Up 52 stairs, on the third floor of the Yen Wo Society, in Victoria, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, joss sticks are still lit before a statue of sea deity Tam Kung. But worshipper numbers are decreasing, casting doubt on the temple's future.

In the 1870s, Victoria's Hakka community raised funds to build a temple for the wooden statue, which had been brought from Guangdong province by one of their own in the previous decade. The oldest continuously active Chinese temple in Canada and the only one dedicated to Tam Kung outside Asia, it was moved, in 1912, to the top floor of the building erected on the Chinatown spot the temple had occupied.

Victoria's Chinatown dates back to 1858. It is still home to many Chinese businesses but is no longer a residential area. The Tam Kung Temple's faithful are ageing and those 52 steps are getting harder to climb.

"It's almost a secret, though not intentionally so," historian and tour guide John Adams says of the temple. Author of upcoming book Chinese Victoria, Adams takes tours to the temple, but emphasises its role as a place of worship. "Unlike in some cities, it's not a tourist attraction, although tourists are welcome."

A caretaker couple sell worshippers packages of incense, candles and joss papers. At certain times of the year, notably Lunar New Year and on Tam Kung's birthday, in May, the temple attracts a crowd. But it's not self-supporting; contributions from Adams' tour groups and subsidies from the Yen Wo Society, a Hakka organisation founded in 1905, keep the temple hanging on.

Many other Chinese temples in North America have been turned into museums, or closed. Adams hopes that doesn't happen in Victoria.

"It's a very important link with traditional Chinese culture and certainly represents Victoria's Chinatown's importance as the oldest Chinatown in Canada."