News / Vancouver

Vancouver Chinatown's cultural food businesses struggle to survive: report

More than half of green grocers, butchers, and Cantonese restaurants in Chinatown have closed since 2009, according to a new report from the Hua Foundation

Angela Ho, food security director at the Hua Foundation, shops at a green grocer in Vancouver's Chinatown.

Jennifer Gauthier / For Metro

Angela Ho, food security director at the Hua Foundation, shops at a green grocer in Vancouver's Chinatown.

A new report from the Hua Foundation is highlighting the dramatic drop in food stores in Vancouver’s Chinatown in the past seven years.

Its authors found that Chinatown residents are having an increasingly difficult time finding affordable and familiar food nearby as aging small-business owners are pushed out of the rapidly developing neighbourhood. New businesses that take their place generally cater to a younger and wealthier customer base.

In fact, more than half of the community’s ‘cultural food assets’ have disappeared since 2009, according to the report’s lead author, Angela Ho.

“The newer businesses don’t compensate for what’s loss,” she said.

“They tend to service a higher income bracket even though they may be somewhat similar in offering Asian type food, they are catering to a different income bracket and that creates tension.”

The report defines cultural food assets as green grocers, butchers, fish mongers, barbeque meat shops, and Cantonese restaurants and bakeries.

Newcomers in Chinatown like restaurants Fat Mao and Ramen Butcher serve Asian food but many longtime Chinatown residents are low-income and some do not speak English.

Ho, who is the Hua Foundation’s food security director, says she does not want to single-out particular businesses and says the loss of culturally appropriate food assets in Chinatown is rather the symptom of a variety of factors.

For instance, some green grocers and dried goods stores are simply closing up shop because the family’s adult children do not want to continue the family business.

Others are moving to more profitable areas, like Lok’s Produce, which opened a location in Crystal Mall in Burnaby, said Ho.

Overall, there are only three barbecue meat shops left in Chinatown (down from eight in 2009), six green grocers (down from 11) and 20 Cantonese restaurants (down from 36), according to the report.

In the last seven years, 21 Chinese dry good stores have closed.

These issues are compounded by rising housing prices and new condos in the area as well, Ho added.

“It makes it harder for [business owners] to stay in the neighbourhood and maintain a sustainable customer base, because the people who are coming in might not be as familiar or support these older business economically.”

The report does not spell out exactly how the city can help green grocers, butchers, Cantonese bakers, and restaurants survive in Chinatown but it does ask city planners to consider including “cultural food assets” in its food policy work.

A city report found neighbourhood food assets have in fact increased by 42 per cent since 2010 but that statistic is based on a very different understanding of food assets, according to staff.

“The way we currently define food assets is based on a definition that was created a number of years ago to reflect the city’s greenest action plan – things like community gardens and community kitchens,” said Sarah Carten, social planner at the City of Vancouver.

She says social policy staff intend to work with the Hua Foundation on including cultural food assets in its work. In fact, the foundation has already helped staff study the importance of a diverse retail food industry, she said.

“We have been able to look at the Renfrew Collingwood neighbourhood and looked at how people shop and we learned about the value of that diverse retail environment and that’s quite helpful moving forward.”

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