Chinatown, to me is such a beautiful complicated conundrum.
Like so many Chinese Vancouverites – as child of the 70’s, my family made shopping jaunts to Chinatown every weekend. Our arms so loaded down with goods, they would ache with effort as we made multiple trips to the car to unload and reload with groceries. It was so incredibly busy, it seemed like every Chinese person in the Lower Mainland was there (and in fact, the retail rents in Chinatown were the most expensive in the city – even outstripping Robson Street at the time).
For a Westside kid like me, it was also the place that you came to be “Chinese” – kung fu movie double features at either the Shaw or Golden Harvest theaters were a personal favorite of mine. And somehow, I was lucky enough to dodge the bum numbing Chinese language classes that my brother had to go to.
And though the layers of history were not apparent to me a kid – my earliest memories harken an Old Chinatown that pre-dated my parent’s arrival from Hong Kong. When Chinatown was both a place of refuge and relegation for Chinese families that arrived with the railway and gold rush. Where old men lived in tiny boarding houses, giant steamed bao were eaten as a cheap filling meal, and florists sold lucky money trees with leaves made from one and two dollar bills.
As the Vancouver’s Chinese population fulfilled greater and greater aspirations – Chinese businesses followed them to rest of Vancouver and Richmond. Suddenly, you did not have to go to Chinatown to be Chinese – you could get your Chinese BBQ meats on South Victoria Drive, decent noodles in Coquitlam, and after school tutoring in Richmond.
It seemed like the more Chinese people prospered, the more Chinatown declined. Even for my mother, she is now a tourist in Chinatown – going to specific stores for Chinese cured meats but otherwise her visits are more about nostalgia then practicality.
It’s obvious that the bustling shopping hub of my youth has profoundly changed. Empty storefronts, favorite restaurants long gone – the now plentiful parking is shocking to me, as I remember circling the blocks endlessly as a kid – my dad determined to find a spot closest to our favorite shops.
Even more than nature abhors a vacuum – Vancouver cannot abide by underutilized real estate. So now we enter the tricky stage of of what will become of Chinatown. Despite quieter appearances – Chinatown is still a vibrant community of long time Chinese residents. In many ways, the neighborhood echoes the first iteration of Chinatown – the distinct tonal dialect of Toisan being spoken on the street, frugal old timers doing their daily grocery rounds, and line ups at New Town Bakery and Maxim’s for big meat filled buns.
There are lots of different points of view as to how to transform Chinatown. As I walked through the streets with my mom a few weeks ago, we were both glad to see the jolts of youthful energy and enterprise of new hipsters shops and restaurants… though I’ve also seen older residents stare into these businesses with a bit of bewilderment. Some of the changes are jarring to me – new proposed condo buildings that are absolutely out of scale with the intimate street fronts, the new Tim Hortons on Keefer Street, and “Proposed Development” signs popping up like mushrooms. Change is inevitable – and Chinese people do not fear change – but what that change is going to be is unclear right now.
When Daisy Garden burned down a few years ago, it seemed like another dark harbinger. It was one of the very last full service Chinese BBQ shops that served easy and inexpensive meals of rice, noodles, and small dishes. Their BBQ was very good, in fact they supplied some of the higher end Chinese restaurants in Richmond. Irony!
Carol Lee, a huge champion of Chinatown, stepped into the fray – creating a storefront for the old Daisy Garden to regroup and serve the community again. I’ll be honest and say I was a little skeptical of what Chinatown BBQ would be like. I feared that it would be a pastiche of Chinoisery and museum like stuffiness. But I was wrong – very wrong.
What’s remarkable about Chinatown BBQ is that it tries very hard to be unremarkable. The interiors are gorgeous, but simple and reflects genuine history.
The food is equally simple and straightforward. Except for the fried garlic oil on the gailan – there are no modern or gourmet flourishes. It’s real and grounded in reality. It’s what Chinese seniors eat when they meet up with family, it’s what nearby office workers eat for a quick a filling lunch, it’s what I want to eat when I crave good comforting food.
The cooking is very well done. I’ve had the daily soup twice now – and though it’s never pretty – there is slow cooked depth, clean sweetness, and the grease and scum has been carefully decanted off. Just like mom’s – literally. The garlic oil gailan is terrific – the vegetables themselves are perfectly cooked – jade green, balancing tenderness and bite. The curried beef brisket is slow cooked to deep melting tenderness – an old Daisy Garden recipe dating back decades.
My favorite BBQ meat has been the roast pork belly, and apparently other customers agree as it tends to sell out quickly. The ratio of fat to meat is perfect, what the Cantonese would call “five layers of flowers pork belly”.
Still early days – the menu and kitchen is still evolving. The dishes are all rice based right now – and I hope they are able to get soup noodles on the menu. There are few things I like better than BBQ duck with thick rice noodles with clear broth.
Simple and delicious
Is it the bestest Chinese BBQ in the world – no it’s not. But it’s not meant to be food you drive across town for (though I would) – it’s meant to be a local restaurant for people to drop into have something good to eat.
And man, do I love the place. Chinatown BBQ manages to reflect the history of Chinatown while still being a part of a living breathing neighborhood – no small achievement. And in the process, they have created a space where all Chinatown residents can feel like they belong.
130 East Pender Street, Vancouver BC