by Al Campbell
VICTORIA, Feb. 21 (Xinhua)-- Canada's oldest Chinatown is the focus of a new exhibit at the Royal British Columbia Museum that chronicles the history of the city's early Chinese migrants who came in search of riches with the start of the Fraser Canyon gold rush.
When word filtered to San Francisco in February 1858 that a new gold rush was happening in British Columbia, it brought thousands of Chinese north by boat to Victoria, their first point of entry into what would eventually become the future Canada in 1867.
The discovery of gold put the current B.C. capital on the map as wealthy San Francisco Chinese merchants expanded their operations to Victoria to provide supplies, labor, accommodations and transportation, among other things.
"Traditions in Felicities, Celebrating 155 years of Victoria's Chinatown," documents the second oldest Chinatown in North America after San Francisco and how its advent proved to be the start of the Chinese diasporas in Canada that today numbers more than 1.3 million people.
The exhibit features archive photos from Victoria's Chinatown, which at its 1911 peak had more than 3,000 residents, as well as artifacts, historical documents and a re-creation of an old Chinese alleyway.
There are also video interviews with elderly Chinese-Canadians who lived in Victoria's Chinatown in the 1930s and 1940s and recalled their memories of an area that stretched seven city blocks at its height.
Dr. Chung Tzu-I, Royal BC Museum curator, said the exhibit came about through working with the local Chinese-Canadian community.
With many of the interviews with seniors ranging from their late 70s to early 90s, she said the importance of "preserving those histories and cultures that are quickly disappearing" was a motivating factor.
"This is the last generation of Chinese that is still alive and lived in Chinatown," said Chung, noting that many of these people were descendants of the early settlers who had to pay a discriminatory head tax, ranging from 50 to 500 Canadian dollars, to immigrate to Canada, a fee not levied on other nationalities.
"A lot of people, who live in and are used to multi-cultural societies, don't realize that a lot of, at least the early people, had to deal with a lot of hardships and difficulties that we can never imagine," she said.
"A lot of reasons that they came here was they didn't have a choice if they wanted to survive. They just had to accept those conditions that were very harsh to live and work in and just kind of persevere."
While life was difficult for many Chinese settlers, their thoughts of home were never far away. That was evidenced by the money they raised for Dr. Sun Yat-sen to fund the Xinhai Revolution in his quest to overthrow the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
In a letter on display at the museum written by Sun to Lim Bang, a prominent Victoria banker and businessman, is encouraged to raise as much money as possible for the cause. In the end, the city's Chinese community raised 30,000 Hong Kong dollars.
Chung said there have been disputes as to how many times Sun came to Victoria, but it is believed he was in the city in 1897 and 1911.
"Historians have acknowledged that Victoria Freemasons actually made the largest contribution (among Canadian Chinese communities) to the revolutions that were in 1911," she said.
"Lim Bang was a bank manager. He was a business owner, and he was also a really important financer for Dr. Sun, so important that actually after the establishment of the Republic (of China), after Dr. Sun's revolution was successful, he actually offered Mr. Lim Bang in Victoria a position in his cabinet, which Mr Lim declined."
The exhibit will run through Sept. 29 and Tim Willis, the museum's vice president of engagement and visitor experience, said the exhibit was just gearing up. He said the museum wants to attract more Chinese visitors who may be visiting nearby Vancouver, located 40 kilometers across the water.
"We get literally hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, especially over the summer season," Willis said. "I think they come here fascinated to know the story of British Columbia."