Chinatown project helps shoppers understand their veggies

Claudia Li remembers grocery shopping every weekend in Chinatown with her grandmother when she was little. Strolling through the markets and eyeing the produce, her grandmother instantly knew which choices were in season.

“With our generation, we don’t necessarily have that knowledge,” said Li, 27, who was born in Richmond of parents who emigrated from Hong Kong.

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With The Choi Project, Li wants to promote food literacy like her grandmother’s across language barriers and with an eye for sustainability. Li is the co-founder and co-director of the Hua Foundation, a non-profit with the mission of honouring history and heritage while creating community-based solutions for social change. The foundation launched the project in June.

Choi means “vegetables” in Chinese.

The project is partnered with Chinatown Supermarket on Keefer Street. Signs with both English and simplified Chinese characters, less common than the traditional characters used by Chinatown’s mostly Cantonese population, have been added.

Li said the signs cater to Vancouver’s diversity of Asian immigrants, which include those from mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore among others. There is also phonetic pronunciation for Canadian-born Chinese who might be unfamiliar with reading Chinese characters and non-Asian residents moving into the neighbourhood.

“I think one of the biggest struggles that Chinatown has is the changing demographics,” said Li. “Part of the project is to support new residents to integrate better with the community and support those family businesses.”

It’s one of the reasons Ken Lau, owner of Chinatown Supermarket, got involved with the project. “There have been more non-Asian customers as well as more mainland China customers as well,” said Lau.

“As you can see, there are a lot of new buildings [in Chinatown] and that means new customers.”

In an interview with the Courier in 2003, Ming Ma, a store manager at Chinatown Supermarket, shared a hope that multilingual signs and staff would help attract more people to the historic community. Efforts for Chinatown revitalization have been made due to competing Asian communities in Richmond and other parts of Lower Mainland.

Today, Lau is happy to help with the cause. “It’s not just for me,” he said, “but for the whole of Chinatown and the whole economy.”

The Choi Project has produced a guide that explains what Chinese produce is grown in B.C. and when they are in season, especially helpful for those who might not be familiar some Asian fruits and vegetables.

Most of Chinatown’s produce comes from B.C. farmers who mainly sell to Chinatown. Lau said many farmers can’t sell to larger chain supermarkets as they only have a limited supply. This means fresher and cheaper produce for the customer. “B.C. is a lot closer than the U.S. or Mexico and the quality is better as vegetables maintain their water content,” said Lau.

The Choi Project is preparing to launch a series of community cooking workshops in the fall. Elders will be invited to teach traditional dishes.  

“There’s a pattern of celebration and culture being around food and because it’s such a central part to how we identify as a culture and a community, it’s kind of a perfect gateway for us to talk about sustainability,” said Li.

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