Description of Historic Place
The Hook Sin Tong Charity Building is a three-storey building located on the northeastern periphery of Victoria’s Chinatown. This building is distinctive for its recessed upper-floor balcony with white marble columns and surrounds, bracketted cornice, decorative pediment and pressed tin finials. The interior is notable for the stained glass dome in the ceiling of the upper-floor meeting hall.
The Hook Sin Tong Charity Building is valued as part of a grouping of early buildings that contribute to the historic character and urban pattern of Victoria's Chinatown, the seminal and oldest intact Chinatown in Canada. In the 1850s, exacerbated by political and social turmoil in China, thousands of Chinese migrated from a small region in the southern province of Guangdong to frontier gold rush sites in California, setting up a permanent base in San Francisco. In 1858, the Fraser Gold Rush spurred the movement of Chinese into Canada and the significant port town of Victoria was the primary point of entry into the country for the Chinese until the early twentieth century.
The building’s affiliation with the Hook Sin Tong is also significant. Associations, or Tongs, had members with common ancestors and were established to protect the earliest Chinese settlers against Western intolerance and prejudice and opposing Chinese clans. Funding was obtained entirely by membership dues, gambling, opium dens and exiting fees. Volunteer associations generally had their own buildings that typically housed meeting halls and offices on the upper floors and leased storefronts on the ground floor. The Hook Sin Tong was a county association formed in 1902 by emigrants from the Zhong Shan county in southern China. Canadian-born children of emigrants from Zhong Shan County and their descendents were permitted to join the association. The headquarters of the more prominent volunteer associations, such as the Hook Sin Tong Charity Building, were sometimes overt in the use of Chinese design elements, with decorative parapet walls and recessed balconies. Inside the top-floor meeting hall is a large oval dome, consisting of twenty panels of intricate stained glass with a motif of tulips.
The building is a reminder of the significant role of Chinese settlers in Victoria's development. Large-scale Chinese merchants, already established in San Francisco, moved to Victoria and purchased lots as early as 1858, opening stores backed by funding from the United States. The Hook Sin Tong Charity Building is the product of a second wave of small clan and family proprietors who immigrated to Victoria in the 1890s to 1910s and introduced smaller businesses in Chinatown, such as laundries, food stores, medicinal shops and restaurants. In August of 1904, Lee Kum Jow, the founder of the Hook Sin Tong, purchased this lot on behalf of the association for the sum of $3,500. Built in 1911, the building had retail space on the ground floors with the Hook Sin Tong offices and tenements above. It has remained in continuous Chinese ownership.
Western architects were hired to design buildings throughout Chinatown as the Chinese were shunned as professionals in the building trades. Charles Elwood Watkins (1875-1942), a prolific Victoria architect, designed the Hook Sin Tong Charity Building. In addition to commercial, institutional and residential projects elsewhere, Watkins had a number of Chinese clients in Chinatown.
Source: City of Victoria Planning Department
Key elements that define the heritage character of the Hook Sin Tong Charity Building include its:
- location on the north side of Herald Street, part of a grouping of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century historic masonry buildings in Victoria's Chinatown
- continuous commercial and institutional use
- siting on the front and side property lines, with no setbacks
- commercial form, scale and massing, as expressed by its three-storey height, rectangular plan, flat roof, and storefronts facing Herald Street
- masonry construction, including brick walls and continuous granite thresholds at the street frontage
- Edwardian-era features such as pilasters dividing the building into three bays, and mosaic floor tiles at entries
- Chinese features such as the recessed upper floor balcony with white marble columns and surround, wall of wooden doors and windows in the meeting hall facing the balcony, wrought-iron balcony balustrades with fretwork pattern, decorative raised parapet wall with pressed tin finials, projecting pressed-metal canopy with pantiled roof; and name plaque ‘The Hook Sin Tong Charity’
- original double-hung wooden-sash one-over-one windows, some with diamond mullions, and casement windows on the second floor with diamond mullions
- original interior elements in the top floor meeting hall, such as a large stained glass oval dome, wooden wainscotting and beamed ceilings