It Looks bigger in the movie
By lmoe on March 25, 2014
It is one of those places world famous only in Victoria. The locals are always surprised when a visitor says “what?” at the mention of Fan Tan Alley. We assume everyone knows about our hidden gem because, well, it’s just so cool.
Back when Britannia ruled the waves, the land and rocked smug like they invented it, Victoria was established as a naval port and trade post. It exported the raw materials that helped keep the empire sitting where the sun doesn’t set by importing large numbers of Chinese men to do the heavy lifting. In the way of the times, those (insert politically-incorrect-but-historically-accurate-racial-pejorative here) foreigners had their place to live and decent (white) citizens had everything else. Such is the fairy tale beginning of every Chinatown in North America.
Victoria’s Chinatown may be one of the oldest in North America but it is compact to say the least. It is generously estimated to occupy six square blocks but, really, most of it is one block of Fisgard Street: both sides not including the Mocha House and parking lots. In the words of Spencer Tracy, ‘der aint much der but what’s der is cherce’. At the official entrance to Chinatown there is the magnificent Gate of Harmonious Interest, with bells on (yes, real bells), gold and red tiles, dragons and two stone lions to keep it all harmoniously tasteful.
Partway down the street, on the south side of the block, is the original gateway to those blocks of Oriental mystery. Running between two 3-story brick buildings, it’s named after an ancient Chinese gambling game called Fan Tan. And hidden along its walls are doors to parlours where one could indulge in the eponymous illegal pastime. For several years this was the place to say the secret word and jump into the world of opium smoking (legal until 1908) or other diversions.
Now it’s become a place where Gweilo and Celestial history run together in palpable, scented and savoury layers. It is still very narrow. So narrow you can walk right past it without knowing this time tunnel exists. There is a street sign because this has the reputation of being, among other things, the narrowest street in Canada. It would make a dandy location for a unicycle academy.
The current generation, raised on Harry Potter, will feel like they’re at the entrance of Diagon Alley: all bricks and strange little shops. My generation feels like we’ve stumbled upon the hippie shops and record stores of our youth. Either way, it’s a time trip completely out of step with the world at either end of the alley.
Those of a psychic bent may sense the several thousand souls who’ve trudged through here, destitute, homesick; worn out by a life of back breaking labour and bone-deep racism. One of the more popular ghost tours even claims there is the shade of a young man soaked in the blood of a unfaithful lover who runs through the alley pursued by unseen constables. Every day, twice on Saturdays when the tourist season is in full swing: tour and vengeful athletic spooks.
I’ve never felt that particular frisson but, considering even on the hottest day in summer, this place is as cool as the bottom of a three story deep well, I can see why some might experience a shiver at hearing the tale.
Europeans puff up at the presumption of colonials calling anything here ‘old’. Go ahead, snicker. I know you grew up in an apartment built when Sir Walter Raleigh was teaching QE 1 how to smoke cigarettes behind the horse barns when Essex wasn’t looking.
That is there and this is here and it’s all relative; in North America our history comes with that new car smell. Thanks to that attitude of ‘you don’t have any real history’ most places here which held significant lines from our collective back story have been torn down, paved over, reduced to commemorative plaques and ghost tours.
Fan Tan Alley is a place where the locals love to take visitors. Partly because it’s free and we are notoriously cheap but mostly it’s because it is delightful, intriguing and a place where history still lives.
Patchouli fills the air, there are echoes of clicking fan tan tiles and we are
standing where even time pauses to take a look.
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