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A pair of hand-carved stone lions on eternal sentry duty maintain an unblinking vigil in front of the Gate of Harmonious Interest.

Their post at Fisgard Street is the formal entrance to Chinatown.

Stroll along the south side of the street and a narrow break between buildings is flanked by a diner and a greengrocer.

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A dim light can be seen at the far end, a city block to the south.

This is Fan Tan Alley, billed as the narrowest street in North America.

A man on his back can stretch across the alley at its widest.

At its narrowest, a child can place a hand on the brick walls on either side of a mere 1.2-metre gap.

The alley takes its name from the Fan Tan Guan, the gambling dens that once shared this space with opium dens. The latter was a legal pleasure until banned under the Opium Act 99 years ago.

These days, even cigarette smoke is a rarity in the alley, where dens of iniquity have been replaced by a barber shop, an art gallery, a yoga studio, a used record store, a used clothing store, a kitchenware store and a musical instrument store.

The alley will be crowded this weekend as families and tourists gather in Chinatown to eat dim sum and mark Chinese New Year. The celebrations have been a part of the history of the city since the first Chinese immigrants arrived almost 150 years ago in 1858.

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The crush in the alley will force folks to turn sideways to squeeze through the claustrophobic route.

All should spend a moment thanking the man who unearthed the alley's rich history and who conjured the plan that saved it from a likely date with the wrecker's ball.

Victoria's Chinatown offers a unique streetscape with the facades of rehabilitated Edwardian and Italianate buildings hiding lanes and courtyards behind which a "forbidden city" once thrived.

In 1998, the area was declared a national historic site.

David Chuenyan Lai, 69, remembers arriving in Victoria in 1968 and making his first visit to Chinatown. The structures were decrepit with boarded windows; the streets seemed deserted save for a few old men crouched on their haunches for a smoke. He thought the neighbourhood a slum.

Broken glass littered a narrow alleyway, which had been abandoned by all save those who found solace in the bottle. Others spoke of it as a place where a man risked his life merely by taking a peek.

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One of Mr. Lai's earliest memories in Victoria is visiting a Chinatown restaurant called Peking House.

He ordered Peking duck.

"We don't serve Peking duck," he remembers the waiter saying. "You want chicken chop suey."

"What's chop suey?" Mr. Lai asked.

Of course, the North American dish would have been unfamiliar to Mr. Lai. He hails from the one country in the world that has no Chinatowns.

Mr. Lai was born in 1937 at Guangzhou, China. His family left the city, then known as Canton in the English-speaking world, for nearby Hong Kong, which they abandoned for Macao in 1940.

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Both moves seemed fortuitous at the time, as the family avoided the Japanese conquest of eastern China and Hong Kong. The boy's destiny as eldest son was to follow his father into the metal business, which he stood to inherit. However, his father was killed when the Allies sunk the ship on which he was travelling.

The boy pursued an academic career in urban geography, at which he was brilliant, earning top grades and two degrees at the University of Hong Kong before completing a doctorate at the London School of Economics, which he attended on a British Commonwealth Scholarship.

He arrived in Victoria to be a visiting lecturer at the university.

After his unhappy experience at the restaurant, he avoided a neighbourhood with which many assumed he was familiar.

"For two years, I did not step foot in Chinatown," he said. "The restaurants are lousy; they're not serving Chinese food. Chinatown seemed a disgrace to me."

Eventually, city hall's uncertainty about what to do with Chinatown -- raze, or rehabilitate -- led Mr. Lai to conduct a door-to-door survey.

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He was surprised to discover hidden courtyards off the alleyways in which children gamboled and old men raised pigeons. This was a life he had not known existed behind the rundown buildings.

Mr. Lai came to a conclusion that would alter his life: "Chinatown is worth saving."

Others thought the neighbourhood a cancer, a drag on property values and a roadblock to schemes to revitalize an area in long decline.

But beautification is in the eye of the beholder. Mr. Lai spearheaded a campaign to preserve Chinatown.

Over time, he became a familiar figure on the street, where he often could be found interviewing passersby.

His research uncovered fascinating details. The businesses in Fan Tan Alley first appeared in city directories in 1923. Police crackdowns led to the closing of the gambling dens and a subsequent loss of foot traffic. By the 1960s, only three businesses remained -- Hop Shi Chop Suey, Wing Fat Pancakes, and the Sing Lee Club, the last of the gambling rooms. The street disappeared from city directories.

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Residents moved out from condemned buildings and the owners had them boarded and closed. Attempts to revitalize the alley were thwarted by modern building codes. With the buildings on either side of Fan Tan Alley in disrepair and the street too narrow for fire trucks, the city insisted on sprinklers being installed in case of fire. Landlords balked at spending the money.

Thinking of Montmartre, the famous Paris neighbourhood of narrow streets, Mr. Lai proposed an atelier model. Why not have artists and artisans do the renovations in exchange for low rents? Landlords would gain tenants and the tenants would gain inexpensive space.

In 1981, the Gate of Harmonious Interest was officially opened, financed in part by the sale of $2 shares by a radio station. The arch honours the less-permanent structures erected earlier to honour visits by governors-general Earl Dufferin, the Marquis of Lorne, Earl Grey, and the Duke of Connaught.

For his efforts, Mr. Lai was named a member of the Order of Canada. He was also made an honorary citizen of the city of Victoria, a tribute for which limitations became evident the next day when he received a parking ticket.

Fan Tan Alley even has a minor place in pop culture. The 1990 movie Bird on a Wire, a romantic adventure starring Goldie Hawn and Mel Gibson, includes a breathtaking chase scene in which the handlebars of a dirt bike barely clear the brick on either side of the alley.

By 1987, the alley was back in the directory, even if the gambling game of fan-tan had come to an end.

Still, Mr. Lai has a suggestion for those intrigued by the lore of the lawless street. After entering the alley from Fisgard, keep a close watch on the wall to the left. You can still spot a peephole looking onto the alley from which a doorkeeper would once have sounded an alarm about a police raid.

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