Food in Chinatown: Then and Now

This is a piece more or less on the changes in food landscape, culture and economy of our local Vancouver Chinatown district. Earlier last weekend, I had attended an interesting talk put on by the Hua Foundation. A non-profit seeking to empower youth from the Asian diaspora to fully participate in advancing social change in the realm of culture, heritage, environmental sustainability by building resilience in the community. The talk was titled: Food Security, Culture and Urban Development in the context of Vancouver’s Chinatown.

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The Vancouver Chinatown Food Security Report documents the loss of food retailers in Chinatown between 2009 to 2016 and demonstrates that cultural food assets are being lost at an alarmingly rapid rate. “

Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 8.45.06 AM.png“50% of Chinatown’s fresh food stores—greengrocers, fishmongers, barbecue meat shops, and butchers—have been lost between 2009 to 2016…. These results stand in stark contrast to City of Vancouver’s target of increasing food assets by 50% by 2020, signalling the need for a closer examination of the intended and emergent outcomes of municipal policy. The loss of many cultural food assets in Chinatown and their lack of recognition within municipal policy indicates that there remains a significant area of untapped potential for building a more inclusive, just, and sustainable food system in Vancouver.

Food Security Report 

However, I’m not here to give a synopsis of the report; but rather to jot down some of the interesting comments brought up that Saturday afternoon with a more personal take.  It is very much about the inspirations behind the comments shared that day that I want to put down into words. Each day, we make millions of exchanges – eye contact, body language, words, text, email, the news, social media…. What I took from this 3 hour discussion is not something I want to have heard and have forgotten. So here it is.

To give you a bit of context, I’m a first generation Taiwanese-Canadian. In other words, my family immigrated to Canada and landed foot in a small corner of the lower mainland before I could spell my name. I was lucky in a sense that our household was full: grandma (‘nainai’) and grandpa (‘yeye’), parents, my older brother (‘gege’)and younger sister (‘meimei’). Moreover, it was always full of food. My grandfather and my father were and are in the food and beverage industry overseas. Hence we were a house full of foodies. I grew up speaking mandarin (the only way I’d be able to communicate with my yeye and nainai), and eating cultural foods.

“Cultural foods”: what does that mean? Regan West, one of the panelists at the presentation defined culture as the ‘day to day’; it’s walking down the streets and feeling a sense of belonging in the neighbourhood. And it is exactly that: Cultural foods are reminders of the far-away home. They bring people together in a form of social cohesion. They provide comfort, especially for those who are in a strange, new place. They say to you, that home is not so far away. 

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For many, Chinatown was that place of exchange where ethnic ingredients and traditional restaurants can be found. It was the place where after trying so hard to assimilate into school or work, you could come back to and find vegetables and dishes your parents or grandparents cooked. Without the fishmongers, butchers, produce markets, dry good stores and quaint authentic Chinese restaurants and Cantonese bakeries, a sense of traditional culture seems to be fading in the midst of gentrification and assimilation. What used to define the very core of Metro Vancouver’s Chinatown seems to be disappearing.

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But it is more than cultural identity. It is the change in food landscape. Meaning that access to traditional and cultural foods is lost, and replaced by chain grocers where revenue generated is sent to big corporations rather than returning to the pockets of local growers and suppliers, or $6 dollar a cup ‘hipster’ coffee shops that the lower-middle income population living there cannot afford.

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Believe it or not, Chinese immigrants played a significant role in B.C.’s food economy since the turn of the 19th Century. By the 1920’s, 90% of BC’s produce supply was grown by the Chinese immigrants (Ho and Chen, 2017). Despite the policies that were forged with undertones of anti-Chinese racism, the social segregation and harsh economic environment, the Chinese farmers and grocers found creative ways to resist the racist nature of B.C.’s food system. To maintain their livelihoods, the network of Chinese food businesses operated through non-mainstream distribution channels; selling their produce to Chinese wholesalers, green grocers, and roadside farms – many of which were established in and shaped Chinatown (Ho and Chen, 2017). Today, this distribution system exists in parallel to Vancouver’s newer and expanding network of farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and continues to play an integral role in providing fresh, local and culturally appropriate food options for the region (Ho and Chen, 2017).

As you can see, we’ve come a long way in history. And the loss of these food producers and distributors not only affects the livelihoods of the small business owners who depend on this food landscape, but it also removes the cultural aspect, and affects the access to ‘safe and culturally appropriate food’ (i.e. food security) of those in the region.

In this beautiful, progressive country that is defined by a mosaic of cultures, we need to build cultural competency and food literacy, engage in stakeholders and create policies that support economic growth and development that parallels with a sustainable food system to ensure safe access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods. Because the alternative, is the loss of what defines Canada today: inclusion, multiculturalism and a citizen of the world.

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So next time you stop by Chinatown, I encourage you to swing by a green grocer, and spend some time exploring the vast array of ‘choy’s (or ‘cai’ in Mandarin, meaning vegetable) available – from various mustard greens, to peppery watercress and yam leaves to baby pea shoots …. Pick a couple out, ask the staff how to prepare it and experiment in your own kitchen. (To help you out, take a peek at a Seasonal Choy Guide created by the Hua Foundation). Next time you want to grab a bite around the neighbourhood, instead of walking into a corporate chain, checkout an authentic restaurant and enlighten your taste buds. And as with all other cultures in this mesh of a society, open your heart and your mind: be naturally curious in the traditional foods and stories of those around you. 

Sources: 

Ho, A., & Chen, A. (2017). Vancouver Chinatown Food Security Report. Retrieved from Hua Foundation Website: http://www.huafoundation.org/foodreport/

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