Interior of Chinese Joss House
Courtesy B.C. Archives: D-05668

Joss Houses

The nature of joss houses can be a mystery to those of us steeped in western philosophical and religious influences.  While the citizens of the day appear quick to dismiss this aspect of Chinese life as idol worship, the joss houses seem to have served a social as well as spiritual function. They were a way for the Chinese to remain in touch with their culture and roots.  Many of the “joss houses” in Victoria were more like shrines for ancestors or patron saints for the various tongs in the city. 

Joss houses or Chinese temples did not appear to attract much discussion or observation amongst early Victoria’s white population, except perhaps to serve as another excuse to label the Chinese as “heathen.”  Several of these structures can be found on the 1885 Victoria fire insurance map, but coverage of them in the newspapers of the day is scant.

These joss houses were shrines for usually one god or saint-like individual, for whom there would be a statue on display. I hesitate to use the term “worship” as the act of observing these individuals, as the Chinese religion is a complex hybrid of influences from Taoism to legend and reverence for ones ancestry. However, at the very least, the term “commemoration” seems appropriate. 

The Colonist has a story of how a “joss” statue was found in a Chinatown shop.  The observer, finding something familiar about the appearance of the statue, queries the shopkeeper, and discovers that the statue is a representation of Robert Beaven, Public Works Commissoner at the time and who was briefly Premier of British Columbia in the early 1880s.

While it is very unlikely that a statue of “Joss Beaven” would end up in a joss house, it does suggest that the concept of “worship” for the Chinese was somewhat different than that of Western religions.  The statue could have been intended as what westerners would view as a glorified “thank you note” to Beaven for permitting Chinese to gain employment through public works contracts.


Daily British Colonist, 21 March 1878.

Lai, Cheun-Yan David, Chinatown the Forbidden City, Orca, Victoria, 1991.