© Margo Pfeiff
Bustling Richmond, BC brings a bit of the Far East to the West Coast
Fragrant incense smoke writhes through the open doorway on a shaft of sunlight, mingling with the aroma of the winter melon soup, stir-fried veggies and tofu in front of me and a dozen grey-robed Buddhist nuns seated at two long tables. I watch the server approach, ladle poised, topping up bowls. Blissed out by the morning session in the temple’s meditation hall, I suddenly realize I’ve forgotten the silent mealtime’s hand signals.
I start to sweat. Is “no more” raising my index finger up and down or wiggling it back and forth? Or am I confusing this with Blackjack protocol? “You must not leave any food on your plates,” Patrick Wong, the International Buddhist Temple’s administrative assistant had warned during the pre-eating-with-the-nuns briefing. “It is disrespectful.” At the last minute I resort to the internationally recognized semaphore of madly waving my hands and shaking my head which elicits a smattering of suppressed smiles from the nuns.
After a post-luncheon chanting session enhanced with my mangled Cantonese, I stroll through the grand Chinese gardens of this classic temple modelled after Beijing’s Forbidden City. Then, driving back to my hotel, I pass a mosque, a Hindu temple, an Islamic cultural centre and the Thrangu Tibetan Monastery (8140 No. 5 Road; tel: 778-297-6010; thrangumonastery.org) — no wonder No. 5 Road is nicknamed the “Highway to Heaven.” I’m sinfully relieved when I arrive back in the commercial district amid the earthy delights of Melodyshake Karaoke, Big Feet Massage and Dr Li’s Acupuncture and Herb Clinic. Hong Kong? Singapore? Nope, but it sure could be.
Everyone landing at Vancouver International Airport heading downtown passes through a corner of what looks like just another suburb. But Richmond is anything but ordinary. No mere Chinatown, it’s a modern Asian city in its own right with a population of 200,000 that is 60 percent Asian. And it has more residents of Chinese ancestry than any other Canadian metropolis.
Get major Asian immersion here without major travel: trilingual in these parts means English, Cantonese and Mandarin; there’s an authentic Hong Kong night market as well as tai chi in every open park space. Best of all, top Asian chefs have moved into Richmond’s high end Chinese restaurants, scooping up awards.
It wasn’t always like this. When I grew up in Vancouver in the 1960s and '70s, this suburb at Vancouver’s southern flank was known as Lulu Island, a low-lying farmscape of open fields and fruit stands where we headed to U-Pic Blueberries and rode our bikes along the dikes that hold back the Fraser River. “Even in the late 1980s, we had to drive downtown to Chinatown to shop,” said Malaysian-born Henry Beh of the Richmond Chinese Community Society. “Then, after 1995, there was a huge influx of businesses and new immigrants because Richmond was close to Vancouver and affordable. Now Asian tourists are flocking here for the food and cultural celebrations like Chinese New Year.”
Richmond’s booming commercial district sprawls along a grid of wide avenues, the main one being No. 3 Road, but the hub is the Golden Village, four easy-to-explore square blocks. From the airport, it’s a five-minute drive or Sky Train ride slinking futuristically on overhead rails into Aberdeen station; from downtown Vancouver it’s just a 20-minute trip. The Village is a high-density cluster of diverse shops, restaurants, malls small and large as well as several hotels that make this a convenient and exotic base from which to explore the rest of Vancouver.
I always start a Richmond visit with shopping, contemporary Asian-style, at the curvy, modern Aberdeen Centre (4151 Hazelbridge Way; aberdeencentre.com) designed by Hong Kong/Canadian architect Bing Thom. On my last trip I held the door open for Wing Chan who was moving twisted bonsai masterpieces from his van into the mall’s atrium. “There’s a big exhibition this weekend,” he shouted above the scream of a plane overhead on its final approach. “Reminds me of Kai Tak,” I shouted back, remembering extreme skyscraper-top landings into Hong Kong’s old airport. Chan laughed, nodded and gave a thumbs-up.
Aberdeen is the place if you’re in the market for a Lamborghini or high-end Asian fashion. There’s also Giordano — the Asian Gap — and Daiso, a Japanese chain where almost everything is $2. And I never miss the unique Cube boutique where creators “rent” a small, glass-fronted cube space to exhibit their arts, crafts and imports without investing in their own store.
Then there are frequent cultural exhibits in the atrium — like traditional Chinese painting, pottery or dance demonstrations — alongside a massive fountain that geysers with sound and light towards a stellar upper-level food court. Also worth a stop is the Fisherman’s Terrace restaurant (4151 Hazelbridge Way; tel: 604-303-9739), for dim sum, lunch and dinner.
Stacey Chyau of Richmond Tourism agrees to show me places I’ve never been, like the low key, single-level Hong Kong-style mall called Parker Place (4380 No. 3 Road; parkperplace.com), a labyrinth of tiny shops stuffed with value fashion, jewellery and home goods. In the food court, Stacey introduces me to Singapore pork and beef jerky and we share a Chinese Slurpee made with tofu, almond and red beans at the Cherry Fruit Juice & Icy Bar.
Asian food courts and supermarket take-out counters should not be dismissed as fast food as they generally have excellent traditional street and comfort foods. Then it’s over to Yaohan, a super-sized Japanese supermarket with an aquarium-caliber live seafood section. Stacey points out an aisle of fish sauces from Taiwan, Thailand, China, Vietnam and Japan. “When my parents come to visit from Taipei, they drool at the pan-Asian selection here,” she said, “especially the sauces and snacks from China they can’t buy there.”
Out on Eat Street
Richmond’s biggest draw is its cuisine, 400-plus restaurants that had a New York Times reporter claiming she tasted the “best Chinese food outside of China” here. Standards are high, even for cheap chopstick fare at mom-and-pop enclaves like Chen’s Shanghai Kitchen (8095 Park Road; tel: 604-304-8288). Dining out is such a big part of local culture that foodies have their own street within the Golden Village.
Alexandra Road or, in local lingo, Wai Sek Kai (“Eat Street”) is just four blocks long, but crammed with over 200 eateries. Don’t be shy — just open doors and poke your head into grand ballroom-style buffet dining rooms, hot-pot hot spots or Japanese barbecue hideaways. I love the rich Malaysian laksa soup and other Asian comfort food at the Cattle Café (4885 Kingsway, Burnaby; tel: 604-276-2800; cattlecafe.ca) and happily join the line-up for coconut buns and egg tarts at the wildly popular Kam Do Bakery (8391 Alexandra Road; tel: 604-284-5611).
But it’s the high end cuisine that really rocks in Richmond. Dim sum to die for like the three-mushroom dumplings — shitake, enoki and truffle oil —melts in your mouth at Jade Seafood Restaurant (8511 Alexandra Road; tel: 604-249-0082; jaderestaurant.ca). Like many of the best dining rooms in Richmond, a top Hong Kong-trained chef, Tony Luk, is in the kitchen and he walked away as 2011 Chef of the Year at the Chinese Restaurant Awards for such fusion successes as Balsamic prawns, lamb dumplings and braised Chinese short ribs. And dining out is generally reasonably priced. “In Hong Kong,” said Jade owner David Chung, “food of this quality would be more expensive 90 percent of the time.”
On weekends from May to September, Asian street food is on the local menu as well during the Summer Night Market on a four-hectare site where more than 20,000 visitors nightly stream in as the sun goes down. Mouth-watering Pan-Asian fare like satay, sizzling garlicky pork, shrimp dumplings, spicy noodles, grilled squid, even Hong Kong tofu pudding are whipped up and served at outdoor stalls. Finish up with junk food from bubble tea to dragon-beard candy.
It’s the only event of its kind in North America and with 240 stalls, the shopping section is paradise for kitsch-combers who wander beneath strings of lights among vendors willing to barter for everything from cheap cell phone accessories and Samurai swords to goldfish and all things Hello Kitty.
Where the fish is
One part of Richmond that has been synonymous with Asians for more than a century is the historic village of Steveston, Canada’s largest commercial fishing port. In its heyday 15 salmon canneries lined the Fraser River’s mouth, mostly staffed with Japanese and Chinese who rode from Vancouver’s Chinatown on a street car dubbed the “Sockeye Special.”
The restored Gulf of Georgia Cannery (pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/bc/georgia) is now an excellent National Historic Site. Rob Hart guided me through, pointing out a section of wall still covered with a thick layer of fish scales. Top paid employees were the Chinese men who could butcher four to five fish a minute. “In 1905, The Iron Chink was invented and put them out of work,” he said pointing at a hefty contraption. “It could remove a fish’s head, fins and guts in one second.”
These days the quaint village’s pier is a magnet for fresh seafood-mad Asians who pick up sea urchins, spot prawns and sable fish straight off rows of fishing boats. And from mid-November to mid-April, the twice-monthly Steveston Farmers and Artisans Winter Market (sfam.ca) moves into this historic building.
My last stop was at the great arched Richmond Oval (tel: 778-296-1400; richmondoval.ca; call to reserve table tennis lessons) built from pine beetle-infested wood as the 2010 Olympic speed skating venue. Now it’s a multi-sport complex including a unique new centre for excellence for table tennis, a popular Asian sport more commonly played in warehouses and basements.
Khen Ng was a Brunei national champion, an Olympic-caliber coach who showed me the “pen-hold style,” gripping the paddle as if it were a pen. “It’s like holding chopsticks,” he quipped, then taught me not only that ping pong is more about rhythm than hand/eye co-ordination, but that it’s a surprisingly good workout.
Afterwards, I finished the day cycling along the nearby dikes again for the first time in decades. These days they are the domain of the slimmest Canadians: a 2011 study found Richmond has the country’s lowest obesity rate. The elevated pathway is a perfect place to spot Richmond’s blend of west and east. With a backdrop of Vancouver’s snow-capped North Shore Mountains, I rode past a pair of Vietnamese women fast-walking, protected against the sun with traditional over-the-elbow white gloves while on my right, a pair of Chinese dragon boats glided by on the Fraser River.
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