This tale is not actually in America, but just north of the border in picturesque Victoria, B.C. With its inviting waterfront and the majestic Empress Hotel greeting visitors as they arrive from the ferry across Puget Sound, not to mention the wonderful shopping and restaurants nearby, it’s no wonder this is such a popular destination with us Yankees.
But my latest visit (pre-pandemic, of course) was to go beyond the surface and do some heavy investigating. To do this, I made a beeline for Victoria’s Chinatown.
I had heard the legends. The mysterious underground tunnels hidden deep in the recesses of the Chinatown district. Stories of a bygone era containing all manner of nefarious goings-on. This includes gambling dens, opium parlors, not to mention slavery and prostitution. But did these tunnels really exist? Or were they simply the rumours of desperate tourism officials to lure unsuspecting tourists to the area?
I was about to find out.
And so it was one sunny afternoon that I decided to do some sleuthing. After following clues from the interwebs, I set off on a self-guided walking tour. Victoria’s Chinatown is the second oldest Chinatown district in North America, and Canada’s oldest. Makes sense, since this is the closet point across the Big Water to China itself. It is rife with history, and legends abound.
A bit of history. Just a bit, so as not to bore and get on with the good stuff.
During the Fraser River gold rush of the 1850’s, a vast swath of Chinese immigrated to Canada to get in on the riches to be discovered, and Victoria was the first port of call. A select few did find wealth in the effort, but most did not, and ended up “stuck” in Victoria. Forced to live a life among unfriendly Europeans (the exception, not the rule) who didn’t seem to want to consort with our friends from the East.
These wayward Chinese immigrants banded together to create their own little community, and Victoria’s Chinatown was born. But that’s not to say everything was rosy. Quite the opposite.
With not much else to occupy themselves, failed Chinese gold-rush-dropouts, when they weren’t farming the land and selling produce, resorted to age-old vices such as opium use, gambling, and prostitution. Hey, you gotta pass the time somehow, right? Fun fact: Opium was actually legal until 1908 in Canada, however gambling and prostitution were not.
Of course, the authorities would soon catch on to any illegal activity if done in plain sight. So to avoid the occasional police raid, it is said that the Chinese dug underground tunnels and rooms to retreat to when the fuzz showed up. This was also useful for stashing contraband.
I had to see these tunnels for myself. So I asked around. It is here that I should mention that the West Coast of North America has its share of underground tunnels. Portland’s ‘Shanghai Tunnels’ are the stuff of legend, and Seattle’s Underground Tour is one of the city’s most popular. But I digress.
My investigation began at Market Square. The brightly-coloured BC Produce Company has been supplying people with excellent fresh produce since the early days. Then cross Pandora Avenue and you run smack dab into Fan Tan Alley, which incidentally, is the narrowest street in all of Canada. Point of fact, ‘Fan Tan’ is actually the name of a gambling game. I felt I was coming on to something. After a quick consultation with a couple of shop owners about the infamous tunnels, they reluctantly suggested I ‘may’ find one of the entrances to the tunnels here.
Fan Tan Xiang (the aforementioned alley) has gates on either side. I entered with great anticipation. I felt the brick walls close in on me with each passing step. It was drizzling rain, the water trickling forebodingly down the brick walls. Organic stuff was growing from the bricks, and the heady aroma lent a sinister element to my hunt. It was truly out of a suspense flick. The alley does have lovely boutiques and other shops that threatened to lull me out of my mission.
I walked up and down the one-block alley numerous times, but found no tunnel entrance. So I entered one of the shops and asked the shop owner. I was met with a perplexed look. They did not know about any tunnels. Or perhaps they wouldn’t say? And then I was approached by another shop patron.
“I believe there is an entrance to the tunnels in the Old Janion Hotel.” He said.
“Oh? Where is that?” I responded.
“Just a block over there.” He tossed his head to the west. “It’s an abandoned building, but now they are renovating it.”
The Janion Hotel was built in 1891 and was an actual hotel for only two years. After that it became a railway business office, then a warehouse, then a cold storage facility. But now it was being converted to micro-lofts. When I reached the place, it was indeed undergoing a major renovation. But alas, it was completely gated off. To enter it would be to commit trespassing.
Feeling not particularly criminal, I moved on. I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Dragon Alley. A wonderful place in its own right. Gorgeous dragon images abound, and as I reached Government Street, I came upon the oldest Chinese temple in Canada. I learned of the rich history here, and it seemed to make up for the fact that my quest for the underground tunnels of Victoria were made in vain.
Almost. I still had a fabulous time.