Filmmakers channel love of food to document stories of Richmond Night Market vendors
Night Market Neighbours series, part of CBC's Creator Network, aims to show how food brings people together
Two Vancouver filmmakers are dishing up the stories of food vendors at the Richmond Night Market, a long-running popular summer spot for tourists and residents alike, in a new series.
Jonah Lee-McNamee said he and Shiun Okada channeled their passion for food to create Night Market Neighbours, part of CBC's Creator Network.
"I think what it comes down to is just a deep and passionate love for food," Lee-McNamee told The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.
"Especially as a half Korean person, Korean food, to me, holds such a special place in my heart."
Since Lee-McNamee, 24, graduated from UBC with an English degree in 2020, he's written, directed and produced several short narrative and documentary films. Okada, 24, has a fine arts degree from UBC, and has been making films for about 15 years.
The pair met at a Vancouver Asian Film Festival networking event in November 2021, and became friends while working on the set of a short film together the following week.
When Lee-McNamee came up with the idea for the project, he brought on Okada to be the cinematographer and co-producer.
The series, which features two very different stories from two vendors at the market, is free to watch on CBC Vancouver's YouTube channel.
Lee-McNamee said he met the young entrepreneurs featured in the series by simply wandering the market in May, searching for a story to tell.
"It really was just going into the night market, kind of scoping it out and looking for those vendors that had a little twinkle in their eye that drew me in," he said.
He came across Toby Lo and Jeffrey Jiang "cooking up a storm" and serving up their creations as a large crowd gathered around their booth, Tochi, where they make Hong Kong-style French toast.
Wanting to put their new business and marketing degrees to use after graduating from the the British Columbia Institute of Technology last November, Lo and Jiang decided it was time to take a chance on starting their own business.
They hit upon the idea of serving up Hong Kong-style French toast, a dish they both loved as children, and worked for months to perfect a recipe.
They said their parents weren't as excited to hear of their plans, but were supportive nonetheless.
"I get that, it's a big risk," said Lo.
They spent long nights in the kitchen testing recipes, trying to make the perfect Hong Kong French toast using mochi, a rice cake made of mochigome, Japanese sweet rice.
Now, they're running their booth full time, drawing in customers with their gooey, fried delicacy.
"It's so soft and so fluffy, it's sweet yet savoury," Jiang said.
"When you bite into it, it should feel like a warm blanket hugging you," Lo said, adding that his family is "super proud" of him now.
Chef James Xin Jiang Man
James Chen, also known as Chef James, and his family were profiled in a TikTok video that came across Lee-McNamee's and Okada's social media feeds.
Lee-McNamee says he was interested in the passion shared by Chen and his children, and felt they'd make the perfect feature.
Their booth at the night market, Chef James Xin Jiang Man, has been operating since 2007. Chen and his kids Kelvin, 31, and Lillian, 22, make specialty dishes from Chen's home province of Xinjiang, China, such as cumin lamb buns, stir-fried yellow noodles and five-spice chicken.
Chen is known at the market for his animated calls out to the crowd.
"The energy at their booth is unmatched," Lee-McNamee said.
Chen said what makes his experience at the night market so special is having his family there with him, working toward the same goal.
"It looks hard, but it's so sweet because the whole family [is] there to help each other," he says in the documentary. "We feel like a strong team."
At one time, Kelvin was commuting between Richmond and Seattle, where he was working at a tech start-up, to help his family run their booth at the market on weekends.
Lillian, who is studying business at Simon Fraser University, said at first it felt like she was giving up her weekends for the booth, but now it's become a priority because family is so important to her.
"I'm happy to be there, because I know being there supports us," she said.
'Food is a way of showing love'
While he was looking for great stories from the night market, Lee-McNamee said simply profiling booths with great food was important, too.
Although he's highlighting specific vendors and the dishes they're known for, he said the bigger story in this series is how food brings people together.
"Food is a way of showing love. It's a way of showing emotion, passion," he said.
With files from The Early Edition