News / Vancouver

Vancouver’s suburban malls become community hubs for newcomers

Migrant malls offer immigrants an easier time transitioning to life in Canada, from overseas goods to the ability to speak in their mother tongue.

Fancy Singaporean? Or Shanghai? The diverse food court at Crystal Mall in Burnaby is always bustling.

Christopher Cheung / For Metro

Fancy Singaporean? Or Shanghai? The diverse food court at Crystal Mall in Burnaby is always bustling.

Mimi Yu and her three siblings lived in Vancouver, but a few times every week, their mother would drive them out to the suburbs.

The destination: “every possible Asian mall,” said Yu.

In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, developers built indoor malls in Metro Vancouver’s growing suburbs with the region’s influx of East Asian immigrants in mind. Richmond has the most, with malls like Yaohan, Parker Place and Aberdeen Centre, named after a Hong Kong area.

For about three decades, the malls, filled with mostly mom-and-pops, supplied the local diaspora with what they’re used to from overseas. You’ll find stalls scooping rice and noodles out of vats for homemakers and parties, mountains of East Asian soaps and films on DVD and surprises like pig roasting, music schools and a Chinese Christian centre.

A go-to place for Yu’s mother was a store in Burnaby’s Crystal Mall that sold ginseng and tofu.

“The owners always remembered her,” said Yu.

These malls offer immigrants like Yu’s mother an easier time transitioning to life in Canada, from overseas goods to the ability to speak in their mother tongue.

A favourite of immigrants and locals alike are the mall’s diverse food courts, with everything from Shanghai soup buns to Xinjiang skewers.

“That was our entire childhood,” said Yu, now in her mid-20s. One favourite snack was Hong Kong bubble waffles (they look like giant, waffly bubble-wrap).

The indoor malls have qualities urbanists today commend good neighbourhoods for: small specialty shops, a diversity of uses and spaces that allow for interactions and connections.

Those interactions were sometimes too in your face, said Yu; strangers would comment loudly about her mother having four children or remark which child was pretty or chubby.

Ken Lam, 37, who worked in Parker Place about a decade ago, calls the malls a “second home” for many immigrants.

Lam worked at a dessert stall run by his wife’s family called Icy Bar, which sells sweet soups and cold treats with toppings like red bean, tapiocas and fruits.

“You saw familiar faces all the time,” said Lam. “You even saw that some customers knew one another.”

This kind of immigrant community is old, hearkening to inner-city enclaves like Chinatowns and Little Italys, but the setting is fairly new. Immigrants to North America, Australia and New Zealand now cluster in the suburbs, where the cost of living is cheaper, and where immigrants from crowded cities are drawn by a suburban lifestyle associated with the American dream.

Migrant malls are a key part of what scholars call the “ethnoburban” landscape.

“There’s a joke in Asia that people duck into malls for air conditioning,” said Asian American studies professor Justin Tse, originally from Vancouver. He studies ethnicity and geography.

“Malls aren’t specifically an Asian idea,” he said, “but immigrants are doing new, exciting and creative things with them.”

He gave the example of a Hong Kong immigrant, now 98, who teaches tai chi every weekday morning at Richmond Centre (a North American-style mall), with up to 200 attendees.

Suburbs have a reputation for being bland, but places like Richmond are beginning to shed that image. As cities crowd and get pricier, the once-quiet suburbs are adding qualities desired from urban life. Immigrants are playing a part in that transformation.

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