Description of Historic Place
The Lee Cheong Building is a two-storey, brick-clad commercial and residential building located in the heart of Victoria's Chinatown. The front façade retains original storefront elements, including 'cheater' mezzanines. The upper storey is residential, and features segmental-arched window openings, brick corbelling, second floor doors and a central coloured glass door surround. A narrow passageway located between two of the storefronts connects to an internal courtyard and a brick tenement building behind.
The Lee Cheong 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 oldest and most 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 growth of Victoria as a significant port town, and prompted the movement of many Chinese into the province. Victoria was the primary point of entry for Chinese into Canada until the early twentieth century.
Victoria's Chinatown is expressive of a duality in architecture and cultural landscape. On each block, street façades link together, forming a wall that shields interior spaces and narrow alleyways between and through buildings linked to central courtyards, which were the hidden location of tenements, opium dens, theatres and gambling houses. This configuration allowed the Chinese community to adhere to follow traditional religion, kinship and economic practices while projecting the image of assimilation to Western society. The Lee Cheong building is consistent with such a duality. Externally, the building has a brick-clad commercial façade in a design that would not have been considered exotic at the time. A narrow passageway between two storefronts leads to an interior courtyard and simple tenement also clad in brick.
The Lee Cheong building is further valued as representative of the dominant role Chinese merchants played in Victoria's Chinatown. The first wave of powerful business owners had a monopoly until the early 1880s. The Lee Cheong Building was the product of the second wave of merchants who immigrated to Victoria's Chinatown in the 1890s to 1910s, and included smaller clan or family proprietors who pooled their resources to purchase land to build their businesses. These merchants set up north of Pandora Avenue, bringing much-needed smaller shops such as laundries, grocery stores, medicinal shops and restaurants into the area. The original owners of the building, Lee Cheong and Lee Woy, purchased Lot 446 and built this structure in 1901. Built as 'stores and cabins', the building contained retail storefronts on the main floor, and residential uses on the second storey, with a passageway to a separate tenement building to the rear. Lee Cheong was one of the earliest Chinese settlers, and soon became known as a leading businessman. The building was Chinese owned until 1933, when the City acquired it due to tax arrears.
Source: City of Victoria Planning Department
Key elements that define the heritage character of the Lee Cheong Building include its:
- location on Fisgard Street, part of a grouping of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century historic masonry buildings in Victoria's Chinatown
- continuous commercial and residential use
- siting on the front property line, with no setbacks
- commercial form, scale and massing, as expressed by its two-storey height with 'cheater' mezzanines, flat roof, and three storefronts facing Fisgard Street; rear tenement connected through a narrow passageway between two storefronts
- masonry construction, including red-brick walls with dark-grey mortar, brick corbelling and pilasters, granite thresholds and wood-frame interior structure
- exterior features, such as segmental-arched window openings, brick corbelling, and second floor glazed, panelled wooden doors
- Chinese features, such as a tall narrow passageway that provides access to an internal courtyard and a rear tenement, and half-width wooden storefront doors leading to second floor
- original windows such as four-over-four double-hung wooden-sash windows, and a central second-floor door surround with decorative coloured and textured glass in sidelights and arched transom
- interior features, such as tongue-and-groove cladding, 'cheater' mezzanines, and wooden floors