News / Vancouver

The Asian malls of Vancouver, where cultures mix

Coquitlam’s “Asian mall” welcomes Korean and Persian businesses as the city’s demographics change

Abbas Khosravi, owner of Best Donair in the Henderson Place food court in Coquitlam.

Jennifer Gauthier / For Metro Vancouver

Abbas Khosravi, owner of Best Donair in the Henderson Place food court in Coquitlam.

It’s Valentine’s Day. Celine and Tara just got off school and are having a snack with some friends at Henderson Place.

Celine’s got a simile to describe the mall: “Henderson Place is to Coquitlam Centre like Crystal Mall is to Metrotown.”

Locals call malls like Henderson Place and Crystal Mall “Asian malls” because of their clientele. These suburban malls function like Chinatowns, only indoor, with independent shops and services catered to East Asian immigrants.

But Henderson Development, which built its namesake mall in 1999, “wanted it to be multicultural,” said Vivian Zhang, the company’s leasing and marketing manager. The company is also behind Vancouver’s International Village Mall, once known as Tinseltown.

However, Vancouverites often lump Henderson Place with other Asian malls like Aberdeen and Parker Place because they were developed following the influx of Hong Kong migrants in the 1980s. Henderson Land Development was a prominent Hong Kong company before it founded its Canadian affiliate.

But the stew that Tara’s enjoying today at the food court isn’t Chinese.

“This is dizi,” she said. “It’s a really traditional dish. It’s Persian.”

Henderson Place is getting more multicultural. Other malls with Hong Kong roots are beginning to add businesses run by and catered to people from mainland China, from couriers to special delis like Kingwuu. Henderson Place is too, but distinctly, it’s adding Korean and Persian businesses. Immigrant services agency SUCCESS has a centre at the mall, which offers services in Cantonese, Mandarin, Farsi and Korean.

According to census data, the top immigrant groups in Coquitlam today are mainland Chinese, followed by South Koreans, Persians and Hongkongers. Together, these four groups make up almost half of the city’s immigrants. This is a shift from 2001, two years after Henderson Place was built. That census tells us Hongkongers were the largest immigrant group back then, followed by mainland Chinese, South Koreans and Taiwanese; Persians were the seventh numerous.

This means Henderson Place today is a microcosm of Coquitlam’s newcomers.

Abbas Khosravi grew his food business at the mall. Back in Iran, he had a clothing store. Now, he owns Best Donair in the food court. The name is boastful, but a number of Yelp reviewers say it’s earned; “THEY MAKE THE BEST DONAIR no joke,” wrote one reviewer. “I eat donairs like a cow eats grass and I have to say with joy this place makes a great donair.”

Khosravi is pleased a diversity of customers enjoy his food.

“Koreans like it and Chinese like it!” said Khosravi. He tries Korean and Chinese dishes from his neighbours at the food court too.

Khosravi chose to open here about five years ago simply because rent was affordable.

That’s why Min Kim and her husband chose to open at the mall too, despite certain risks, said Kim. If you look on Yelp, reviewers praise a few go-to destinations, but decry the mall for its “empty feel.”

“Our friends and family were like, ‘Why are you opening in this mall?’” said Kim. But the couple’s decision paid off.

Their first business, Cup Full – a café with baked goods, soft serve and bingsoo, Korean shaved ice – did well enough for them to open a second, Seoul Truck Street Food, which you can’t miss in the food court because its front is designed as a massive food truck. It serves fried chicken (in flavours like garlic, sweet soy and sweet red pepper) among other Korean street food.

“We believe that people will travel to find good food. If you serve it right, people will come, and social media will bring the traffic too. So we wanted to do it the riskier way.”

So why are these changes a big deal aside from the fact that you can get donair at an Asian mall?

If we examine these migrant malls like how sociologists have examined Chinatowns, Little Italys and other ethnic communities in the city, there are a few answers. These concentrations of migrants usually develop somewhere affordable. In the past, this was the inner city. In recent years, this has meant suburbia.

As immigrant patterns change and more established immigrants and their children get used to life in the host city, the concentration of migrants in an area will begin to dissolve and, if the area doesn’t gentrify, a new group often moves in. For example, in Vancouver, the German part of south Main became Punjabi Market and the Eastern European Mountainview area welcomed Filipino and Vietnamese migrants later on.

Though it’s not a street, Henderson Place’s demographics have followed in step with migration to Coquitlam. The mall is experiencing new buzz, thanks to these groups, the completion of the Evergreen SkyTrain extension and new cafes that are drawing young people.

There’s no big brands here, said Tara in the food court, eating her dizi. “It’s more local.”

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