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New Chinese BBQ spot mixes old and new in Vancouver's Chinatown

BBQ duck anyone? Chinatown BBQ hopes iconic dishes are recipe for success

Carol Lee has opened a new Chinese BBQ chop in Chinatown at a time when many Chinese shops and restaurants are closing in the neighbourhood.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro Order this photo

Carol Lee has opened a new Chinese BBQ chop in Chinatown at a time when many Chinese shops and restaurants are closing in the neighbourhood.

One entrepreneur wants to prove Chinese restaurants can survive in Chinatown.

That's a feat that is not as easy as it sounds, as the neighbourhood has seen dozens close in recent years.

The neighbourhood lost its status as a hub for the local Chinese community decades ago but you wouldn’t know it standing inside the bustling Chinatown BBQ on East Pender Street during lunch hour.

The restaurant is entrepreneur and community leader Carol Lee’s latest venture.

Diners at the 48-seat restaurant can choose from several iconic Cantonese dishes that Chinatowns around the world used to be known for – BBQ duck, BBQ pork, roast pork, poached chicken, soy sauce chicken, and more.

“It’s a fine line. You want to be changing and you want to respect the history – but people love the food,” said Lee.

Diners have flocked to the new BBQ spot since the restaurant opened in November. Lee says it proves businesses that pay homage to the glory days of Chinatown can still thrive in the neighbourhood.

“I think a lot of the Chinese stores think it is hard to open in Chinatown and they have gone to other places where it is easier,” said Lee, acknowledging people can find Chinese food almost anywhere in the Lower Mainland.

“But Chinatown has something different,” she said.

“It's something that is historic – it's part of our Vancouver and Canadian history. It's the physical legacy of Chinese immigrants’ journey and their contribution to building the country.”

Restaurant owner Carol Lee stands in front of iconic foods like soy sauce chicken and roast pig hanging in Chinatown BBQ's display.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro

Restaurant owner Carol Lee stands in front of iconic foods like soy sauce chicken and roast pig hanging in Chinatown BBQ's display.

Chinatown BBQ’s location (130 E. Pender St.) used to house a Chinese pottery shop, according to Lee. But the retail space, located on the same block as a Chinese-dress maker, a skateboard shop, and a Chinese-antique shop, has sat empty for years.

It’s exactly that kind of wide variety that city staff hope to support in Chinatown. The city commissioned a legacy business study aimed at mitigating the effects of retail gentrification in the neighbourhood. A preliminary report listed Lee’s Chinatown BBQ as a case study.

Because while the restaurant is only one month old, it succeeds in encompassing all four values that characterize a "heritage business," according to the report: historic significance, small or family business, a place for seniors, and cultural.

Lee, who also chairs the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation and sits on the Vancouver Chinatown Revitalization Committee, works hard to support local residents and employees. The servers and chefs at Chinese BBQ used to work at Daisy Garden restaurant, a neighbourhood favourite that burned down in 2015.

Carol Lee stands in her new restaurant, Chinatown BBQ, which opened Nov. 3, 2017.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro

Carol Lee stands in her new restaurant, Chinatown BBQ, which opened Nov. 3, 2017.

“We felt there needed to be a thematic transformation of the streetscape. Some of the most important businesses in a healthy Chinatown are restaurants.”

More than half of Chinatown’s cultural restaurants and food shops have closed in the past seven years, according to a Hua Foundation report.

With the current labour shortage for kitchen staff, let alone kitchen staff who can cook Cantonese-style food, Lee says she was fortunate to find a team for Chinatown BBQ.

“I was looking to open up [a restaurant] and then Daisy Garden burned down and so some of the people who worked there and approached me."

Chinatown BBQ is just one of many projects on Lee’s to-do list.

A few stores down, the Vancouver Foundation is getting ready to open a storytelling centre (168 E. Pender St.) in the spring. Other projects include plans to restore and re-open the neighbourhood’s iconic Foo’s Ho Ho Restaurant (100 E. Pender St.) some time in 2018. The foundation is also leasing the site of a former tent city (58 West Hastings St.), with a commitment to build six storeys of social housing and a medical centre on the ground floor.

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