Description of Historic Place
Located at the corner of Fisgard and Government Streets in the heart of Victoria's Chinatown, the George Joe Building is a one-storey structure clad in tan iron-spot brick. It features distinctive Chinese decorative elements, including projecting pantiled canopies, and an ornate use of corbelled and herringbone brick. The restaurant use of the building retains its early neon signs and decorative neon ceiling.
The George Joe 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 Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 then limited immigration and had a profound impact on the development of the Chinese community. The end of the Second World War, in which many Chinese served, ushered in a new era of tolerance. The Act was repealed in 1947, and Chinese – although they were not yet allowed to vote - could become Canadians citizens. This led to greater assimilation of the Chinese and a decline in the traditional protective role of Chinatown. It is notable that the George Joe Building, constructed in 1946, was built strictly as commercial space without upper floor residential use.
However, the building is significant as evidence of the continuing dominance of Chinese merchants in Victoria's Chinatown and the area's ongoing commercial function. This one-storey structure was erected at a cost of $25,000 by George Joe (1902-1968) to replace an earlier wood-frame building, whose rear wall was incorporated into the new building, which has always been a restaurant. The present occupant, Foo Hong's Café, is a much loved gathering place dating back to the 1950s and retains its original neon signs and decorative neon ceiling.
The George Joe building is also a valuable example of continuous use of Chinese architectural features that is characteristic of Chinatown. It features an unusual and exotic blend of traditional and Chinese elements, such as Classical Revival influences, as seen in the elaborate cornices and brick detailing, mixed with decorative Chinese canopies. The building was designed by architect David Cowper Frame (1882-1960) and is a reminiscent of his earlier work for the Chinese community. Scottish-born Frame moved to Victoria, where he was employed with F.M. Rattenbury for three years. After establishing his own firm in 1908, his designs included the Chinese Public School (1909), a project with some similar details to this much later building.
Source: City of Victoria Planning Department
Key elements that define the heritage character of the George Joe Building include its:
- prominent location at the northwest corner of Fisgard and Government Streets, part of a grouping of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century historic masonry buildings in the heart of Victoria's Chinatown
- siting on the property lines, with no setbacks
- continuous commercial use
- commercial form, scale and massing, as expressed by its one-storey height, rectangular plan, bevelled corner entry, flat roof, storefronts facing Fisgard and Government Streets, and narrow passageway to rear service area
- masonry construction including: tan high-fire, iron-spot brick veneer; common red-brick wall from earlier building on the south side of service-area passageway and terra cotta block wall on the north side; heavy-timber interior structure
- Classical Revival features, such as metal cornices with dentils, and brick detailing, such as corbelling and herringbone insets
- Chinese features, such as pantiled canopies and decorative ball finials
- original wooden storefront elements, such as transoms, some with straight-leaded glass
- interior features, such as the neon signs, neon ceiling and mezzanine at Foo Hong's Café