Fan Tan Alley (Victoria, British Columbia)

Fan Tan Alley
Photo by Ian Sarad

At just 0.9m wide (about 3 feet) at the narrowest point, Fan Tan Alley holds the record for narrowest street in Canada and is a main attraction in the country’s oldest Chinatown. At more than 150 years old, the narrow street in Victoria, British Columbia has a much more interesting history than that of just being small.

In the 1850s Victoria was in the middle of the wild Fraser River Gold Rush, and thousands of Chinese immigrants made their way to the edge of Canada looking for their share of the riches. With the increased number of Chinese living in the area there quickly grew a need to provide the goods and services they missed from home, and the now famous Chinatown grew as a result of that demand for Chinese goods and services. Fan Tan Alley was just as well-known at the time as it is today and became a place where services that were in demand, but those that were slightly frowned upon by the gentile class could be found.

While the goods is Fan Tan Alley were not exactly illegal, they were often in that grey area between legality and crime. Fan Tan Alley offered what might be described as less-than-legal activities. In the early days it was mostly gambling and opium dens. There is always a way to part men flush with cash from their hard earned money. The opium dens and gambling offered a break from the hard work of daily life, and the houses of ill repute offered them something else entirely.

Narrow Fan Tan Alley
The narrowest point of Fan Tan Alley.

Named after the Chinese game Fan-Tan, the alley was originally a gambling district with restaurants, shops, brothels, and opium dens. The alley is named after a popular gambling game, which takes its name from its component parts; “Fan” meaning to turn over, and “Tan” meaning to spread out. In the game, the dealer takes a handful of buttons or beads and covers them with a brass cup. The players bet on how many buttons will be left after the dealer has removed all multiples of four. Once the bets are made, the dealer turns over the cup and spreads out the buttons to count.

Many of the men that originally intended to find wealth and then return to China never made it home. They instead built a life and a community where they were, right next to the bustling port and the downtown. The Chinese population of the city remained largely in this area till the 1920s. They then started to move to other parts of the city and then the population of Chinese in the city started to decline overall.

Today, Fan Tan Alley is a fair bit different than it was in the 1850s. Filled with boutique shops, restaurants, and tourists, the narrow walkway is as much of an attraction now as it has ever been.

Fan Tan Alley Facts

  • Fan Tan Alley connects Fisgard St. and Pandora Ave. between Government St. and Store St.
  • It was designated as a heritage property by the local government in 2001.
  • The area surrounding Fan Tan Alley is Canada’s oldest Chinatown.
  • There is almost never a chance to get a picture without other people in it and Fan Tan Alley is constantly busy.
  • Fan Tan Alley is considered one of the most haunted places in Victoria.