The Ugly Duckling is now an important resident of Canada’s oldest Chinatown, and part of a phenomenon as Chinatowns in Western Canada evolve and the owners of traditional eateries age out of business or move away.
Every Thursday to Sunday evening, the wait staff at the Ugly Duckling Dining & Provisions restaurant carefully set knives and forks on chopstick rests at each table. The Ugly Duckling, which opened less than two months ago in Victoria’s historic Chinatown, is not a Chinese restaurant.
But the fine dining eatery goes out of its way to add touches of Chinese culture to its dining experience.
Proprietor and chef Corbin Mathany incorporates Chinese ingredients and techniques in almost every dish.
The tasting menu includes dumplings, Chinese buns and steamed custards. The bill arrives pinned to a postcard of Victoria’s Chinatown in 1898, depicting children celebrating Lunar New Year.
Developer Robert Fung, whose company, The Salient Group, is renovating two city blocks in Chinatown, insisted on the inclusion of the homages for businesses looking to locate there.
“Honestly, at first it felt like a little bit of a restriction,” Mathany said. “It felt a tiny bit onerous. But it has helped refine our message and guide us in a direction that, I think, makes us a lot more interesting than what we would have been.”
The Ugly Duckling is now an important resident of Canada’s oldest Chinatown, and part of a phenomenon as Chinatowns in Western Canada evolve and the owners of traditional eateries age out of business or move away.
Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association, said that in the past five years, the neighbourhood has lost at least 20 per cent of its 100 heritage businesses, loosely defined as stores or eateries that have operated for more than 25 years.
Earlier this month, Kent’s Kitchen — a neighbourhood stalwart for more than 40 years — announced it will shutter its Vancouver Chinatown location in April.
In February, the Daisy Garden Kitchen, another four-decade mainstay, announced it was tapping out.
But new restaurants haven’t stopped opening, Eng said.
One example, fusion gastropub The Darkside, officially opened in January and features a mix of West Coast and Asian cuisine in a casual bar atmosphere.
Others, like tapas wine bar La Boqueria and boutique doughnut shop Mello, opened in Chinatown a few years earlier, each adding to the neighbourhood’s new identity, Eng said.
“Chinatown’s food culture has flourished over the last 10 years. Not as many might have envisioned, which is primarily Chinese based, but more international,” he said. ”And so at nighttime at Chinatown, one of the good things between now and 10 years ago is that the nightlife has really picked up again.”
Eng does not discount Chinatown’s battle retaining small heritage food establishments, and he wonders if things may have turned out differently had plans to build a nine-storey mixed-use building on a site known as 105 Keefer not been rejected.
“It had a big impact,” Eng said of the 2017 decision that followed a fierce community battle. “There hasn’t been any new development in Chinatown since then. Capitalism is fleeting, right? So it will go wherever it sees the least resistance, so to speak. So that set us back.”
In 2018, the City of Vancouver voted to reduce the size of buildings that can be built in Chinatown.
Without more residential density and with the pandemic hitting traditional small businesses’ clientele, Eng said the neighbourhood had no choice but to seek an evolution towards new types of shops, geared toward younger, often non-Chinese, audiences.
Fung, president of The Salient Group, said culturally sensitive development can be a potent ally in the revitalization of Chinatowns across the region, especially if the goal is to bring in a younger crowd.
Salient specializes in urban revitalization projects, such as its latest work in Victoria’s Chinatown.
“So the effort is, how does one participate in the economic evolution of the area, but still maintain what’s really important to the cultural history of the place?” Fung said.
Fung said the project is crucial for Victoria Chinatown’s future, and the neighbourhood shares many of the challenges seen in other Chinatowns in terms of losing traditional businesses.
The key, he said, is to have developers who understand the historical significance of Chinatowns’ past while planning for their future.
Part of that responsibility is selecting the right tenants to take over heritage buildings. Fung said new businesses do not need to be Chinese but must respect and bridge the neighbourhood’s roots with the present.
“I feel that there’s actually a very narrow bandwidth (of tenants) that we can work with to deliver what we think we want to do, which is be authentic to the restoration,” Fung said. ”Try to tell the story of that history or celebrate it, while enabling the space to be relevant today and financially viable.”
Similar efforts are happening in cities like Calgary and Winnipeg, where the mix of businesses in their Chinatowns is changing.
In Winnipeg, a revitalization plan was announced in 2019. The city has added more than 500 units of housing and a $95-million Red River College Polytechnic innovation centre that will bring new students and businesses to Chinatown.
“There’s no point hanging on to yesterday when no one’s coming,” said Ben Lee, past president of the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural & Community Centre. “So I think the markets may shape the types of businesses and shops that come into Chinatown.”
In Calgary, city council passed a cultural and development plan dubbed “Tomorrow’s Chinatown” in December after three years of consultation.
Wilco van Bemmel, CEO of urban development consultancy Dunefield, helped create the Calgary plan that will help heritage businesses evolve while officials work at “active retail recruitment” to bring “younger and non-Chinese groups into the community.”
Van Bemmel said while attracting new business is important, the real key to a successful transition to a younger Chinatown was in the hands of second-generation heritage business owners — children who take over their parents’ shops and add new flair that naturally shifts the community to reflect new demographics.
“The economic footprint of these small and humble businesses is often much larger than we think, because these are actually places where people make things,” van Bemmel said.
One such shop is Vancouver’s Kam Wai Dim Sum.
Co-owner William Liu is a second-generation business owner. He took over Kam Wai from his parents in 2014 and renovated the Vancouver Chinatown shop on Pender Street with large steamers and deli counters to do more retail sales to patrons.
But he said the key to Kam Wai’s continued resilience as Chinatown faced higher crime levels, slower foot traffic and rising inflation was the fact that the store never lost sight of its business plan: a local manufacturer and distributor of frozen dim sum to supermarkets and restaurants all over the city.
The pandemic, Liu said, wasn’t the first Chinatown malaise that Kam Wai has had to navigate.
“In the early 2000s, Chinatown was going through an economic downturn,” Liu said. “That was at that time when my dad started reaching out to a lot of wholesale clients â¦ And that’s why we were able to sustain ourselves, through those contracts, because doing retail business in Chinatown is really difficult.”
Carol Lee, chair and co-founder of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, said Chinatowns need many more stories like Kam Wai’s to overcome their current challenges.
Lee said the foundation is continuously talking to all stakeholders, ranging from the federal and provincial governments to other Chinatowns in North America and private sector partners.
New, non-Chinese businesses in Chinatown are welcome and important, she said. But it does not make the loss of eateries like Kent’s Kitchen any less painful because they give the neighbourhood its distinctive flavour.
“So I think now it’s just like, how do we balance the new with the old?” Lee said. “This is the mission statement at the foundation: helping to revitalize Chinatown while retaining its irreplaceable cultural heritage. That’s the underpinning of everything that we do here.”
Full Speed Ahead for Chinatown’s Revival
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.
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.”
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 harsh labour and social conditions of the day.
Ambition and hard work overcame many challenges, and in two short decades, it became a thriving and fully functioning self-contained city: six blocks teeming with businesses, societies, theatres, schools and recreational clubs, catering to more than the 3,000 Chinese residents who called it home.
A national historic site since 1995, as it is the oldest and most intact Chinatown in Canada, the neighbourhood according to the Parks Canada website, “represents an important chapter in the complex history and heritage of Chinese Canadians. As the major immigrant port of entry on the west coast before World War I, Victoria boasted the largest concentration of Chinese Canadians in the country.”
While most of the Chinese population in Victoria no longer particularly low-income seniors, still do. “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.
“Some of the people, they can’t survive outside Chinatown. They don’t drive. They don’t speak the language. That’s all they have.”
— Daniel Low, second-generation Chinatown advocate
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 char-siew meat shop, remain is important. The 133-year-old business is North America’s oldest continuous Chinese business. Shelly Rong and Daniel Zheng have operated it 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.)
“It’s important that we don’t forget the past, but it’s important to remember how the past shapes our future, so that we can take responsibility in how we go forward.˝
— Grace Wong Sneddon, vice-chair of the Victoria Chinatown Museum Society
“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.
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
Fung is right that Chinatown is evolving. It is a welcoming place for all as the old ethnic boundaries of the city weaken and fade away. Fan Tan Alley, Canada’s narrowest street, has hosted a vibrant throng of artist studios and independent shops since the 1970s.
“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.
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.
Image Credit: Kendra Crighton/News Staff
A new pop-up exhibit in Fan Tan Alley aims to connect passersby to the history of the area.
The exhibit features a map from 1891 that highlights Fan Tan Alley, also known as “the bank street,” as an economic centre that connected the trans-Pacific trade to the interior. During this time, the opium trade was still legal and brought the city “a lot of revenue at the time,” according to Tzu-I Chung, curator of the exhibit.
Across from the map, is a digital showcase of a handmade lantern that was displayed at the Chinese Freemason’s headquarters – which is one of the oldest Chinese organizations in the country, dating back to 1863 – in Victoria and likely at local Lantern Festivals during the 1930s and 1940s.
“[The lantern] is based on this very, very old – thousands of years old – way of heating up from below and then using that heat to make the plate revolve,” explains Chung, emphasizing the craftsmanship needed to connect the moving parts of the lantern.
Chung says the goal of the exhibit is to make people stop and think about the connection of that place to the history, along with seeing the amazing art and crafts from that time. The lantern is in a digital format because it is extremely fragile and not in a condition to be on display for long periods of time.
The exhibit officially opens on July 24.
Read the full article at Victoria News here: https://www.vicnews.com/news/fan-tan-alley-exhibit-connects-victoria-visitors-with-history-of-canadas-oldest-chinatown/
See the recent announcement from the Province of BC, announcing its $10 million dollar contribution to establish Canada's first Chinese Canadian Museum!
Link to Video: https://youtu.be/SbjWolprOFE
The Salient Group is pleased to be working with Victoria's Chinatown Museum Society and the Royal BC Museum on an exciting initiative. More to come...
A building on Wharf Street known for its nautical history and giant mural of orcas could become a boutique hotel.
Robert Fung, president of the Salient Group, which owns the property at 1244-1252 Wharf St., said the company is considering how to redevelop the building and has approached the City of Victoria for a zoning change that would allow a hotel.
“It’s early stages and we are looking at all our options going forward,” Fung said in an interview. “Hotels are allowed all around, but not on this specific site. So we want to get some consistency on zoning and take into account all the conversations on what to do” with the property.
The building — with three storeys above street grade and two below sloping to the harbour — was built in 1882 by James Yates and designed by John Teague. An addition was added in 1896.
Fung said the building could potentially support 25 hotel rooms on the upper and lower floors, and a vibrant street-level business such as a pub or restaurant would add to the hotel’s appeal and bring more activity to the foot of Yates Street. He said it would be a traditional hotel — not a short-term rental, as the city restricted that use two years ago to combat a growing housing affordability crisis.
Fung said the company also wants to use the waterfront and David Foster Walkway in some way to support the hotel. Several ideas will be considered over the next several months, he said.
Read the full article at the Times Colonist here: https://www.timescolonist.com/business/hotel-plan-for-historic-building-on-victoria-s-wharf-street-1.24150276
A significant modernization effort along downtown Victoria's 'Antique Row' has presented an opportunity for downtown residents, merchants,workers and future business operators to re-envision the future of the retail corridor.
The 800-block of Fort Street, which for generations was the Capital’s ground zero for antiques, used furniture and vintage housewares that earned it the moniker, is undergoing redevelopment in the form of three mixed-use residential and commercial projects that will rejuvenate nearly half of the block’s street-side frontage.
With the first building just completing construction, a second green-lighted and a third in the final stages of municipal approvals, the trio of new-builds will deliver 14,000 square feet of retail opportunities to Fort Street and nearly 430 residences catering to young professionals, downtown workers and seniors.
As the projects draw closer, the stakeholders involved are directing their focus towards the community for a conversation on how Victorians feel about Fort Street, and what form the block’s future retail make-up should take.
“Rarely does an opportunity to have an open discussion on the character of the street-level experience of a central city block present itself,and especially one that for generations has been a special destination for Victorians,” says Robert Fung, founder of The Salient Group that is leading two of the development efforts.
“What do Victorians value about this stretch of Fort Street? What do residents, workers, visitors and business owners think the character of Fort Street should be? What is necessary for a truly mixed-use neighbourhood to thrive, to become a destination and a vibrant addition to the downtown core?We’d love to continue that dialogue."
The Salient Group’s projects – a mid-rise nearing completion at 840 Fort Street as the six-storey Sawyer Block with 60 affordable rental suites and 900 square feet of retail space, and a 10-storey building approved at 819-827 Fort Street comprised of 100 rental apartments and 5,000 square feet of commercial/retail space – will collectively yield approximately 6,000 square feet for restaurants, shops,bistros or professional offices. Most notably, both of these projects have retained portions of the original historic buildings on their sites, creating a strong sense that this neighbourhood is evolving on the strength of its character, rather than ignoring its past.
“Our approach is always to try and understand what is in the hearts and minds of the people that really value a place, and to reconcile this with the needs of those that will populate the community we are creating.Feedback and ideas are always welcome,” Fung says.
Individuals wishing to comment on the future of Fort Street and to share their ideas of an ideal mix of commercial services can head to the full article at Citified for more information.
Read the full article at Citified Victoria here: https://victoria.citified.ca/news/victorians-asked-to-weigh-in-on-future-of-fort-street-s-antique-row-retail-make-up-as-new-devs-lead-storefront-revival/
Image Credit: @Kryzzzie/Instagram
We can't wait to welcome the Twisted Fork Bistro into Gastown!
We're eagerly waiting for their doors to re-open next month in their new location at 213 Carrall Street, and know that our neighbours are very excited too. In the meantime, we'll be thinking about the eggs benny and banana stuffed brioche french toast....
We are excited to announce that we are now accepting tenant applications for the Sawyer Block. If you are interested in renting a pet-friendly home located in the heart of Fort Street, please click here to fill out an application form.
The first move-ins will start February 1, 2020, and our fantastic team at Servissio Property Services will be more than happy to speak with you and answer any questions you might have.
We look forward to welcoming you home!
We're excited to show a peek inside Sawyer Block. Progress is being made and the residences are shaping up beautifully.
Above is a picture inside a Type A residence. If you would like to see the floor plans for all the residences, please follow the link provided below!
Please continue to look out for updates as things are progressing at 840 Fort Street. If you haven't registered yet don't forget to do so using the link above.
Robert Fung has taken his first step in helping to revitalize the 800-block of Fort Street. Next month he intends to take a leap.
The president of the Vancouver-based The Salient Group has been watching over construction of his 60-unit rental project at 840 Fort St., that will bring micro-suites to the block this winter. In September, he seeks approval from the City of Victoria for a 101-unit rental building that could change the dynamics of the street, if not the look of it.
Fung is hoping the project at 819-827 Fort St., which will maintain the historic facades of a pair of Fort Street buildings while bringing a range of rental housing and 5,000 square feet of commercial space to the neighbourhood, will continue the rebuild of the block. If this latest project gets the green light Sept. 5, he will be responsible for a large chunk of re-energized real estate on the block, but Fung is the first to credit his new neighbours for breathing life into the street.
Click here to read the full article by Andrew Duffy at the Times Colonist.