During the frenetic days of the mid-1800s gold rush, Vancouvers Chinese were confined to a restricted ghetto. Only in recent years has the Canadian citys Chinatown, a place known for classical gardens, historic landmarks, exotic and diverse foods, ethnic cookware and exotic herbal medicine shops, been identified with a colorful new Pender Street entry gate.
Inspired by an awareness of the publics ignorance about Chinatown, fourth-generation Vancouverite Robert Sung developed a cultural and culinary tour of the area. A proud century of local history made Sung realize that “these bustling streets of Chinatowns Keefer and Pender streets could be overwhelming to the uninformed.”
Sungs grandfather migrated to Vancouver in 1910, about the same time as Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. “The doctor worked as a Freemason, while my grandfather established and became the first editor of the Chinese Times.”
This historic background makes it appropriate that Sungs half-day weekend tours begin in the garden of his grandfathers friend, who became a revered figure in China as a revolutionary and political leader.
Three hundred artisans helped build the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Gardens Ting pavilion without the use of nails. Teak wood was molded with a tongue-and-groove technique. The steel rooftop is pointed “to ward off evil spirits.” There is ying and yang to the place. Symbolic plants in the garden include bamboo, for strength and pliability, and gingko trees, for long life. Most of the wood and stone was imported from Shanghai, and throughout the garden, visitors find solace, some taking time to meditate while gracefully performing a few of the hundred movements of tai chi.
Departing the tranquil garden, the congestion of busy sidewalks is consuming. Sung pointed to Jack Chows 6-foot-wide-by-100-foot-long building, just inside the Chinatown gates. The building was formerly an opium and bathhouse den of iniquity.
Before visiting the many markets lining Pender and Keefer streets, a stop at Ming Wo, a store featuring cooking supplies, was in order.
Sung explained that the best wok is forged on rolled steel. It needs to be “aged” by cleaning and curing it with vegetable oil. He cautioned to never use olive oil, because it will burn. After the wok is seasoned, garlic and ginger — peeled with a spoon, then chopped — are the basic flavors for cooking most Chinese dishes. Most wok cooking can be quickly stir-fried or steamed by placing a wooden basket inside the stainless wok.
While walking down Keefer Street, opera music could be heard from second-floor windows along with clicking mahjongg tiles from games being played at Yip Lang, the oldest building in Chinatown.
“Chinese culture gravitates around food,” Sung said as he headed up the stairs of the Garden Villa Seafood Restaurant. Lunch was an introduction to the tasting of chicken feet and dumplings made of taro root with pork and shrimp.
For dessert, there were sweets at the Maxims and New Town bakeries followed by a stop at Ten Lee & Ginseng Company. The restorative ginseng tea is an expensive, acquired taste.
At an herbal medicine shop, jars of abalone were selling for $950 Canadian a pound, and bird nests, also considered a delicacy, were $448 Canadian for about a quarter of a pound.
Both Pender and Keefer streets are lined with small markets. Sung pointed out different mushrooms, unfamiliar fruits and dried specialties like shrimp, oysters, squid and small fish. Stopping at the Dollar Meat Store, Sung noted that “the whole chicken, its head and feet intact, is an important belief of the Chinese.”
The completion of the tour was at Ching Chung Taoist Temple. Nuns were praying while other worshippers lit incense sticks, then took a numbered card, filed in a cabinet, to read the answer to their prayer.
After a brief stop to sample some faddish bubble tea (made with tapioca and served with a huge straw), with full stomachs and a yearning to learn more, we said goodbye to Chinatown, grateful to Sung for helping us to better understand its hustle and bustle.
Information: 1-604-736-9508 or www.awokaround.com. The tour, including lunch, is $95 Canadian.