Exploring the Food and Culture of Vancouver’s Chinatown

The purpose of this tour is to showcase the Chinese culture. I’m third generation around here. Because of the racial profiling long ago, the mandate was to assimilate into the white culture. I could only assimilate so much and then I decided I liked to showcase my culture. In some respect, when I was a kid, I felt like the Chinese culture was far more rich than the Caucasian culture. It got me more into my roots.

As we embark on a tour of the city blocks one sunny spring morning, historian Robert Sung gives an impassioned pitch for his Chinatown neighborhood. In the heart of Vancouver, British Columbia, the area still hums with activity, even after the sixty or so years he’s seen of its evolution. It’s busy with customers enjoying the warming weather – some perusing the dried herbs and proteins in the local medicine shop, some bargaining over the price of vegetables or seafood.

Combining his natural storytelling skills with the appreciation of his heritage and history, Sung has paved a path with his “A Wok Around Chinatown” tours, imparting tales of the local Chinese scene from Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden to the corner tea shop. He shares his insight as we weave through Chinatown’s streets, past herbal medicine displays, piles of fresh fruit and vegetables, pastries, pork, and fish. Each shop has a little tale, each building a timeline of years. Down one block, a set of three painted murals lines an exterior wall, including one depicting legendary singer Lena Horne poised across the table from a dapper young Chinese man. A nod to the history between the Chinese community and fellow ethnicities on the fringe.

“Black entertainers came up here from the United States,” Sung introduces, pointing to the mural. “They were performing at the major nightclubs in town, but they were not allowed to stay at the major hotels, so they would come down here to Chinatown and stay at boarding houses.”


Like a Phoenix From the Ashes

Over a century ago, the Chinatown community grew out of necessity. In 1885, a head tax was imposed to discourage Chinese immigrants from entering, and incorporating, into the region once they had completed work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Those who could afford the head tax entered the country, worked their hours with the railway, and returned to China. Those who were unable to pay their debts remained, confined by the boundaries of the Vancouver neighborhood.

“The Canadian government didn’t want them to live all over the area, so that’s the formation of Chinatowns in different cities all over North America. More or less, a contained ghetto.”

“There was a big fear that the Chinese would take away jobs from the Caucasians,” Sung explains. “So they were relegated to working as farmhands or house boys. Then they went into laundries and grocery stores as well. The reason being is that the Chinese were only considered residents of Canada – they weren’t considered citizens. That prevented them from getting into any education to become more professional people. Laundries, restaurants.”

As new restaurants, shops, and hotels slowly make their way into Chinatown’s redeveloped areas, the neighborhood continues to reconfigure itself, bringing renewed attention from the younger generation.

“I think the subsequent generations have been embracing their culture far more than any generations before, which is a very important thing. The influence of the Asian culture, specifically within Vancouver, is important.”

The history of the Chinese in North America is based on race and discrimination, not from a victim standpoint. It’s more from the standpoint of what knocks you down builds you back up.

~Jennifer Matthewson

Photo credit: Jennifer Matthewson / Daily Blender


**This piece was developed in partnership with Tourism Vancouver who provided a media pass for the Chinatown tour.

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