Ken Ng mixes a batch of tart filling

Changes in Victoria’s Chinatown

Chinatown is becoming less about traditional community and more about selling the image, business owners say

The Victoria BBQ House and Bakery in Chinatown is a cozy little shop, the kind of place one can imagine growing up around as a kid.

Helen Ng, 19, enjoyed that experience with her younger brother, Jacky, now 16. She still pops in to see her parents, Ken Ng and Ling Tang, every so often after classes at the University of Victoria, “just to chill.”

Are she or Jacky destined to follow in their parents’ footsteps and one day take over the business?

“I want to do my own thing,” says Helen, who plans to study criminology at Simon Fraser University next year. “They sometimes jokingly ask me, or say you should continue this. But really, I always thought I’d do something else.”

Jacky is a computer science whiz who doesn’t spend a great deal of time in the shop.

The Ngs’ story is common around Victoria’s Chinatown. Parents who have owned and operated businesses in the neighbourhood for years as a way to support their families have encouraged their children to pursue post-secondary education and make something more of their lives.

“Running a business is hard and I don’t want my children to have to work as hard,” Ken says through the interpretation of Helen. “Sometimes we work 10 hours a day.”

Less Chinese customers now, says business owner

While to the outsider or infrequent visitor, there are still plenty of shops and restaurants that allow a sampling of Chinese culture – the iconic red Gate of Harmonious Interest, built in 1981, is a favourite photo subject – the behind-the-scenes make up of Chinatown is becoming less about traditional community and more about selling the image.

Many longtime merchants have left in the 12 years that Ng and Tang have run their shop  at 1714 Government St., he says.

“Some stores have closed down, some have become other types of stores and some were sold to different people,” Ng says.

Not only are there less people from China running businesses in the area, Ng believes Chinese Victorians are frequenting the area less often.

Business is not without its bright spots, however. Tang says a woman from Toronto who lived in the city 10 years ago and was a regular customer recently stopped by to pick up some items and have a short visit.

“Many of  our parents had businesses in Chinatown due to necessity,” says Victoria Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe, a third-generation Chinese resident of the region.

“It was always their dream for their children not to take over the business, but to do better by getting an education and a more secure job that included health benefits and pensions. My father worked in restaurants and owned a shoe store when I was growing up. He never wanted any of the children to take over.”

Thornton-Joe made a career in the food and beverage industry after graduation from UVic, although not in Chinatown, but says her father would have rather she became a teacher or work in government, like other children of Chinatown merchants.

Business owners discuss changes

Over on Fisgard Street, 64-year-old Vicky Low is looking forward to retirement. A partner with her siblings in the popular Golden City Restaurant for nearly 25 years, she would sell the business anytime for the right price.

Six-and-a-half day weeks wear her down. She would consider working part-time for someone else, since she still enjoys the business.

“Before the restaurant business I ran a corner store,” she says. “But a corner store is too dull. A restaurant is more exciting. After you do a big function, if the group enjoys it, you feel good.”

Her three children – two daughters and a son –  are in their 30s and have their own lives and careers on which to focus.

Son Daniel, 34, is in sales at Three Point Motors and does well with Asian clients given his ability to speak Mandarin and Cantonese. He ran Opium restaurant at Pandora Avenue and Government Street for a while but eventually moved out of the business.

Vicky notes it is hard to find Chinese chefs to work in local restaurants these days. Younger people who immigrate generally have more money than older workers still in the business had when they came from China, she says, and they aren’t looking for restaurant jobs. It’s tough to lure young Chinese people from Vancouver as well, she says, since they are more interested in the pay level and entertainment options than the job.

Acknowledging the appeal of staying in Chinatown, she likes her daughter-in-law’s idea of opening a Chinese tea or import business in the area.

As for the future of the neighbourhood, the oldest Chinatown in Canada, Helen foresees further change.

“I think it’ll be different. Old people come down to Chinatown not only for groceries, but they stay awhile to talk to shop owners and friends. Things will keep changing and I feel they won’t come as often because the family feel is not there.”

Development in Chinatown

Not only are traditional businesses changing ownership, the landscape in Chinatown is also changing. Projects either completed or in progress include:

• The Union condominiums on Fisgard Street and Pandora Avenue

• 601 Herald St., (four storeys, 27 condo units)

• The Janion building on Store Street

•  Removal of shelter services from Streetlink on Store Street

 

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