As times change, so do Vancouver's Chinese restaurants

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      Trevor Lee’s parents warned him against opening a restaurant. His family, which emigrated to B.C. from China in the early 1900s, had been there, done that. Lee’s grandparents owned Vancouver’s multilocation Prawn House (now closed), but their kids weren’t interested in the food biz. Lee’s parents sell real estate instead and were skeptical when their club-promoter son colaunched Terracotta Modern Chinese (52 Alexander Street) last year.

      The restaurant-lounge is not in Chinatown, but it’s close. Lee, 30, along with business partners Eric Low and Mark Rasteh, opened Terracotta in the same year as two other hip, cocktaily Sinophile spots near the heart of Vancouver’s old Chinese-food district: the Keefer Bar (135 Keefer Street) and Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie (163 Keefer Street). Wild Rice (117 West Pender Street) pioneered this trend back in 2001.

      To Lee, Terracotta is part of a movement transforming the historical image of the Vancouver Chinese-Canadian restaurant from greasy to glam.

      “Growing up, I wasn’t deriving pride knowing that Chinatown was not the coolest place,” he told the Straight in a phone interview from his home in East Vancouver. “Now, it’s cooler. On our menu we have a note that says we source a lot of our ingredients from Chinatown. Twenty years ago, people would say, ”˜Ew. Why not shop at Safeway?’ The 21st century is a good time for Chinese food and culture.”

      These swank spots are just the latest revision of an industry dating back to 1886—the year the largely Chinese-built CPR railway arrived in Vancouver. Indeed, Andy Yan, a planner working with Bing Thom architects, believes establishments such as Lee’s are just a quirky continuation of Vancouver’s Chinese restaurants’ evolution.

      “The history of Chinese-food restaurants can’t be separated from just the history of Vancouver,” Yan said in a phone interview with the Straight. “But that question of authenticity—it’s constant. How are things rooted? What are they rooted in? And what do these foods mean? That’s the more ethereal meaning of Chinese food in Vancouver.”

      Like Lee’s great-grandparents, Yan said, most 19th-century Chinese immigrants either laundered or cooked. Post-last spike, many Chinese labourers with time on their hands opened restaurants in Chinatown.

      By the 1920s, inexpensive Chinese food was a staple for Vancouver’s industrial workforce, Yan explained, centred around the warehouses and factories close to Chinatown. In that era, too, he said Chinese workers were excluded from many other jobs. And Chinese Canadian-run cafés sought to look as “white” as possible; for example, he said, the downtown café sporting the famous “White Lunch” neon sign.

      In the early '80s, Yan said, the scene was re-energized by a change in federal immigration policies; not only were more Chinese professionals encouraged to come, but the points system gave equal value to chefs and engineers. That’s when the food quality took off, Yan explained.

      However, the 1990s saw Chinese restaurants moving out of Chinatown, and instead along arteries and out to Richmond. Many of Chinatown’s second-floor restaurant spaces sit empty today—including the East Pender dim sum restaurant Yan’s father owned in the 1970s.

      That’s not the only profound change. The old-style Chinese-Canadian cafés have mostly disappeared, he said, noting that they were “entry businesses that once you get your toe-hold here, your kids go to university, and you shut it down.” Just like Lee’s family.

      Lee distances himself from Vancouver’s Chinese restaurant legacy. His customers, he said, are the preclub crowd, not the “very, very old” residents of Chinatown. His top seller is the short-rib slider, he said, not anything like the food that’s served at traditional restaurants.

      Yet Terracotta’s innovation, the multi-ethnic ownership (Rasteh is Persian-Canadian), and the flavours bind it to the history of Chinese restaurants in the city. Just like the British-Chinese-Philippine apple bun at New Town Bakery & Restaurant (158 East Pender Street), Chinese restaurants in Vancouver—including Terracotta—are the embodiment of 125 years of a delicious culture mash.

      Comments

      1 Comments

      virgil hammer

      Apr 1, 2011 at 7:11pm

      mee likee , shredded and spicey

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