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A Chinese restaurateur with 20 years of experience in Vancouver talks about his concerns and hopes

Development Status and Concerns of Chinese Food in Vancouver

When taking a closer look at Chinese food in Vancouver, one will discover that each restaurant has its categories of consumers: locals, old overseas Chinese, high-end Chinese, international students, travelers, old and new immigrants. They all have their preferences. Chinese restaurants in Vancouver have shown that they do not need to attract local customers: there are enough Chinese customers to support them. Thus, there is a tendency of involution, making it difficult for Chinese restaurants to develop other markets.

However, this situation is only limited to Vancouver, Richmond, and Burnaby. It is not the case in areas with less Chinese, such as Surrey or Langley.

Many people are very pessimistic about the Chinese catering industry’s development: the total number of customers has continuously declined for the past two years. The consumption in Vancouver relies on travelers rather than local consumers. When the number of travelers decreases as Covid-19 strikes, the consumptions also decline dramatically.

Chinese restaurants in Vancouver have reached a point of desperation. Unlike some newer restaurants, the average age of chefs in Guangdong Restaurants’ kitchen is 60 years old. The waiters are also between 50 and 60 years old. There are very few young people in this industry: Some black-suit managers in large restaurants are still working even at 70.

Because no one is willing to work in this industry, I expect more than half of the Chinese restaurants to shut down in the next ten years if there is no improvement of government policies regarding the Chinese catering industry. The catering market is a low-end market: dirty, challenging, and tiring. Because many people cannot afford the hardship, the number of people who want to learn about it is continuously decreasing.

Not only the Chinese restaurants but also local ones are facing the same problem. “I teach how to make Chinese and Western cuisine in a high school in Burnaby. Students start their education in Grade 11, with morning classes being academic courses, and afternoon classes being practical exercises. They can find pretty decent jobs right after graduation, including jobs in 5-star hotels in Vancouver. However, the number of students decreases by the year; young people do not want to learn how to do this line of work, not even for free.”

Comparing to local westerners, the Chinese are in a worse position. If they want to make authentic Chinese food, the chefs must come from China. Then, the minimum language requirement is to score at least 5.0 on IELTS. But many people who meet the requirements can choose to go to college: they are not limited to work as a chef.

Hence, unless they want to immigrate to North America, not many people from mainland China want to travel this far to Canada. For instance, the salary in China was only one or two thousand Yuan several years ago, and Americans offer you 3000 dollars. But now, the incomes in China and North America are basically the same and not as attractive as they used to be.

The government of Canada also knows about the current situation, and they are trying to make a change. Kitchen Helper has become a shortcut to immigration. However, many people changed their careers afterward while only very few of them can stick to the job.

We are short-handed in the first place. It is not easy to secure the current group of customers with good services, and we do not have the resources to develop a more extensive market anymore.

The history and inheritance of Chinese food in North America

Chinese food has more than 180 years of history in North America. The first Chinese restaurant opened in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Later in the Qing Dynasty, Li Hongzhang’s visit pushed Chinese food to its climax in North America. His visit also left “Chop Suey”, a prominent part of American Chinese cuisine. It is also the origin of the name “ZaSuiGuan” in Chinese.

Since the first Chinese that came to North America were from TaiShan, GuangDong, the flavor was also light. Low-end consumers were targets of these Chinese restaurants. Except for Chinese people, South American workers such as Mexicans, who have lower social status and spending power were also the primary consumers — they love sweet, spicy, and fried food.

Limited by the transportation conditions at that time, the most common type of seasoning sauce shipped from mainland China to North America was soy sauce. When combined with peppers from Central and South America, the fixed flavor of Chop Suey is formed. The celebrity effect also produced General Tso’s Chicken and DaQian Beef.

Several years ago, the Chinese food Obama’s family had during Christmas was the typical Chop Suey in North America: fried rice, spring rolls, sweet and sour pork were packed in white fast-food boxes with small pagodas printed on it.

As China and America’s relationship becomes closer, North Americans are gradually accepting the cheap Chinese food. During the Great Depression in the 1920s, western-style seasoning sauces like catchup and lemon juice also entered Chinese restaurants. As a result, famous dishes like sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken, almond chicken has formed Hibiscus-Style Dishes on Chinese restaurants’ menu.

After the end of World War II, the government of the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan, and many high-end chefs went to America. High-end Chinese restaurants like the one opened by the private chef of JiangJieshi broke into the North American market for the first time.

With the reform and opening-up of mainland China’s economy, there are more personnel exchanges between China and America. More and more high-end Chinese restaurants have opened in America’s big cities. Their main consumers are locals who understand the current Chinese market and high-end Chinese consumers come to North America. But Chop Suey and the Peking Duck, which went famous during the US-China honeymoon period, are still the kind of Chinese food known by most North Americans.

Because of the intensified friction between America and China in recent years and the anti-corruption campaign in Mainland China, high-end Chinese restaurants in big cities in North America have come to their trough. Aside from politics, the main reason behind the phenomenon is North Americans’ consumption habits and their recognition of Chinese restaurants. DaDong Roast Duck permanently closed in New York is one of the best examples.

More than a decade ago, the mainstream of Chinese food was Chop Suey. As the number of Chinese people and wealthy Chinese in Canada increases, Chop Suey was gradually eliminated from the market. A good example would be the largest Chinese fast food in America: Panda Express. Only local North Americans are their customers, and actual Chinese do not go there for Chinese food.

In recent years, Chinese restaurants run by the younger generation have come to Vancouver. This type of newly-formed restaurants mainly focus on hot-pots and BBQ, and international students dominate their consumers.

China’s economy is continually developing, so does the influence of Chinese food in the world. If the local investors find the business of Chinese food is profitable, they will invest in it. These investors will also ask for consortiums to do these things instead of relying on self-employment.

Difficulties in culture diffusions of Chinese food

Many North Americans have entirely different understandings of Chinese food cultures than actual Chinese people. Chinese, or Chinese Chefs, often think that Chinese food is the best in the world. But the truth is we have been cooking Chinese food in North America for almost 200 years. It has been around 160 years since 1840. From the first group of people who went to San Francisco during the Gold Rush to the present, Chinese restaurants, in the eyes of North Americans, are always dirty and messy.

When Chinese kitchens appear in western movies, most of them are dirty and messy. Even in reality, it is not uncommon to see Chinese restaurants being shut down due to hygiene problems. The Chinese catering industry has indeed improved a lot compared to the past. But in North America, many Chinese restaurants are still powerless in front of expensive human resources and equipment.

Of course, the kitchen environment of Chinese restaurants is related to food processing procedures. Unlike North Americans who like to eat pre-made food, Chinese people prefer to prepare raw ingredients.

In addition, the New York Times and other mainstream media have reported that Chinese food is unhealthy. For example, they said that a dish from Chinese restaurants contains too much sodium and fat. However, these media often do not realize the eating habits of Chinese people. Most Chinese people share the dishes instead of eating by themselves. Sometimes, one dish in China is for 6 to 10 people to share and they order multiple dishes. Hence, when scientists are running tests, they will undoubtedly think the amount of oil and fat is too high for one person. Thinking about these people who wrote these reports, it is hard to know to what extent they understand Chinese food.

In the future, communication between different people and societies will increase, and it will become more tolerant. Good restaurants will always be found. Many locals in Vancouver go to Chinese restaurants because they went to China and tasted real Chinese food. Then, they discovered that the Chinese cuisine they once knew is not the same as the actual Chinese food. As a result, they gradually accepted and started to like Chinese food.

Therefore, the promotion of Chinese culture becomes an indispensable part. It is also a process that cannot be forced. Some so-called “cultural promotions” in some restaurants are driven by money rather than the true interests in culture promotions. It is useless to use propaganda to promote culture. Instead, one should immerse him/ herself in the culture and feel it with his/ her heart.

Japanese cuisine in the Western world is a good example. The locals in Vancouver know how to use chopsticks. But they did not learn it from eating Chinese food; they learned it from eating Sushi. It is also common to see local people sitting in Japanese restaurants. While they are enjoying Japanese food, they are also immersed in its culture. Over time, Japanese culture has been widely accepted and has become a part of their every-day lives.

Hence, if the Chinese catering industry wants to develop in North America, they need to learn from western and Japanese cuisines. They also need to take the initiatives to take on more social responsibilities and to have the concept of open kitchens. In this way, more people can learn that Chinese food is healthy and clean. Then, the development of this industry in North America can move away from politics and get closer to people from all cultures.

  • The narrator Franklin Pan is the owner of Shanghai Wonderful Restaurant

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