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The struggle to keep Canada's oldest Chinese temple open

The Yen Wo Society, which owns the narrow, four-storey building topped by the temple, is keen for more Victorians to take a look. Members of the group, struggling with their role as guardians of the Tam Kung Temple, want more people to take an interest in a heritage structure that needs about $600,000 worth of repairs.

Somehow the deity emerged unscathed from the fire that ripped through the Government Street temple in 1980.

Banners burned, flags went up in flames and intricate embroideries were damaged, yet the statuette of Tam Kung remained intact on its altar.

That’s why, roughly 160 years after the wooden carving was brought to Victoria, Nora Butz was able to go to Canada’s oldest operating Chinese temple to seek the god’s guidance this week.

You can, too, if you like. It’s open to the public every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

In fact, the Yen Wo Society, which owns the narrow, four-storey building topped by the temple, is keen for more Victorians to take a look. Members of the group, struggling with their role as guardians of the Tam Kung Temple, want more people to take an interest in a heritage structure that needs about $600,000 worth of repairs.

“We are desperately trying to preserve it,” says Butz, the society’s president. “We’re doing our best to keep it going.”

Like the others in the Yen Wo Society — fewer than 100 of them now — Butz belongs to the Hakka people who brought their own dialect with them when they emigrated from China. A few still speak the old tongue.

Tam Kung was, in one version of the story, a Hakka villager who died in 1279 during a sea battle, after which he became a subject of ancestor worship. Mariners in particular turn to him.

Legend says the statuette of Tam Kung that survived the fire of 1980 was brought to Victoria in the 1860s by a Hakka man who came to Canada in search of gold. “When he left Victoria for the gold-mining areas up the Fraser River, he placed the statuette near the mouth of the Johnson Street ravine for his fellow countrymen to worship,” the late historian David Lai once wrote in the Times Colonist.

A University of Victoria history of Chinatown picks up the story: “Several years later, Ngai Sze, a Hakka resident in Victoria, had a dream in which Tam Kung told Ngai to build him a temple.”

That temple was erected at Government near Fisgard in 1876. It stood for more than 30 years until the Yen Wo Society, which had been formed to care for the it, erected a new building on the site in 1912.

Today, the narrow four-storey structure at 1713 Government St. houses houses the Smoking Lily store at street level. The second floor is a “clubhouse” where Yen Wo members play mahjong, the third is home to a tenant who keeps an eye on the place at night, and on the top is the Chinese temple — the oldest in Canada, in Canada’s oldest Chinatown. It is one of the few in North America that is still open daily.

Yet relatively few people are even aware of its existence, let alone its accessibility. “It’s so little-known,” Butz says.

Visitors who climb the 52 stairs (or take the chair-lift) will find a room with altars where adherents can pray not just to Tam Kung but other deities such as the kitchen god and the god of fortune.

The families that come to the temple to make offerings have their own red banners hanging down the wall, snug against furniture that came from China in the early 1900s. Look up and you’ll see a domed ceiling with a skylight.

“Believers come to the temple to seek advice from Tam Kung about how to make important life decisions or how to heal an illness,” the UVic history reads. “After making an offering of incense, a believer will kneel and shake a bamboo tube that holds 103 bamboo sticks. Each of the sticks is numbered, and when one stick falls out, the number on that stick corresponds to an oracular verse containing advice from Tam Kung. Alternatively, a similar process is used to find a prescription to remedy an ailment.”

Visitors can also buy joss sticks that they place in incense-burners that date back as far as the 19th century. Paper representing money is burned in a little wall stove. Those making offerings strike a drum and bell that are both at least a century old.

Flowers, fruit and plum wine rest atop altars. Twice a year, on the anniversaries of Tam Kung’s birth and death, whole roast pigs are brought in; people buy portions of them for luck. Those are the biggest occasions.

Most of the time, though, worship is a more solitary pursuit. “There’s no service or anything,” Butz says.

Anyone can pray, including a handful of non-Chinese who find comfort there. Newcomers from China, feeling a little lost, will come by just to get grounded. “They can sit here and find peace,” Butz says.

Many of those who worship at the temple do so because, well, it’s one of the only locations where they still can.

“It’s about the only place they can actually do an offering,” Butz says. “It’s one of the few operating temples in Canada.”

Yes, but for how long? “The temple itself is running a deficit every month,” Butz says.

The aging heritage structure is in serious disrepair, too. “The building is getting really old.”

The roof leaks. So do the windows. The floor needs fixing. The price for the whole deal — roof, windows, balconies, floor, seismic upgrading — is $600,000. The society doesn’t have that kind of money.

The Victoria Civic Heritage Trust has pledged up to $200,000 for seismic work, Butz says, but that still leaves a daunting shortfall for society members, many of whom are getting on in years. Butz comments wryly that, at 76, she is one of the “young people.”

So, they want to get more Victorians interested, dropping by on their own or taking one of John Adams’ history tours. The society has entered into an agreement with the Saanich Legacy Foundation to accept donations on its behalf and issue tax receipts. Donations can be made to either the Yen Wo Society or the Tam Kung Temple. For more information, go to

The weight of the responsibility to keep doors open weighs heavily on those whose ties to the place of worship go back to Ngai Sze, the man who dreamed of the temple a century and a half ago. “Many of his direct descendants are on the board,” Butz says.

Why is it important to keep it going? “The heritage,” she says. “It’s our legacy, our heritage.”

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