Nova Scotia

Beloved farmers market restaurant in Halifax set to close

After 35 years of serving food in Nova Scotia, a fixture at the Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market is shutting down.

Feb. 6 will be the last day for Chenpapa

Yi Chiao Chen and Pi Yeng Chen are the owners of Chenpapa at the Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market. (Connie Tsang)

After 35 years of serving food in Nova Scotia, a beloved Asian restaurant in the Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market is shutting down.

"It's very hard for me, too, but this time is good for us because when we moved to Halifax, we started working, working," said Pi Yeng Chen, the co-owner of Chenpapa, who everyone knows as Yen.

"We never stop. We just go, go, go." 

Chen and her husband, Yi Chiao Chen, immigrated to Halifax from Taiwan in 1976.

The couple first opened a convenience store in the south end, working long hours and taking turns being home with their two young children. 

Pi Yeng Chen and Yi Chiao Chen immigrated to Halifax from Taiwan in 1976 (Submitted by Pay Chen)

At one point, Chen was held up at gunpoint in the store and the couple realized they needed a change. 

A friend suggested making Chinese food, but Chen had no experience in a kitchen and had to visit a food court to discover what Canadian Chinese food even was.

But she gave it a chance, and ever since, the Chens have been serving noodles, dumplings, steamed buns and other savoury dishes around Halifax.

Their first restaurant opened in the food court of what used to be the West End Mall, which is now the Mumford Professional Centre.

However, the restaurant was forced to close less than two years later when the mall was renovated to make room for The Bay.

The Chens continued to operate small Chinese takeout restaurants in the 1980s and eventually opened a stall at the Keith's Brewery market.

Chenpapa's food became a market staple over the years, and when they opened a full-kitchen restaurant in the Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market in 2010, their customers followed.

"They have customers who've been seeing them for 30-plus years. They have some really loyal and long-time customers," said Pay Chen, the couple's daughter. 

"They have customers who come by who they have known since they were children and who now bring their own kids. So it's been that long. I know that for a lot of people, they see them as like a regular weekly fixture."

Pay Chen, the daughter of Pi Yeng and Yi Chiao, started an Instagram account for her parents so long-time customers can keep in touch with the couple. (Courtesy Pay Chen)

Simon Thibault, a food writer in Halifax, is one of the many long-time customers who will miss the Chens — and their food — at the weekend market.

"I think being a fan of a place like Chenpapa is really a question of not just going because the food is good, you go because you start to care about the people behind the counter and that happened to me a long time ago," Thibault said.

Thibault said it all started when he noticed a quiet gentleman serving noodles and dumplings at the brewery market. He struck up a conversation with the man and learned that he had immigrated to Halifax. Ever since, their weekend conversations about children, grandchildren and life have continued.

"I've gotten to know them over the years, enough to understand why they are so special, not just as people or as market regulars, but people who really tell the story of what it's like to move to this country and make a life for yourself and kids," he said.

Thibault said believes the Chens were "a pillar" of the market, who will be missed by many.

"There was just something about going in every week or every other week and getting so many goodies but with COVID happening, it's become increasingly difficult and even a little nerve-wracking to go to the market at times," he said.

Chenpapa wasn't immune to the COVID-19 pandemic. The market had shut down for a few months last spring and the restaurant had to temporarily close.

"I think that this good time. Of course, COVID," Chen said. "It's hard for everybody and even for us too but we still have many customer support. We are lucky."

With travel restrictions, lack of tourism and changes to the Seaport market, the Chens decided to close.

The Chens opened their first restaurant in what used to be called the West End Mall. (Submitted by Pay Chen)

Chen said she is thankful for the years of support from so many faithful customers.

"I just want to say, customers, thank you, thank you, thank you again and I very appreciate," she said. 

"Even market, everybody so nice to me and I very appreciate for that … I'll miss everyone too."

Chenpapa will officially close after their final Saturday at the market on Feb. 6.

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