Honouring Heritage, Building for the Future: Chinatown’s Revival

    Honouring Heritage - Building for the Future (Douglas Aug/Sept 2022)
    Tony Yang (left), owner of Cathay Living, a home décor shop located at 545 Fisgard Street, shares a chuckle with developer Robert Fung, who is investing in Chinatown. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

    A forward-thinking B.C. developer is bringing fresh energy to Canada’s oldest Chinatown. Robert Fung, the visionary founder and president of the Vancouver-based The Salient Group, is renovating two significant blocks on Fisgard and Pandora, focused on preserving the area’s historic Chinese influence. 

    “I’ve always liked Victoria,” explains Fung. “It has a great vibe and strong sense of community. I also have a penchant for historic buildings, and Victoria has some of the most important, standing history in our young country.”

    The Salient Group, also involved in several developments across Greater Victoria, is committed to preserving and honouring the ever-developing cultural heritage of what is one of Victoria’s most treasured neighbourhoods.

    The Case for Culture

    Doing so is important for cultural and historical reasons, but it also makes good economic sense. Chinatown is a tourist destination for visitors to the city. Based on pre-COVID data, Greater Victoria hosts approximately 4.2 million visitors each year, infusing almost $1.5-billion into the local economy.

    A good number of heritage buildings on Victoria’s northern side with Italianate exteriors (and Guangdong-inspired interiors, alleyways, and courtyards) were commissioned by wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs over a 100 years ago, including some of the buildings that Fung has bought. 

    “We’re doing a lot of work to our buildings, putting in sprinklers and fire alarm systems and some minor seismic work,” Fung says. 

    It’s expensive work — and he’s also doing his best to retain current tenants during the process, some who have been there for more than 30 years. (He made a promise to the previous owner, who kept the properties in the family for three generations, to never evict someone because of late rent payments.)

    Fung is no stranger to working on heritage properties and understands well the delicate balance of building for the future while respecting the past, and honouring those who remain there. The Salient Group was instrumental in the award-winning urban renewal work in Vancouver’s Gastown district. 

    Honouring Heritage - Building for the Future (Douglas Aug/Sept 2022)
    Robert Fung, founder and president of the Vancouver-based The Salient Group. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

    So far, Fung’s investments are welcomed.

    “Fortunately, we have a lot of people in our community that are enthusiastic and willing to do the work to preserve our Chinatown,” says Victoria city councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe.

    Thornton-Joe has been a long-standing advocate for Chinatown. She’s hoping to move back into the neighbourhood at some point. “I’ve always wanted to eat, breathe, smell and be part of the Chinese community again because my childhood was spent so much here.”

    Chinatown’s Past

    Victoria’s Chinatown can trace its origins to the wealthy Chinese merchants of San Francisco, who built the first workers lodgings in the 1890s, forming the core of what would become Canada’s largest and most vibrant Chinatown for half a century.

    Faced with a hostile and unfriendly white population that dumped garbage in the Johnson Street ravine that physically separated Chinatown from the rest of the city, Chinese workers banded together to survive the discriminatory labour and social conditions of the day.

    As the first port of call for virtually all Chinese arriving on the West Coast, within two decades Chinatown would become a thriving, self-contained city: six blocks teeming with business, societies, theatres, schools and clubs, catering to the more than 3,000 Chinese residents who lived here. For half a century, Victoria’s Chinatown was Canada’s largest and most vibrant Chinatown, and in 1995, it was designated a National Historic Site, recognized as the country’s oldest and most intact Chinatown.

    Although Victoria once boasted the largest concentration of Chinese Canadians in the country, that is no longer the case. Large swaths of the neighbourhood were demolished for projects such as Centennial Square and the CRD building; meanwhile, most of Victoria’s Chinese population moved out of Chinatown. But some, particularly low-income seniors, still call it home. 

    “Some of the people, they can’t survive outside Chinatown,” says Daniel Low, a second-generation Chinatown advocate. “They don’t drive. They don’t speak the language. That’s all they have.”

    Low contends that the character and heritage need to be protected. He continues to honour his culture by sharing his knowledge of Kung Fu, lion dancing and being involved in Chinese associations. “Culture is the people. The art, the food — that’s culture. Not the buildings, not the colours,” he says.

    Low — whose parents owned a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown — spent much of his childhood there — has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Chinatown stores that have changed names, relocated and shifted owners over the years. He believes that Chinatown needs the energy of the next generation for it to continue to thrive.

    Fung agrees. “If the whole Chinese identity gets diluted out of the character of the shops, then all we have is the pastiche, a bunch of lanterns,” he says. 

    Making sure that businesses such as the Loy Sing Meat Market remain is important. The 133-year-old char-siu (barbecued meat) shop is North America’s oldest continuously operated Chinese business. Shelly Rong and Daniel Zheng have operated it, seven days a week, for the past 28 years. Rong bought into the Loy Sing business in 1994 from one of her uncles, a longstanding employee of the original Sum family, who started the business in 1889. 

    The owners of Loy Sing don’t do any advertising. The store’s status as a Chinatown fixture and the strength of its products is what has kept Loy Sing going all these years, and it’s what drives people from all over the Island and Vancouver to keep coming back for it. Elders — some who Zheng says are even from before his time — come in to reminisce about their childhoods spent in and around the shop. 

    Workers are no longer housed upstairs, and they’ve stopped keeping live chickens and ducks in the back, but that’s about it. Not much has changed since the shop opened more than 130 years ago.

    Keeping rents low has let keystone businesses, such as the Loy Sing butcher shop, continue its operations to this day.

    Even though Rong talks about finding a new business partner or selling the store off completely, her tone turns wistful when she remembers what Chinatown has meant to her over all these years. “We’ve made a lot of friends; met a lot of dear customers. It’s what fed my family, paid for my expenses,” Rong says. 

    It’s businesses like Loy Sing that make Chinatown what it is. That culture is fully celebrated in the recently opened temporary Chinese Canadian museum exhibition gallery, located in Fan Tan Alley. One of the exhibits touts the butcher shop as a piece of living history. 

    Thornton-Joe is the visitor experience and facilities coordinator, but that title does not even begin to describe the multi-decade effort that she has put in to realizing her dream of a museum that chronicles Victoria’s Chinatown history. 

    “It’s important that we don’t forget the past,” says Grace Wong Sneddon, vice-chair of the Victoria Chinatown Museum Society. Not that we have to keep reliving it,” she adds, “but it’s important to remember how the past shapes our future, so that we can take responsibility in how we go forward.”

    A permanent Chinese museum in Victoria would be a step in honouring and supporting our Chinese communities and our people today, she adds. (Fung is also on the museum society’s board that’s advocating for this to happen. It’s a testament to his extensive community involvement.) 

    “In Victoria and B.C., we have provided social, political and economic growth for this province and in Canada,” says Wong Sneddon. “Just remember and appreciate the work that we’ve done, despite horrific setbacks and challenges. Some of us have triumphed, but many have not.”

    For Fung, this is all critical to his development plans. “The history here is tangible and tactile, and you can touch it,” Says Fung. “It’s real, and it exists.” As he’s renovating buildings, he’s uncovering layers of Chinatown history hidden within the walls: yellowing Chinese language newspapers with Communist party propaganda, used as wall insulation: old logging boots and spittoons, left in an old gambling den and what might perhaps be the last remaining wall of an opium factory. 

    Honouring Heritage - Building for the Future (Douglas Aug/Sept 2022)
    Robert Fung (left), with Construction Manager Lorne Gavinchuk, in the “Lee Mong Kow” building (ca. 1901-1902), standing in the home of the original Shon Yuen Herbalist shop, which was connected to the Shon Yuen Opium Factory. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

    Fung is dreaming up restaurant layouts that will open up formerly gated alleyways and unused courtyards for residents and tourists visiting Chinatown. He’s hoping to highlight the building’s past in the new redesigns. 

    “I’m not a fan of the UNESCO thing, where you lock it in time,” says Fung. “We have a Chinatown that is evolving. It’s economically relevant. This Chinatown isn’t exclusive to the Chinese.”

    The story of the Chinese cultural contribution is important to our story, and to our Canadian identity.

    New Kids on the Block

    Chinatown is constantly evolving. Fan Tan Alley, Canada’s narrowest street, was once a place of entertainment and pleasure for Chinese workers who couldn’t go anywhere else, limited by race-based restrictions. But since the 1970s, the alley has welcomed a vibrant new throng of artist studios and independent shops.

    “You go to many Chinatowns around the world or across North America, and there’s a lot of boarded-up windows,” Thornton-Joe says. “But in our Chinatown, it’s very vibrant.”

    Chinatown still serves as a landing point and a place of promise for new immigrants starting new businesses. One of those new successful entrepreneurs is Israel Álvarez Molina, founder of the MAiiZ Nixtamal Tortilleria, who has built his entire career in Chinatown. He was previously named as one of Douglas magazine’s 10 to Watch in 2021 and was a winner of YAM magazine’s Best Restaurant Awards 2022.

    “A lot of people are surprised that there’s a Mexican shop in the middle of Chinatown,” chuckles Álvarez. MAiiZ came into being in Fan Tan Alley but when Álvarez’s lease was running out, he found a new home on Fisgard Street. Just by doing business in Chinatown, he was able to tap into the community and met his current landlord when he stopped by on a casual visit at the shop. “He came to try the tortillas. And he said, ‘I think this is a great product that I want you to stay in Chinatown.’ ” 

    Álvarez was able to expand his wholesale business with the additional space, bringing in custom-ordered machines and grinders from Mexico. In addition to being served in restaurants across the city, his products are now sold in 87 stores all across the Island.

    Honouring Heritage - Building for the Future (Douglas Aug/Sept 2022)
    City councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe has been an effective voice and advocate for Chinatown and preserving its cultural heritage and importance for the community. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

    Álvarez’s success underscores how savvy property owners can bring in businesses that positively contribute to the community. Many of the buildings that make up Chinatown today are owned by established Chinese families and the Chinese associations that supported and provided a place of refuge for some of the city’s first Chinese workers. Now, they welcoming new businesses.

    As for Fung, he is adamant that whoever moves into his company’s buildings has to understand and continue to honour the history of Chinatown, irrespective of whether they are Chinese or what their business will be. “We’ve had to reject a lot of different groups,” says Fung. “When you have a sizable building, it doesn’t matter how big it is, how pretty you make the units; the character of the building will forever be defined by what you put into the ground floor.” 

    He’s seen too many cases where a developer has put a lot of thought into a building and planning a space, only for the commercial ground space to go to whomever can pay the highest rent. He’s not going to let that happen in The Salient Group’s Chinatown properties.

    “You have to put businesses in places where it makes sense for them to be,” Fung says. “For the little pieces we control, we’re going to try and insist on people honouring the culture here, irrespective of what their concept is.”

    While Fung himself isn’t historically connected to Victoria’s Chinatown — he’s lived in Toronto and Vancouver and his Chinese heritage traces back to Trinidad — he’s committed to keeping Victoria’s Chinatown vibrant. “I’ve spent my whole life not really being connected to my Chinese roots as much as I should. So I feel a bit of an obligation to make sure we don’t lose this Chinatown.”

    Protecting and respecting the heritage but building for the future with new ventures is the winning combination to maintaining a vibrant Chinatown in Victoria. It is an exciting time with new visionaries coming forward who are bringing new life to one of Victoria’s most treasured neighbourhoods.