On July 18th, PiDGin held a fund raising dinner for ALIVE (Aboriginal Life In Vancouver Enhancement Society) and their youth employment program RISE. It was also an event to celebrate the completion of a gorgeous mural depicting some of the pivotal events and struggles in the DTES neighborhood. The struggles were real and frightening… and spoke to a time when local government actively and aggressively tried to destroy a vibrant ethnically diverse area.
It’s important to acknowledge the tremendous effort and struggle that took place to create the Vancouver that we love and cherish today. That progressive politics matter. That hate and racism can and will yield to respect and understanding. Something to remember lest we slip into complacency and fear in this age of Trump.
PiDGiN’s proprietor, Brandon Grossutti, gave an impassioned speech about the DTES and his love of having a business in the area. Let’s be honest, he could have pulled the plug and moved to easier and greener pastures and no one would have blamed him. But he’s stuck it out, and built something of real value.
It was a tremendous event – with amazing talented chefs – Wesley Young from PiDGiN, Kissa Tanto’s, Joël Watanabe, Ai & Om’s Douglas Chang and Nemesis’ Jacob Deacon Evans – producing stellar food that spoke to a sense of place.
Being a child of Hong Kong immigrants of a certain age – I am definitely a product of Chinatown and East Hastings. To me the area is rich with memories and experiences. It was my parents’ place of entry in to life in Canada – where they started building lives for me and my brother. So when I was asked to give a short speech I was really happy to do so. Here it is below:
Hello – I’m Lee Man.
I wanted to provide a bit of personal history that I have had with this neighbourhood – and why I love it so, and why I think it’s a place that connects all of us in Vancouver. Though the city is filled with shiny condo’s and beautiful houses – I think many Vancouverites forget that our city was built on hard gritty labor, and peoples from all over the world – looking to make a new start and to build a life.
For my parents – Chinatown and East Hastings were the places that first welcomed them as new immigrants from Hong Kong in the late 1960’s. I remember going to pre-school in the convent across from Oppenheimer park – being picked up by my father after a long day of work. I remember going to the Only Seafood – having fried salmon and clam chowder that was served with a stack of sliced bread and butter – the windows foggy with steam. I remember the weekly shopping treks into Chinatown – that included a walk along Hastings Street to Woodward’s and the Army and Navy, and having my first taste of chocolate malts at the basement hot dog stand while my father bought cut rate fishing gear. I remember when the store – just across the street on Pigeon Park was an aquarium shop – and I would go in and gaze at the tanks and tanks of exotic fish. This was and IS a neighborhood of life, vigor, and authenticity.
Vancouver is infamous for tearing down it’s history. I feel like there is almost a sense of shame in our rush to move to a shiny sparkling future. To pretend that somehow we sprung fully formed into this vision of a “World Class City”; is to ignore the struggles of so many of people both in the past, and in the present.
One of my strongest memories of Chinatown as a little boy – was that it was a city of Old Men – men who were denied their families because of the Chinese Exclusion Act – and for whom, the sight of a little Chinese boy was a rarity and a joy. Smelling of tweed and Brylcream – they would pat my head and offer me sweet salted plum candies. And if I am honest – they scared me a little. But now I look back at that memory and understand their heartbreak and longing.
And so – with the mural – I think it’s important that we remember our history. Of how our collective stories and narratives continue – carrying us forward together. If we forget our our beginnings, we lose the thread and meaning of our lives and of our city.
I’ll share one last memory with you as you eat and enjoy the tremendous food tonight.
My parents told me of one of their first restaurant experiences in Vancouver. It was at a Chinatown hole in the wall – the legendary Green Door. Located in an alleyway you bussed and set your own table, and the food was simple – lots of filling rice and perhaps a humble stir fry of mixed ingredients – chap sue – or choy suey.
It wasn’t a fancy dining experience – but it made them feel at home.