A Brief History of Chinese Vancouver

The Chinese culture and population in Vancouver wasn’t always the way it is today. When most people think of Chinatown, they see the iconic arch-shaped gate that is located in the western part of the area, but that’s not the Chinatown that I remember from my childhood. For me, the picture above more closely resembles my memories.

Having been born and raised in Vancouver, you could say that I have see this town grow, change, and mature over the years into the multicultural city that it is today. We didn’t always have a T&T Supermarket. We did our shopping in Chinatown, buying fruit and vegetables in an open market, walking down the street to the butcher, fish shop, and bakery. These days, people are much more likely to flock to Richmond for the culture and food.

Let me preface this by saying that I am no historian, but based on a brief conversation that I had on Twitter with a few fellow Vancouverites, I felt that it may be a good idea to provide a brief history lesson on Chinese people living in Vancouver. The shifts and changes are probably mirrored in other major North American cities with large Chinese populations, like San Francisco, Toronto, and Calgary.

1950 – 1980s: The First Wave from Toi San

Growing up, this was the de facto Chinese culture that I knew. My father is of “Toi San” descent (known as Taishan in Mandarin and not to be confused with the Taiwanese township of the same name), so that was the language that I came to speak. You see, there is no such thing as a unified Chinese language. In the northern part of the country, most people speak Mandarin. In the Guangdong Province to the south (just above Hong Kong), Cantonese is the main language.

Toi San, Taishan, China

However, in the coastal county-level city called Toi San, my ancestors had a slightly different mother tongue. Some people refer to Taishanese as a dialect of Cantonese, but I almost feel that it is a different language altogether. It’s a little more crude and has an air of “village speak” for some people. In general, Toi San people can understand Guangdong Cantonese but usually not the other way around. Whatever the case, Toi San was the Chinese that I knew. In fact, that’s probably the Chinese that most people knew in North America up until the late 1980s.

According to Wikipedia, “as late as 1988, those with ancestry from Taishan accounted for 70% of Chinese Americans.” Aside from the people who were brought here to build the railroads, the Taishanese represented the first major wave of Chinese immigrants into North America. Mostly poor and outcast by Western European Canadians, these Taishanese immigrants formed Vancouver’s Chinatown in Canada’s poorest postal code. These days, it’s rare to hear anyone speak Toi San in public. Since my grandparents passed away, I haven’t spoken much of it either.

1990s: The Emerging Hong Kong Immigrant

As you may recall, Hong Kong was handed over from British rule to Chinese rule in 1997. Many Hong Kong businesspeople feared that the Chinese takeover would have a significantly negative impact on their businesses, so there was a major exodus to other parts of the world. Vancouver happened to be one of these destinations, so for the early to middle part of the 1990s, we saw a lot of Hong Kong immigrants.

Hong Kong Night Lights

Unlike the Taishanese immigrants that preceded them, many of these Hong Kong immigrants had money. Lots of money. With this money, they developed and shaped the suburb of Richmond into what it is today. They brought their culture, their food, and their way of life. They also brought their take on the summer night market, offering a taste of the Hong Kong street culture for displaced immigrants (and tourists).

Also unlike the Taishanese immigrants, these Hong Kong immigrants were educated and they expected their children to be highly educated as well. I think this batch of immigrants had a lot to do with the stereotype that Chinese people are good at math; they pushed their children to do well in university and college… and they could afford to pay for their tuitions, cars, and lifestyle.

2000s: Opening Up to Taiwan and Mainland China

Most recently, the face of Chinese Vancouver has changed again. In the last ten years or so, we’ve started to see many more immigrants come from Shanghai, Beijing and other parts of Mainland China. These people speak Mandarin, which is an entirely different language from the Taishanese and “Hong Kong” Cantonese that I had come to understand. Mandarin and Cantonese are about as different as Spanish and Italian; they may have some similar roots, but they’re not the same language.

T&T Supermarket - Asian Supermarket Chain

Again, the Chinese culture in Vancouver shifted to suit these new immigrants. It’s not like there weren’t any Mandarin speakers before; there are just a lot more of them now. This “invasion” of sorts also resulted in some mainstream exposure to Chinese-made movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Along with the educated and business-savvy immigrants from Mainland China, I’ve also noticed that there seem to be more people from Taiwan that are calling Vancouver home these days. Taiwanese is similar to Mandarin, but it’s not quite the same either.

It was from the Taiwanese businesspeople that we saw the arrival of bubble tea and T&T Supermarket, the latter of which is one of the largest supermarket chains in North America. (On a side note, T&T was recently purchased by Loblaws, owners of The Real Canadian Superstore.)

Multiculturalism Within Chinese Vancouver

From the outside looking in, some people may assume that the Chinese immigrant population is largely homogeneous. This could not be further from the truth. People from Toi San (Taishan) have an entirely different culture than those who trace their ancestry to Taipei, Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong.

You have to remember that China has a population of more than a billion people; it would be like assuming that everyone from a Western European nation has exactly the same culture. Because British fish and chips, French escargot, and Italian lasagna are one and the same, right? And there’s no difference between Protestants and Catholics, because they’re both Christian, right? The same can be said about Chinese food and culture.

(This post ran a little longer than I had anticipated, but I hope that it has been educational and entertaining.)