More than just comfort and familiarity? Chinese and Italian food shops in Vancouver

Written by Alexandra Chipperfield, under the supervision of Dr. Gaoheng Zhang.

Vancouver’s Chinatown was first incorporated in 1886, when it emerged on Carrall Street and East Pender (formerly Dupont Street). What began as the headquarters for a community of roughly 90 Chinese residents has now grown to become one of North America’s largest Chinatowns. In fact, it sits just third in size behind only San Francisco and New York City. Today the neighbourhood retains a close cultural connection to its historical Chinese roots and traditions: many specialty stores, restaurants, and service shops operate there serving the greater Chinese community in various ways. As a cohesive locality, with its own unique blend, Chinatown continues to carry a deep social, political and architectural value that has now spanned for generations among the Chinese populations in Canada.

With Vancouver being the incredibly ethnically diverse city we know it is, it’s no surprise that only a little distance away (less than three kilometres from Chinatown), we find ourselves in another remarkably diverse neighbourhood, that of Grandview-Woodland. Stretching from Clark Drive to Nanaimo Street, this community has distinguished itself for its strong Italian ties. It has become “home” to many Italian migrants who arrived in Vancouver following World War One. While Grandview-Woodland differs somewhat from Chinatown in that it encapsulates a much wider area, it provides Italians with much the same range of services as Chinatown does vis-a-vis the Chinese. The Grandview-Woodland radius has arguably become a retreat for Italian-Canadians in the city: it is full of hidden Italian cafes, restaurants, grocery stores and artisanal shops.

As the daughter of an Italian mother who immigrated to Canada, I have found myself exploring Vancouver’s ethnic diversity first-hand through an Italian lens. Meanwhile, I have come to experience the Chinese perspective in the city through my half-Chinese partner. As I embarked on this project, I began to make frequent trips to both Chinatown and Grandview-Woodland. Very quickly, one similarity I found between both neighbourhoods resonated with me in particular: the sheer number of food shops (bakeries, produce stores, butchers, deli markets, restaurants) clearly outweighed other store types. My quest for the project became an exploration of why food shops were the most prevalent type of stores in these communities. More specifically, I wished to examine the significance that food shops carry for people who make frequent trips to Chinatown and the Grandview-Woodland area.

Coming from the Italian perspective, I have always frequented Grandview-Woodland. What might be interesting to note is that, despite living a long, thirty minute, commute away, my family routinely makes a Saturday visit to the neighbourhood. One of our favourites is Renzullo Food Market. Established in 1964 by Carmelo and Raffaella Renzullo, the place has become a one-stop-shop for us to buy all the traditional products imported from Italy that we long for. A place of habitual ease where to pick up some real sopressa veneta, baked taralli pugliesi, or even the Felce Azzurra brand soap I used to wash my hands with as a child in Italy. On one Saturday morning visit, however, I noticed that Renzullo was much more than just a place of familiarity and ease. It was also reassurance. Conceived as a gathering place, it is not surprising to walk in and see older Italians, many of whom immigrated from Italy, watching a soccer game on TV in the store. One day, while speaking to Franco Valenti, who now runs the store with his wife Mirella Renzullo, he shared that many Italians were able to foster and build diverse connections in his store. For example, through the store newly arrived Italians have been able to find employment opportunities, or even exchange information about available housing/rental openings.

While it was harder for me to get a similar perspective on the Chinese community in Vancouver, I was able to gain insight from my partner’s grandmother, Pui Fong. In a similar way to how my family visits Grandview-Woodland, she too routinely visits Chinatown, despite living quite some distance away. In fact, she recollects that following her arrival in Canada in 1961, she has always shopped in Chinatown. Pui Fong visited the food shops there, where she purchased the familiar food products she had always known from back home. This was important for her, as she was able to purchase food and to provide meals for her family without facing the language barrier. Unfortunately, when shopping for food outside Chinatown, the language barrier could become problematic for her. According to Pui Fong, she too feels a deep sense of reassurance by shopping at the typical Chinese food shops in Chinatown. Today, one of her favourite food shops is Zhao Mah Chinese Bakery on East Pender Street. Visiting the bakery allows her to experience the pleasure of getting her favourite cakes, pork buns, breads, and steamed dumplings for her grandchildren. Moreover, the visits provide her with a rich socializing experience. Pui Fong often makes the shopping trip to Chinatown together with her close friends. Inevitably, she runs into someone she knows there, and takes the time to stop and to chat and share stories. 

So, why do food shops, rather than other types of stores, foster these feelings of reassurance that I and Pui Fong experience? From what I have gathered from my trips to both neighbourhoods and from my talk with Pui Fong, the answer may revolve around the fact that food traditions are strongly associated with ethnic identities. Food is one of the basic human needs. But it also allows us to maintain our allegiance, and provides a way to keep our ethnic ties strong. But food is so much more: food shops serve a vital function in our communities in that they create opportunities to unite people from distinctive ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and to allow for conversations to build among them. This is true for Vancouver’s Chinatown and Grandview-Woodland. Food as a site for identity formation and maintenance provides one perspective to understand why the proportion of food shops is so much higher in these neighborhoods, and why they are more than just a source of comfort for the Italian and Chinese Canadian populations. 

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