Barely a 10-minute walk from the historic Empress Hotel is Victoria, BC’s Chinatown. Often when tending to business nearby, I have a quick run up and down the ever-intriguing one-street town. The oldest Chinatown in Canada, its earliest beginnings were around 1858 and had at one time comprised of six streets - unlike the one, now. Oh, if those walls could talk, and all that...
When I’m there, and often pressed for time, I run into the Wah Lai Yuen restaurant and buy some baked sweets for me and my Chinese friend. I hustle along the sidewalks riddled with crates. Newly shipped vegetables bearing names I will never be able to pronounce wait to be unpacked and sold. The workers bark at each other over crates of bok choy (something I can pronounce), and the smell of fresh fruits and vegetables mingled with cooking from nearby restaurants has me swooning in hunger under the lanterns swaying above.
It’s a different world in the one-street town. But that one street packed with buildings of nooks, crannies, alleys and crevices could tell worldly stories forever.
Even though I am there for a quick visit, I forget I am in busy downtown Victoria, steps away from the Empress Hotel, horse-and-carriage rides and the Legislative building. I forget that only a block away is the seaplane terminal and the harbour, and another two blocks is The Bay Center shopping mall. I forget that über-busy Douglas Street is nearby, a lengthy street always busy with traffic and double-decker transit buses.
In Chinatown, I escape to another world.
But on a particular day of rushing into Chinatown to buy buns and sweets for my friend and I, my deep reflections on cultures and contrasting worlds were about to be upended – in an alley.
I rarely traipse through the infamous Fan Tan Alley while visiting Chinatown, so rushed I am. Sure I have taken visiting family and friends through the alley in the past, but that day I decided to take my time. Little did I know I was about to be transported somewhere else.
Had I transported to Harry Potter’s world-beyond-walls? Was I about to find myself on platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station, waiting to get on Hogwarts Express? Would I end up at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry if I kept going? (I was kinda hoping it would be true as I would love to meet Hagrid – Dumbledore passed away couple books/movies ago, so I’m a little too late to meet him).
But back to reality....
I noticed another adjacent door with an address of 545 ½. How do they get their mail? Do folks actually address mail to the occupants as ‘545 ½ Fisgard Street’?
I snapped a few more pictures and started my journey down the narrow alley. Eons old brick walls flank either side, interrupted sporadically by a door just like the first one I found numbered 23 ½. As I kept going few steps deeper down the alley, I noticed the next door was numbered 19, then 18 ½, 17 ½, 16 then 14, then...no more half addresses.
Just when I thought I had finished my Harry Potter dimension warp, one door had me taking a ponytail-whipping-in-my-eye double-take. Door number 18 ½ bears the name ‘Howarth.’ Sure was close to ‘Hogwart’ if you ask me. Spooky.
Like I said, I had been down the alley before. I know I had seen the half addresses before, but they never had intrigued me as they were that day. It pays to slow down and take it all in.
Door after door I passed. I was dying to knock; “Can I come in?” But when roaming down an alley, even one as famous as Fan Tan Alley, you just don’t do those kinds of things.
So I continued on my way.
Then I came across a modernized alcove that seemed to stick out like a sore thumb in comparison to the old red bricked walls and wooden doors that had flanked my journey down the alley. I creeped down the stairs, only to find a few Western-style businesses. We're not in Chinatown anymore, Hedwig (the name of Harry Potter’s pet owl).
Then I came to an elevator that had to be barely 10 years old. It had me wondering.
Did the buttons within feature not only regular numbered floors, but half floors as well?
Not sure if I should be even calling the elevator for my ‘use,’ I pressed the button anyways, just so I could check-out the interior of the elevator.
I was sadly disappointed. No half-floors.
I emerged from the alcove, finding myself at the other end of the alley. No more Chinatown. I was back in downtown Victoria with its busy streets, cappuccino shops, and boutiques I could never afford to shop in.
I was back in another world. The same world I need to remember to slow down in and observe all it has to offer.