Description of Historic Place
The Yen Wo Society Building at 1713 Government Street is a tall, Edwardian-era building on a narrow lot, three storeys in height plus a ‘cheater’ mezzanine that displays Classical influences as well as typical Chinese features such as a prominent flagpole and recessed balconies on upper floors. At the periphery of Victoria's Chinatown, it is the original location of the Yen Wo Society and the Tam Kung Temple, which still exist on the top floor. The building is contiguous with the Lung Kong Kung Shaw and the First Chinese Empire Reform Association Building at 1715-1717 Government Street.
The Yen Wo Society 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.
This building is also a reminder of the Hakka population in Victoria’s Chinatown and their continuous use of the building suggests territoriality among the Chinese in the historic area. The Hakka migrated to Guangdong during the Eastern Dynasty but retained their traditional dialect and customs. Victoria was one of the few places overseas where the Hakka settled and, in 1905, they founded a volunteer association in Chinatown, the Yen Wo Society. These 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 usually had their own buildings, typically with meeting halls and offices on the upper floors and leased storefronts on the ground floor. Buildings for the more prominent volunteer associations, such as the Yen Wo Society, were sometimes overt in their use of elements of Chinese design such as decorative parapet walls, recessed full-width balconies and tall flagpoles.
The Yen Wo Society Building, as the original location of the Tam Kung Temple, also represents the significant role of the temple in traditional Chinese society. The Tam Kung Temple, which remains today on the top floor of the building, is the oldest Chinese temple in Canada. An early Hakka settler brought a statue of Tam Kung, a deity sacred to the Hakka. This statue was first set up in a roadside shrine near the Johnson Street ravine. The temple was initially established on this site in 1875, through monies pooled by the Hakka to rent a small house at the corner of Government and Fisgard Streets. Two Hakka, Tsay Ching and Dong Bang Sang, purchased 1713 Government Street and the temple was dedicated January 21, 1876. During the Edwardian-era building boom, the original temple was demolished and replaced with the present brick-clad building in 1912 from monies collected by the Yen Wo Society. The Yen Wo Society still owns this building and the temple, which is open to the public, remains on the top floor.
Victoria’s Chinatown is expressive of a duality in architecture and cultural landscape. Commercial building façades were designed by non-Chinese architects to project an image of assimilation to Western culture. The Yen Wo Society Building is consistent with this duality. The commercial façade displays Classical Edwardian details, such as dominant metal cornices with dentil and modillion detailing and brick pilasters with capitals on upper storeys. Chinese influences include the brick-clad parapet labelled with the name of the association in English, the prominent flagpole and recessed balconies. The building is also significant as an example of the work of architect Lord Wilfrid Hargreaves (1880-1966), who designed a number of buildings for Chinese clients.
Source: City of Victoria Planning Department
Key elements that define the heritage character of the Yen Wo Society Building include its:
- location on the east side of Government Street, part of a grouping of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century historic masonry buildings at the periphery of Victoria's Chinatown
- continuous commercial and institutional use
- siting on the front and side property lines, with no setbacks
- commercial and institutional form, scale and massing, as expressed by its three-storey height, with ‘cheater’ mezzanine, rectangular plan, flat roof, and retail storefront facing Government Street
- masonry construction, including tan brick cladding at front, red-brick side and rear walls and granite thresholds
- Edwardian-era Classical-influenced elements, such as metal cornices at the second and third floors with dentils and modillions, and Giant Order brick pilasters with metal capitals
- Chinese features such as a tall, central flagpole, brick parapet inscribed with the English name of the society, sidewall chimneys and recessed balconies at second and third storey with blind fretwork balustrades
- windows such as two-over-two double-hung wooden-sash windows
- original interior elements, such as wooden wainscoting, lath-and-plaster walls, and top-floor temple with domed ceiling and glass oculus