I walked along Victoria, B.C.’s inviting and picturesque waterfront with trepidation in my heart. Its majestic Empress Hotel and the delightful downtown area are full of wonderful shopping and restaurants. But this is not where my adventures would take me. I venture north past the main tourist area and soon enter into the exotic wonder that is Victoria’s Chinatown.

The heady aroma of garlic and ginger hits you straight on – you almost notice the intoxicating smells of centuries-old recipes being prepared before the technicolor beauty of the neighborhood fully registers.

I have heard tales about the mysterious underground tunnels in Victoria’s Chinatown…with stories about a bygone era of nefarious activities including gambling dens, opium parlors, slavery, and prostitution…. but do the tunnels really exist?  I decided to take a self-guided walking tour to find out. This is, after all, the second oldest Chinatown in North America (Canada’s oldest), so it is ripe with history, and legends abound.

I had to see these tunnels for myself. Or at least get some evidence that they did indeed exist.

My journey started at Market Square, where the brightly-colored BC Produce Company has been supplying the residents there with fresh produce since the early days. Cross Pandora Ave and you run into the infamous Fan Tan Alley, Canada’s narrowest street. ‘Fan Tan’ is actually the name of a gambling game. After consulting with a couple of Chinatown’s shop owners, and after some prodding they reluctantly suggested I might find an entrance to an underground tunnel here!

Fan Tan Xiang (Fan Tan Alley) has gates on either side, which may or may not be open, depending on the time of day. As luck would have it, they were open when I arrived. As I began down the narrow passageway, I felt the solid brick walls on either side of me close in. It was drizzling rain, and the water trickling down the walls fed the earthy scent of decades of organic stuff growing on the bricks, lending a more sinister foreboding to my hunt. The alley is only about a block long.

I traversed the alley up and down three times, trying to find some sort of entrance leading underground. Nothing. What I did find was several very nice shops; among them, tiny clothing and gift shops. Perhaps one of these had a secret back entrance to some forgotten downstairs tunnel?

As I browsed a couple of these shops, my inquiries to the shopkeepers elicited perplexed looks. They simply didn’t know, or probably more accurate, wouldn’t say. As I exited one of the shops, another tourist approached me. He had heard me inquiring about the tunnels. He told me that he heard the entrance to the tunnels was by way of the Old Janion Hotel.

After a quick Google search, I learned that the hotel did include rumors of tunnels underneath its foundation, and was currently being converted into micro-lofts.

I strolled over there, and indeed, the entire place was under construction; the public could not enter. The building appeared to be gutted. However, I did notice that it seemed to retain its authentic, nineteenth-century storefronts. Was this really the place to enter? If it was, it simply was not safe for me to do so at that time.

Nevertheless, I pushed on and headed to Fisgard St, the main business area of Chinatown. Red is a central theme here, which the Chinese consider to bring good luck. Look down as you stroll the sidewalks and a particular Chinese character “Shou” is prominent (meaning long life).

Further down Fisgard Street is Dragon Alley. You’ll know when you get to it by the big red plaque. The dragon on the plaque looks foreboding, but to the Chinese, it’s a sign of good fortune. Dragon images abound here.

My final stop on the walking tour was the Gate of Harmonious Interest, at Government and Fisgard streets. It’s prominent claim to fame are male and female lions at the entrance, and bells to ward off evil spirits. As the name implies, it promotes the need for all people to live harmoniously. While physical borders exist everywhere, the people on either side of them must strive to break down invisible walls and melt the divide between East and West. It is a sentiment that reverberates through the ages, as we all continue the struggle to get along with each other!

While my quest to find the underground tunnels of Victoria’s Chinatown proved elusive, I’m not convinced they don’t exist. They may just be very well hidden! What I did find, however, is a fascinating and illuminating history of Victoria’s past.

Perhaps when the Old Janion is complete – I will be back.