The struggle to keep Canada's oldest Chinese temple open

Oldest temple needs repair

Somehow the deity emerged unscathed from the fire that ripped through Victoria's Tam Kung 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 guidance.

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 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 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 houses the Smoking Lilly 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.

“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.”

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.”

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

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