British Columbia

Past and future of Vancouver's Chinatown showcased at new restaurant

In the heart of Vancouver's Chinatown a new restaurant is ringing in the Lunar New Year by celebrating traditional Chinese values while embracing the future of the neighbourhood.

'Everything doesn't need to be old and traditional but ... everything can't be new and different'

Chinatown BBQ is decorated with second-hand furniture from other, now closed, restaurants in the neighbourhood. (Michelle Eliot / CBC)

At the height of the Lunar New Year celebrations, in the heart of Vancouver's Chinatown, the proprietor of a new restaurant is working to revitalize a neighbourhood that has seen many traditional businesses disappear in recent years.

The City of Vancouver has been exploring ways to sustain the culture of Chinatown — local food suppliers like grocers, butchers and fish shops have been closing, often replaced by proposed condo developments and coffee shops.

The City says this is due to many factors, chiefly rising real estate prices and high property taxes.

Carol Lee is the owner of Chinatown BBQ, a restaurant that combines traditional Cantonese style cuisine with a modern sentiment.

The restaurant is on East Pender Street, close to Main Street.

Lee, daughter of former University of British Columbia chancellor Bob Lee, is an establishing member of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation and works with various organizations committed to preserving and rejuvenating the historic neighbourhood.

Lee had been working in Chinatown for over a decade and watched as many traditional businesses closed down.

"To me, it made me very, very sad," said Lee.

When the property for Chinatown BBQ became available, Lee leased it and dedicated the space to honouring past cultural values while also creating a successful business model for the future.

The Daisy Garden restaurant in Chinatown had recently burned down and Lee hired its staff for their unique set of culinary skills.

"I said 'if I build you this restaurant, would you work for me?' and they agreed to do that," said Lee during CBC's North by Northwest.

There's a worker shortage in the Lower Mainland, particularly in the restaurant industry, and the issue of finding staff who could cook traditional Chinese food was was exacerbated by Lee's inability to speak fluent Cantonese. Her new kitchen staff are fluent.

"I feel very lucky that I have them here with me," said Lee.

Chinatown BBQ's decor is accented by designs and furniture that would be found in older Chinese food restaurants. Many of the items are actually from eateries in the neighbourhood that have closed.

The walls are decorated with black and white photos of Chinese-Canadians who lived and worked in Chinatown throughout the last century.

The restaurant's walls echo Chinatown's past with photos of those who were influential in the neighbourhood's development. (Michelle Eliot / CBC)

"There's a lot of people who come in and see their relatives in the photographs and that makes me very happy," said Lee.

The menu is full of traditional Chinese meals like barbecue duck and soy chicken. 

Lee said the goal of the restaurant is not to keep Chinatown's character static, but rather to celebrate the past while embracing the future. She says many of her patrons have lived in Chinatown for decades and they feel at home in her establishment.

"Everything doesn't need to be old and traditional but ... everything can't be new and different," said Lee. "Otherwise it would just be any other neighbourhood."

With files from Michelle Eliot and North by Northwest