BBQ, bok choy and a history of racist policies: Canada's Chinatowns still fighting for a seat at the table

Food sustains, but ultimately, how sustainable are the spaces where communities of colour go to nourish not just their stomach but also their brains and souls? As these spaces fade away, they leave behind a gnawing hunger.

Fireworks are fun, but they’re fleeting. What makes this country real are the people and communities that form it. As the country celebrates 150 years of nationhood, Metro’s national columnist Vicky Mochama set out across Canada to discover how five different groups are creating space here.

Here, Part 4: Feeding Chinatown

If you want to eat great Canadian food, go to Chinatown. At least, that’s what I did.

On a vibrant sunny day, I went in search of lunch in Calgary’s Chinatown, located in the city’s downtown. Walking through the grand Chinese Cultural Centre, I sat in on the rehearsal for an opera before surfacing on 3rd Street. Looking for nothing in particular, I paused outside a green grocer where the restaurant next door, the Tang Dynasty Restaurant was throwing quite a party.

There was a gold and silver dragon, a man playing a large drum, another in orange-fringed gold sequin pants playing cymbals and a third with a gong-looking instrument on a metal frame. All were wearing crisp white jackets from the White Brow Hap-Ging-Do Martial Arts and Lion Association. Was it a wedding? Was it a baby shower? Was there a celebrity?

Twenty minutes later, it turned out to be an announcement for their lunch special. By then, I’d quite forgotten my hunger and started thinking about the green grocer, the restaurant and the bigger picture.

Back home in Toronto, I’ve seen some of the best Chinese restaurants sold up and left, or go out of business. Corner groceries have given way to empty storefronts and real estate signs.

It seems to me and my stomach that Chinatown is changing. There’s data to back up my hunger pangs. A recent report by the Hua Foundation finds that over the past seven years, Vancouver’s Chinatown has lost 50 per cent of its culturally- appropriate food assets, a rate the authors call “alarmingly rapid.”

Yet according to the report, the city’s plans for food security — that is, providing ways for people to access affordable and healthy food — do not include support and protection for Chinese cultural foods. This isn’t new; I’d argue that it continues a long history of exclusion for Chinese people in Vancouver.

“There’s an entire parallel food system that’s run by the Chinese all the way from growers, importers distributors to green grocers, fishmongers to Chinese restaurants,” says Kevin Huang, director of the Hua Foundation.

“If you’ve had food at Chinese restaurants from Vancouver, it’s probably from this chain. And this is actually born out of a long history of racism and segregation.”

In an e-mail after our conversation, Huang reminded me that July 1, Canada Day, has a different meaning for many Chinese people in Canada. It’s the date in 1923 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed; it banned most Chinese people from immigration to Canada unless they were students or diplomats. Although it was repealed in 1947 and both federal and provincial governments have apologized for it, the law established a parallel history for Chinese people in Canada.

A Simon Fraser University report found that in 1941, 20 per cent of farmers and distributors in British Columbia were Chinese. They also once provided nearly 90 per cent of the province’s food. That’s not the case today.

By 2006, less than 0.4 per cent of Chinese Canadians in B.C. work in agriculture. The few remaining farmers grow mostly Chinese vegetable like bok choy and goya — a change that began in the 1970s.

For decades, Chinese food producers faced racism within the province from an agricultural board that excluded Chinese growers to a peddler’s tax that imposed a burden on Chinese sellers.

In 1970s, fierce protest erupted in the neighbourhood when municipal health inspectors began targeting tashu, the barbecue meats that hang in many Chinatown restaurants.

'"That took about 10 years to fight," says Huang, adding the zealous regulators were not responding to any reported deaths or illness.

The effects of anti-Chinese racism and legislation can be found in the food of Chinatown. There is a myth that Chinese foods are somehow lesser: less clean, less time-consuming, less worthy. Because it was once, and arguably still is, backed by policy, the myth persists. For example, although food prices are generally increasing, there is a widespread cultural expectation that groceries in Chinatown should stay affordable.

In a way, it’s not too different from conditions a century ago when, says the SFU study, “Discrimination by whites forced Chinese farmers to sell their labour and their produce cheaply if they were to survive at all in a competitive market.”

For minority communities, culturally appropriate food is essential to survival. For new immigrants, it allows them to survive while they find their bearings. For more established families, it gives them a space to keep in touch with their community and to share survival stories from the past.

Food sustains, but ultimately, how sustainable are the spaces where communities of colour go to nourish not just their stomach but also their brains and souls? As these spaces fade away, they leave behind a gnawing hunger.

More in After The Party:

Part 1: Making space

Coming up:

Part 5: Being Black at school

Part 6: Scenes from Caribana

Part 7: Welcome to the Gaybourhood

Part 8: The Indigenous City

Join the conversation and tell us how you make space in this place: #AfterTheParty

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