- Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association
- Victoria Chinese Canadian Veterans Association
- Chinese Public School
- Clan Associations
- County Assocations
- Dialect Assocations
- Friendship Associations
- Political Organizations
- Recreational Associations
- Religious Organizations
- Women's Associations
- Other Organizations
- Prominent Visitors
- Local Leaders
The building to the right, seen from Cormorant Street (now Pandora Avenue) was the fifth Chinese theatre. It was constructed in 1884 and was the last theatre standing in Chinatown. When this photograph was taken in 1959, the building was serving either as an auto-body shop or a warehouse for Buckerfields. The theatre was torn down in 1987 and replaced with a parking lot (City of Victoria Archives, M01427).
Cultural Centres of Early Chinatown
Five theatres were constructed in Victoria’s Chinatown between 1858 and 1885, showing how much the local Chinese population (1,767 residents by 1884) valued opera.
Cantonese opera, with roots dating back centuries in China, was performed at these theatres several times a week by travelling troupes from China. The narratives of operas were a means of teaching cultural values. Cantonese opera performers wear heavy make-up and elaborate, expensive costumes. Their performances include dance, martial arts, singing, speaking and dramatic and comic acting. Performers are supported by musicians playing string and percussion instruments. The actors play a limited set of stock characters of different ages, social classes and personality types, which are also identified by costume and make-up. Until the 1920s, it was rare for women to perform in an opera, and the female parts were sung by male actors trained in falsetto singing and feminine ways of moving on the stage. Audiences included labourers and merchants purchasing tickets at different prices, and, by the early twentieth century, it became more acceptable for women to also attend the opera.
An architectural rendering of the Pantages Theatre in 1914, the year it was opened. Now the McPherson Playhouse, the theatre is located on Government between Pandora and Fisgard streets (City of Victoria Archives, M06972).
Victoria’s five Chinese theatres were large rectangular buildings with simple interiors, in some cases located behind street fronts in the interior of city blocks. The first Chinese theatres built in this city were located on Store Street and Cormorant Street shortly after 1858. The Store Street theatre faced east across the road to Cormorant Street, with its back to the harbour. By 1888, this theatre had been demolished to make way for the terminus of the E. & N. Railway. Little is known about the original theatre on Cormorant Street, but a third theatre, the second on Cormorant Street, was announced in December 1882 as soon to be under construction adjacent to the former theatre. This city’s fourth Chinese theatre, located in the interior of a city block between Cormorant and Fisgard, and between Government and Douglas Streets, was in operation by 1884. This theatre measured one hundred feet by forty four feet, and had a seating capacity of almost four hundred people in the pit and the gallery. The building included dressing rooms, a large kitchen and a sleeping area for the actors in an upper storey. Like the Store Street theatre, the fourth theatre was torn down to make way for transportation infrastructure when the terminal of the Victoria and Sidney Railway was built in 1901 in the northeastern part of the block where Centennial Square is located today. The fifth theatre was built of brick in 1885 in the block between Store and Government, Cormorant and Fisgard streets. It was not the largest theatre, measuring only about seventy-three feet by thirty-two feet. The east side of the building could be accessed by Theatre Alley, a small lane running north from Cormorant Street.
Although the prime function of theatres was for opera performances, theatres could also be political meeting places. On 17-20 July, 1899, Kang Youwei and leaders of Chinatowns in Victoria, New Westminster and Vancouver met at the fifth theatre to establish the Chinese Empire Reform Association (CERA). Dr. Sun Yat-sen visited Victoria on 22 February 1911 to raise money to overthrow the Manchu government. He first met with the Chee Kung Tong (Zhigongtang, or Chinese Freemasons) in their association building, where members agreed to mortgage their building to help support his cause. To reach a broader Chinese audience, he spoke the next day at the Chinese Theatre to explain the reasons for his rebellion and ask for financial support.
While the period from 1858 to the early 1920s saw a flourishing of Chinese theatre and much support for Chinese opera performances from merchants who built the theatres and all levels of Chinese society who attended these performances, after this point performances of Cantonese opera occurred less frequently, and these took place in theatres that were not owned by members of the Chinese community. The remaining theatre, the fifth theatre on Cormorant, was not well maintained in the 1920s. In the 1930s it became an auto-body shop, and later a warehouse for Buckerfields. In 1987, it was demolished to create space for a parking lot.
Opera troupes continued to visit Victoria from China, but in the 1930s, without an available Chinese theatre, associations rented other theatres in Victoria for opera performances, such as the Pantages Theatre (now the McPherson Playhouse) or the Variety Theatre (now the Victoria Old Age Pensioner’s Hall). In 1938, there was no Chinese New Year celebration in Victoria due to the Sino-Japanese War, and instead the Chinese community raised money for the Nationalist party and for refugees of the conflict. Chinese Canadian residents of Victoria, such as Jack and Bessie Tang and Peter Wong were active in organizing drama groups and lion dancing in the 1940s and 1950s, but it was not until 1961 that Cantonese opera returned to Victoria, when a travelling group performed “The Blossoming Fairy” at the Royal Theatre. In 1980, Leung Kwong Yip founded the Gum Sing Musical Society, an amateur group composed of opera singers and a small orchestra. This society offers Victorians the chance to enjoy traditional operas every two years, complete with full make-up and elaborate Cantonese costumes.
By Jenny Clayton
Lai, Chuen-Yan David. “Contribution of the Zhigongtang in Canada to the Huanghuagang Uprising in Canton, 1911,” Canadian Ethnic Studies / Etudes ethniques au Canada 14, no. 3 (1982): 95-104.
Lai, David Chuenyan. Chinese Community Leadership: Case Study of Victoria in Canada. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co., 2010.
Sebryk, Karrie M. “A History of Chinese Theatre in Victoria.” MA Thesis, University of Victoria, 1995.
British Colonist, 2 December 1882, p. 3.
http://www.britishcolonist.ca/display.php?issue=18821202 (accessed 24 February 2013).