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Business Owner Carol Lee’s Guide to Vancouver’s Chinatown

Carol Lee is the woman leading the renaissance of Vancouver’s Chinatown, and these are her top recommendations for exploring the area.

Vancouver Chinatown
Hi, I'm Diane!

Based in Vancouver, B.C., Diane Selkirk enjoys writing stories where science, history, or social justice intersect with travel. Her work has appeared in BBC Travel, National Geographic Travel, and The Globe and Mail.

When Carol Lee heads out shopping in Vancouver’s Chinatown, she can’t walk more than a few steps before one of her neighbors stops her to chat. Since 2011, the chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation has been spearheading projects that focus on the cultural, economic, and physical revitalization of Vancouver’s historic Chinatown—a neighborhood that’s been in decline for years.

It hasn’t always been this way. When Lee was growing up, Chinatown was in its boom years. “Back then, it all happened in Chinatown,” says Lee. Sidewalks were bustling and bright neon signs made nights in the neighborhood exciting and celebratory—drawing in both locals and tourists for shopping, meals, and shows. But then, like many young Canadians of Chinese ancestry, Lee headed off for school and to work in new places—and the neighborhood fell out of fashion. After several years away, she returned to a diminished Chinatown, “I thought, if we don't do something, it’ll eventually disappear.”

As a business owner and community builder, who serves on a wide range of boards, Lee turned to her network for help. She says she soon found out that she wasn’t the only person who valued Chinatown. With the newly formed Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, she began raising millions of dollars to tackle some of the neighborhood’s most complex problems. “We bought the historic May Wah Hotel, which provides low income housing. And we’re building 58 West Hastings, a social housing project that will provide 230 homes and a 50,000-square-foot (4,645-square-meter) healthcare center.”

Here are her top tips and recommendations for making the most of Vancouver’s Chinatown.

Carol Lee, Vancouver Chinatown guide, standing in front of a backdrop of a historic Chinatown scene.
Carol Lee is a Vancouver Chinatown pioneer.Foto: Carol Lee

Carol Lee’s Chinatown recommendations

Dining and restaurants

“Food, especially for Chinese people, brings everyone together,” says Lee. And Chinatown’s restaurants, which range from unpretentious old-school chop suey houses including Gain Wah Restaurant to contemporary Vietnamese eateries such as DD Mau, have something for everyone.

If you’re looking for all-day dim sum, Lee suggests Jade Dynasty Restaurant (she’s a fan of the pan-fried radish cakes—a dish made from shredded daikon). For traditional Chinese barbecue, Lee ended up opening her own restaurant—Chinatown BBQ celebrates the golden era of Chinatown by serving up duck and pork dishes in an old-style setting.

Related: Why Vancouver Has the World’s Best Dim Sum (And Where to Find It)

The huge red gates marking the entrance to Chinatown at the heart of Vancouver in Canada on a sunny day.
The gates to Vancouver's Chinatown.Foto: milosk50 / Shutterstock

Traditional and not-so-traditional snacks

New Town Bakery is one of Lee’s go-to spots when she’s looking for a quick snack. You can dine in, but it’s the bakery offerings including pork buns, coconut buns, egg tarts, and apple tarts that have people lining up out the door. Lee’s says you also can’t miss Mello donuts. This neighborhood newcomer serves up fluffy brioche donuts that are as tasty as they are pretty.

For a deeper dive into Chinatown, Lee suggests Continental Herbal Co Ltd. where dried fruit and nuts are sold alongside loose teas, dried seafood, and Chinese medicines. English-speaking staff members are happy to help you find what you want.

Shopping for old and new

While food is one big draw in Chinatown—Lee suggests Kam Wai Dim Sum if you’re on the hunt for dim sum you can make at home—she also has a variety of favorite retailers in the neighborhood for everything from traditional housewares (try Bamboo Village) to contemporary Chinese fashion (Lee likes KK Boutique). One place Lee says visitors shouldn’t miss is The Chinese Tea Shop. Proprietor Daniel Lui can teach you all about tea, help you find your favorite blend, and then show you how to prepare the perfect cup.

Char siu, or glazed pork, served up on a dish in Vancouver's Chinatown.
Don't skip the "char siu" (barbecue pork) in Vancouver's Chinatown.Foto: Alexander Prokopenko / Shutterstock

Cultural stops

Since the 1980s, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden (and adjacent Sun Yat-Sen Park) has been the largest cultural attraction in Chinatown. The serene oasis is a Ming Dynasty–style garden with walkways that wind around a koi pond and past pavilions where art exhibits and cultural talks take place.

New to the neighborhood in attracting locals and tourists is the Chinatown Storytelling Centre, Lee’s proudest accomplishment. Housed in a historic bank building, the Chinatown Storytelling Centre is Canada’s first museum dedicated to telling the stories of Canadians of Chinese ancestry via permanent and changing exhibits. It’s also a gathering space and community center, with a unique gift store that sells a wide range of books. “We wanted a place where we could share the stories of all the people who came and thrived,” Lee says. “Chinatown is the physical legacy of their efforts.”

A steaming pork bun being opened up at a restaurant in Vancouver's Chinatown.
Steaming pork buns are a Vancouver Chinatown staple.Foto: Nopphadol Tongthae / Shutterstock

A brief history of Vancouver’s Chinatown

Vancouver’s Chinatown was years in the making. When gold was discovered in the lower Fraser Valley in 1857, Chinese laborers began heading to the west coast, seeking a better life in Gum Shan (Gold Mountain). In the years that followed, thousands of additional workers came to toil on the railway that was being built across BC. However, by 1885, anti-Chinese sentiment had grown in Canada, and the government imposed a $50 head tax on each Chinese immigrant who came (this rose to $500 by 1903).

With the cost of entry so high in those early years, few Chinese women made it to Canada. And after the railway was complete, racism was so common that the Chinese men had nowhere to go. So, the men started their own businesses and political associations within segregated enclaves such as Vancouver’s Chinatown. “The restaurant owner down the street may have been an engineer, but he wasn’t allowed to be an engineer, so that’s why he started a restaurant,” Lee says.

After World War II, when the federal government repealed the discriminatory laws against the Chinese, immigration opened up. This is when Vancouver’s Chinatown became a cultural and commercial hub for many newcomers to Canada. But then, after decades of growth, residents of Chinatown began wanting their kids to take advantage of all Canada had to offer. They encouraged them to head elsewhere for different opportunities.

For many, Chinatown felt old-fashioned; a place that couldn’t keep up with cultural shifts. By 2010, shops were closing and the famous neon signs were long gone. For Lee, the losses in Chinatown felt personal. In the 1920s, her paternal grandfather immigrated to Vancouver from China. His village chose him as the most capable, and raised the money for him to come to Canada where he became an early founder of Vancouver’s Chinatown. For her, protecting Chinatown doesn’t just protect his legacy; she says it preserves the larger story: “This is how we all became Canadian.”

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