Vancouver’s historic Chinatown has been a major tourist hotspot for years and represents some of the city’s richest history. Along its six blocks, tourists and locals can participate in the multiple attractions it boasts. Perhaps one of the most popular of these is their numerous restaurants and grocers, often selling produce catering to the Chinese community that founded it. However, as gentrification and COVID-19 worsened ongoing problems of poverty in the neighbourhood, the city’s vibrant food culture is under threat. 

The hua foundation’s 2017 report on food security in Vancouver Chinatown found that 50% of the community’s fresh food stores had been lost from 2009 to 2016. This pattern has only worsened with COVID-19 as retail vacancy rates reached over 17% in 2021 and the neighbourhood attempted to recover from a massive drop in tourism. As local food businesses close, their loss is felt by those who depend on them for income, residents who lose affordable and healthy food sources, and the new generation of Chinese Canadian youth who lose a crucial tie to their culture: Chinese food, and the places it is obtained. As prices go up and cultural hubs close shop, we can see the continuation of a long history of carelessness to the residents of Chinatown and the food systems they create and depend on.

Vancouver Chinatown’s Parallel Food System 

The historical importance of Vancouver Chinatown cannot be understated. Created by early Chinese immigrants, its origin was largely the result of racist attitudes and exclusions keeping the Chinese out of other communities. While Chinatown acted as a form of physical protection from a country that was often hostile towards its Asian and immigrant communities, it was also an important cultural hub. Chinatown allowed Chinese immigrants to create social networks, continue cultural activities, and produce traditional foods, making the district an essential part of Chinese Canadian culture.

The creation of Chinatown’s parallel food system mirrors this duality of an essential survival mechanism and a culturally significant symbol. A parallel food system is a food supply chain that is outside of and parallel to the mainstream food system. Much like Chinatown as a whole, this system was created largely due to the exclusion of Chinese people from the mainstream system. Their lack of voting rights excluded Chinese Canadians from working in many high-paying industries, so many went to work in food service and production in Chinatown. Furthermore, the food sold by Chinese people was often deemed as low-quality and cheap and their businesses as crowded and unsanitary. Many Chinese Canadian food producers and sellers, attempting to maintain their businesses and livelihoods, created their own distribution systems in response to their exclusion. This pushed Chinatown’s food production into a separate, parallel system largely comprised of Chinese immigrants, rather than Vancouver’s broader pathway of food producers, sellers, and buyers. 

A History of Food-Based Oppression 

Chinese immigrants played a significant role in British Columbia’s emerging food economy, producing and distributing 90% of British Columbia’s vegetables by 1921. However, anxiety from White workers about Chinese people out-competing them in markets pushed the provincial and federal governments to pass laws preventing Chinese Canadians from succeeding in British Columbia’s agriculture industry. 

Much of this legislation used ambiguous language that did not explicitly mention Chinese people but targeted them. For example, the government enacted harsh legislation against vegetable peddlers who brought fresh produce to doorsteps. This role was innovated by Chinese immigrants, predominantly comprised them, and was one of the few business areas they could flourish in. These laws included imposing limits on their hours of operations, and a CAD 50 peddling levy in 1914, which increased to  CAD 100 in 1919, resulting in the number of vegetable peddlers in Chinatown being halved over the next 3 years. 

Another example of these covert methods was the use of health and hygiene inspections, which became a popular means to target Chinese-owned businesses. In 1968, the Provincial Health Ministry mandated meat products be kept above a certain storage temperature or be refrigerated. This disproportionately impacted Chinese barbecue shops whose methods focused on making moist cuts of barbecue which were quickly sold, rather than the dryer results of storing at regulation temperatures. Despite no reported cases of food poisoning from eating at Chinatown’s barbecue shops, health inspectors used the mandate in 1975 to temporarily shut down five barbecue shops. Like many other discriminatory laws impacting Chinatown’s community and food, this was only overturned through protests and legal battles launched by the Chinese community. Still, laws concerning restaurants, grocers, and barbecue shops became a tool to ensure Chinese Canadians never threatened the socioeconomic status of White Canadians. 

An Evolution of Modern-Day Food Scarcity

While most laws targeting Chinatown’s grocers and restaurants were overturned, Chinatown’s parallel food system is still under threat. In 2016, the City of Vancouver reported half of Chinatown’s residents as in the lowest 20% of earners in Canada, with seniors being four times more likely to have low incomes. Often excluded from studies, censuses, and community programs due to language barriers and a lack of social networks, the seniors of Chinatown are especially at risk of food insecurity. Nathan Sing of Maclean’s further notes that some Chinese seniors faced racism while attempting to access grocery distribution services because volunteers perceived them as well-off “economic hoarders” who did not require assistance and thus excluded them from services. 

The impacts of COVID-19 have further harmed businesses, with merchants reporting its devastating impacts on their finances and a lack of government aid. In an interview with The Toronto Star, Michael Tan, co-chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Legacy Stewardship Group, echoes these sentiments, noting the federal government’s reluctance to provide Chinatown aid, while giving a large amount of funding to Granville Island—  a similarly popular tourist attraction, though one that does not have the same historical significance or rates of poverty as Chinatown. As property rates in Chinatown continue to grow and local family businesses are replaced by non-traditional ones, Chinatown is becoming an increasingly expensive place to live. Since many senior residents are already struggling to put food on the table, this is an extremely concerning fate. 

Food as Cultural Transmission and Community

Chinatown’s parallel food system represents much more than mere survival. The Vancouver public reports food as central to Chinatown’s identity, highlighting the presence of high-quality Chinese restaurants and grocers as significant to their image of Chinatown. From the inception of Chinatown to today, its parallel food system was essential for providing healthy and affordable cultural food and the intergenerational transmission of culture. 

Chinese recipes, ingredients, and cooking techniques represent a way to pass down traditions to future-generation immigrants. Grocers and restaurants themselves also act as hubs for language practice and a place for the community to connect. For the children of Chinese immigrants who may otherwise feel disconnected from their heritage, their cultural foods and where they are sold can act as a site of intergenerational learning and belonging. These sites of connection are essential for fostering traditions and can encourage later generations to continue their family’s customs and businesses, allowing for the continued survival of Chinatown years into the future. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

To achieve the City of Vancouver’s purported goals of “learning from past mistakes,” we need to recognize that the threats against Chinatown’s parallel food system that once existed as legislations and levies now exist in the forms of gentrification and a lack of accessibility to government-provided services. 

Food systems act as a means of sustenance and survival, and their protection is vital to the survival of Chinatown as a whole. While the Vancouver government’s apologies and assertions of Chinatown’s historical significance begin to recognize the importance of the neighbourhood, the harmful impacts of COVID-19 and gentrification to local, historic businesses and the food insecurity faced by many of Chinatown’s seniors represent a material means to contribute to the areas threatened survival.

To preserve Chinatown is to protect the people within it; one way of doing so is creating culturally appropriate access to food services and aid for small businesses otherwise displaced by non-traditional businesses. Furthermore, to protect cultural foods and access to food services is to strengthen culture, foster community connections, and encourage more youth to take over multigenerational businesses. Since the 1800s, Chinatown’s community has demonstrated their refusal to passively accept discriminatory laws and gentrification plans. Today, we must follow their lead to preserve Chinatown’s rich parallel food system and prevent the loss of an integral part of one of Vancouver’s historic communities.

Edited by Bethlehem Samson

Qiu Guan

Qiu (she/her) is a fourth-year student studying political science at the University of British Columbia. Originally from China but immigrating to Vancouver at a young age, she is particularly interested...