summer festival is the first of its type in North America, and it offers an extravaganza of shopping, culinary, and performance delights for all ages. The seasonal event runs between May and September every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening from 6:30 pm to 11:00 pm. It’s a perfect way to spend a glorious summer evening with your family and friends!
The first Chinese to arrive in BC came aboard fur-trading vessels in the late 1700s
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