Secret Life of Canada

Is Victoria home to North America's Oldest Chinatown?

Most major cities across Canada have a Chinatown - but how did they start, and why? This episode, a look at the early history of Chinese people this side of the Pacific, and the historic Chinatown in B.C. that predates Confederation.
Slums located in the Chinese quarter of Victoria, B.C. circa 1886. (Edouard G. Deville/Library and Archives Canada)

In almost every Canadian city you can find a Chinatown. Many of them are large enough to resemble a vibrant town-within-the-city. But how did they start, and why?

In the latest episode of The Secret Life of Canada — Chinatown — co-hosts Falen Johnson and Leah Simone-Bowen look at some of the earliest history of Chinese people in Canada, including the first waves of immigration, the building of the Canadian Pacific railway, the Chinese head tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act.

They also explore how Chinatowns went from much-needed safehavens to celebrated cultural spaces in many Canadian cities. 

Even before Confederation, many Chinese men came to Canada in search of opportunity. (Library and Archives Canada)

What you'll hear this episode

  • Just who has the oldest Chinatown in North America? Hint: It's not Vancouver.
  • Who Hui Shen was, and the oral histories that suggest he was he trading plant knowledge with the Haida Nation back in AD 500. 
  • The accidentally significant role of John Meares, a British trader who employed 50 Chinese men to travel with him to the Pacific Northwest (and was kind of a jerk).
  • Why so many Chinese people wanted to immigrate to Canada, even before it was Canada. 
  • How Chinese workers helped Sir. John A. MacDonald keep his confederation promise of a railway from sea to shining sea, and why that promise came at a cost of many of their lives. 
  • Why Dominion Day, now known as Canada Day, was known as Humiliation Day to many Chinese people.