Fan Tan Alley
By Danda Humphreys
Entrance to Victoria’s Chinese past
The Gate of Harmonius Interest at the intersection of Fisgard and Government
Some say it’s the narrowest street in North America, but to the people who lived there toward the end of the 19th century, it was the entrance to the area they called home.
Fan Tan Alley was once the main route to Victoria’s Chinatown—the oldest Chinatown in Canada and second-oldest in North America.
Like so many others, the Chinese were drawn here in the late 1850s by the promise of good fortune in the Fraser River gold fields. Most went straight to the mainland, and returned to China when the gold ran out. Those who decided to stay in Victoria created a collection of wooden shacks along the north side of a deep ravine that ran into the Upper Harbour, where Johnson Street is today.
By 1861, Chinese owned and populated the area now bounded by Douglas, Fisgard, Store and Pandora streets, as well as some lots to the north and south and along the nearby waterfront. Most commercial activities—stores and other businesses—could be found where Centennial Square and Lower Pandora are today.
With the building of the railroad across Canada from east to west in the 1880s, Chinese immigration reached its peak. During the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, more than 95 percent of Canada’s total Chinese population lived in Victoria’s six-block Chinatown. Brick buildings had replaced many of its wood frame structures; some of those that remained housed opium factories and dens, which were legal until 1908.
In an effort to stem the flow of immigrants, in 1903 a head tax of $500 was levied on all Chinese entering Canada (equivalent to about two years’ wages). But some people wanted Chinese immigration to continue. The Chinese were hard workers, deferential and uncomplaining. Moreover, they were willing to perform menial tasks—labouring, market gardening, laundering and domestic work—that white men refused.
Almost all of Chinatown’s inhabitants were men (because they could not afford to bring their wives), who worked long and hard for very little. Far from their families, they amused themselves with typical Chinese pursuits, including the theatre, celebration of traditional festivals, visits to the temple, and indoor games such as chess, chuck-luck and Fan Tan—a Chinese game of chance.
Fan Tan is a game with strict rules and high stakes. In Victoria’s male-oriented Chinatown, gambling dens and brothels operated side by side. Gambling was illegal, but the Chinese knew they could always stay one step ahead of the law. Fan Tan Alley, barely one-and-a-half metres wide at both ends, was guarded by watchmen behind solid wood doors. Entrances to buildings in the centre section of the alley led to a deliberately confusing maze of connecting rooms, staircases, and rooftop escape routes. By the time some hapless police officer had managed to make his entrance, the gamblers were nowhere in sight.
After the end of World War II, when immigration rules regarding Chinese were relaxed, many Chinese families came to Canada. Gambling ceased to be a leisure-time focus. One hundred years after the first Chinese arrived, only one Fan Tan club remained. Now there are none.
Chinese men may still love to gamble, but a stroll down Fan Tan Alley today reveals nothing more decadent than restaurants, offices and stores. Yet that narrow, brick-lined lane, the unique area surrounding it, and our thriving Chinese community form fascinating links with Victoria’s colourful past.
Danda Humphreys is an author, speaker and tour guide. Her latest book, Building Victoria, is available in your local bookstore. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the October 2005 edition of Focus Magazine.