Cantonese restaurant

How Chinese Food Shaped the City of Vancouver

“Chinese culture is very subtle,” says Robert ‘Bob’ Sung. “It’s all about symbolism.”

That may be true, but there’s little subtlety to the slices of char siu we devour from a styrofoam tray in a corner of Chinatown. Money BBQ & Produce’s hot and sweet pork cuts are a bold, sinister red. “It all makes sense,” adds Bob. Red, he says, is a symbol of joy and after today’s party – my fingers sticky with scarlet sauce – I expect to be a very happy man indeed.

Bob guides me on one of his A Wok Around Chinatown tours, exploring the cuisine of Vancouver’s Chinese community. A third-generation Chinese Canadian, he comes from a family that has lived in Canada for more than a century, working largely in the food industry in British Columbia. “I was always surrounded by the aromas of cooking growing up,” he says, as we pass stores adorned with red and gold lanterns.

It’s fitting – symbolic, some might say – that gold still shines amid the old neon lights of Chinatown today. In the mid-19th century, thousands of Cantonese-speaking migrants came to British Columbia from southern China for the gold rush, and many were employed to build the Canadian Pacific Railway in the decades that followed. Some remained afterwards, working in sawmills and fish canneries, but found themselves marginalized by the rest of the population. Chinatowns began to spring up across Canada, with tight-knit communities of bakeries, restaurants, and grocery stores quickly opening their doors.

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Cantonese cuisine is still very strong in Vancouver,” says Bob. “And even today, virtually every city in Canada has a Chinese restaurant. Many familiar “Chinese” dishes have their roots in this migration to North America. Fortune cookies, I’m learning San Francisco, while chop suey also has its roots on the continent. Ginger beef, meanwhile, is a quintessentially Chinese-Canadian invention and a take-out favorite here.

Typical Chinese flavors aren’t hard to find either. Just down the ornate Millennium Gate is The Chinese Tea Shop, its interior filled with the earthy scent of fermented pu-erh tea. “Chinese tea is a real art,” says Jennifer Lui. Store owner Daniel’s wife, Jennifer, guides me through the varieties lined on the shelves – green teas, black teas, oolongs and florals – as well as the beautiful teapots, including those made of Yixing clay, which allow teas more difficult to breathe.

“I think people are interested in the meditative quality of Chinese tea,” she says. “You have to focus on the brewing, the pouring. Learn how to make a great cup and the witty stuff will come later.

After tea, Bob drives me to a herbal medicine store, where huge crates are filled with ingredients: dried mango; angelic; ruby red goji berries; gingko nuts; and fat choy, a dark vegetable that looks alarmingly like a Brillo steak. “Food and health are synonymous in Chinese cuisine,” he says, explaining that everything is associated with a health benefit. Shiitake mushrooms, he explains, pointing to dried and fragrant mushrooms, are apparently great for weight loss. “And then there’s the dried gecko,” he says, smiling. He produces a desiccated gecko on a stick, twisting it between his fingers like a lizard’s lollipop. “Believed to help asthma.”

There are flashes of modernity among these old mainstays of Chinese cuisine – hip fusion dim sum, speakeasy, minimalist teahouses – and Bob feels thoughtful. “Times have changed,” he says. “Before, there were more herbal shops here, but historic Chinatown is less relevant than before.” Partly because of rising rents, many Chinatown residents began moving to the suburbs in the 1980s, creating “new” Chinatowns. Migration has also changed: those who settle in Vancouver today come from all over China rather than just the south, and often also come from considerable wealth. “I saw a learner driver here the other day,” laughs Bob. “She was learning in a pink Lamborghini.” This is a far cry from the days of the railways.