Cantonese-Canadian farms could hold key to future

Hiding in plain sight for decades, the Lower Mainland’s Chinese-dominated produce industry points the way toward self-reliance – but is in danger of fading away due to neglect

Kevin Huang, co-founder and executive director at the non-profit Hua Foundation, wants to raise awareness about produce grown in B.C. by Chinese-Canadian farmers | Submitted

Despite an increased public focus on sustainable food production and the benefits of “eating local” in the Lower Mainland and throughout B.C., the region’s homegrown produce industry is in danger of a steep decline or even outright disappearance within the next generation, officials say.

The reason, observers say, is that B.C.’s produce sector has been dominated by Chinese-Canadian farmers for more than a century.

And many Vancouverites who want to support local produce simply aren’t aware of the existence or scale of that sector, because that community has largely been driven into the “shadows of public awareness” as a result of racially motivated provincial policies in the 1930s that have lasting effects to this day.

“I do find it ironic, and it’s partially due to the fact that a lot of minority communities’ and settlers’ contributions have been written out of our history,” said Kevin Huang, co-founder and executive director at the Hua Foundation, whose Choi Project has been trying to raise awareness about B.C.-grown produce. “We don’t have it in our public psyche, the recognition that we’ve been living off of this production system for so long. You don’t have to be of Chinese descent to have benefited from this; Chinese-Canadian farmers have been supplying the entire region for decades.”

Huang says that, in addition to the well-publicized disappearance of traditional Chinese grocery stores in Chinatown due to gentrification and changing demographics, a number of Chinese-Canadian grocers and farmers are increasingly concerned that the whole system – vertically integrated from growers to distributors – may vanish if it doesn’t receive more support from the general public.

The threat to locally grown produce comes despite rising interest from municipal governments to support the eat-local movement following the publication in 2007 of The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating by Vancouver couple J.B. MacKinnon and Alisa Smith.

The City of Vancouver released its food strategy in 2013, for example, actively promoting having “local food markets” and “growing our own food.” But two business owners who spoke to Business in Vancouver on condition that their identities be protected – “Blaine,” the manager of a long-standing, family-run Chinese restaurant, and “Victor,” a grocery owner in Chinatown – both expressed frustration in shrinking markets for local produce and food products.

“It used to be that families were coming to Chinatown to buy groceries,” Victor said. “Now, it’s just seniors. What happens then? If I don’t have my volume – and if you have to compete with the prices from the likes of T&T – you are not going to survive. Whereas you used to have families coming in to buy different things, you now only have one old lady coming in to buy one drumstick. How can I survive on that?”

Blaine said part of the problem is that non-Chinese-legacy consumers continue to think of Chinese restaurants – major patrons of locally grown produce – as “foreign” because the clientele often speaks languages other than English. He added that those clients, often the older, Cantonese-speaking Chinese-Canadians who have been in Vancouver for decades, are declining in number simply due to age, in a similar way that the farmers themselves are also aging out of the market.

“We’d like to see more business, especially from the English-speaking, non-Chinese community,” Blaine said. “Chinatown was based on Cantonese people. You look around today; where are they? They are not here…. Of course we want people to buy local, to support local. We are not an international business.”

According to a 2011 study at Simon Fraser University, Chinese-Canadian farmers accounted for 90% of the vegetables grown in B.C. in 1921 – before the province began to enact laws to regulate the industry in 1927. The regulation targeting Chinese-Canadian farmers – which culminated in the Potato War incident in 1935 when Delta farmer Chung Chuck was beaten for trying to sell potatoes grown outside of Vancouver in the city – was enforced only against Chinese farmers, said University of British Columbia (UBC) history professor Henry Yu.

Since that time, the local B.C. produce sector has evolved into a model that relies on its own, often Chinese-Canadian-run, system of distributors, grocers and restaurants that largely depended on the Cantonese-Chinese population in the Lower Mainland for support. When that segment of the population began to shrink after 1997, the industry’s key market began to wane with it.

For Yu, who pointed to the 2012 YouTube documentary Covered Roots for a more in-depth look at Chinese-Canadian farming in the Lower Mainland, the return of the public consciousness to the importance of a local farming supply network should come with an appreciation and support of the system that Chinese-Canadian farmers built.

“That’s the weird thing when people today talk more and more about sourcing and eating local and the 100-mile diet,” Yu said. “It’s been here all this time…. And it’s still here, but the larger market forces … bring new produces from other countries that have eclipsed the local market. A lot of activists talk about sustainable local agriculture, and they had no idea of this. When we talked about Chinese farms in Covered Roots, that was the first time a lot of people had heard of it.”

While some of these farmers have successfully upscaled (H.Y. Louie Co. Ltd., run by Chinese community stalwarts the Louie family, has owned IGA since the 1950s and continues to be a major player in the food distribution industry in B.C. and beyond), Yu said many farm operations have remained small to medium-sized. Those farmers are the ones worst hit by the lack of new blood, since many of the children of these farmers did not want to take over the business.

Adding to the problem is the new wave of Chinese immigrants in the 2000s from mainland China. These new immigrants from China are largely urban and wealthy, and have no emotional or cultural connection to older Chinese-Canadians or to farming.

“Farming reform was what revolutionized the Chinese economy,” Yu said. “The ability for China to feed itself and more … that’s one of the reasons you can enable the rural-to-urban shift in China, but it’s also one reason why fewer and fewer people coming to Canada are farmers; farming in China has become more and more lucrative. If you are going to be here, migrants are now urban, and they want to go into white-collar jobs.”

In many ways, the new Chinese community in Metro Vancouver not only has not helped the Chinese-Canadian food business’ older generation, but also has introduced new competition. Restaurant manager Blaine said more and more salespeople from Mandarin-speaking Chinese groups have come to the restaurant in the past decade touting cheaper produce – often grown in other overseas markets like China.

“The newer Chinese immigrants – Mandarin-speaking, from northern China – they go to supermarkets or their own networks,” Blaine said, noting that the new wave of Chinese residents in the Vancouver area accounts for less than 20% of his business. “A lot of people outside the Chinese community can’t distinguish between the two groups. And if you can’t see the difference, you wouldn’t know. They’ve been building their own networks in Richmond.”

Last August, the Richmond News reported an underground food market growing in the city, with people using Chinese social media like WeChat to facilitate the sale of cooked or raw food, often from the trunks of cars in parking lots or on the street.

In addition, grocery store owner Victor said these newer Chinese residents in Vancouver have a very different perception of value when buying food, meaning that they often shun the traditional small Chinatown grocers that local produce farmers rely on to sell goods.

“You tell them that we have something at a lower price, and they come here and see the place is kind of rundown, and they think it’s a cheap place so they don’t buy from us,” Victor said. “They look at the sales price as a reflection of value.… Mom-and-pop stores have to sell it at a lower price, because they need to have a draw [versus big chains]. But the newer Chinese community doesn’t see it as a draw; they see it as lower quality.”

UBC’s Yu said the solution may lie in finding other communities that are more open to farming as a possible solution for reviving the local produce system from the growers’ side.

He noted that there are several examples of one ethnic community passing off an industry to another group: the Jewish community transferring the textile industry in Argentina to Korean workers in the 1990s, or the doughnut shops in Southern California, once predominantly European-run, ceding to the Cambodian-Chinese community in the last few decades.

“Maybe the people who come in [to grow produce in B.C.] aren’t Chinese,” Yu said, noting a number of farms in the Fraser Valley are run by Punjabi families – one of the last rural-to-rural migrant groups coming to Canada. “Maybe it is about recognizing and having more people who are non-Chinese who are coming in. To me, it’s not about keeping it Chinese; it may be temporary foreign workers from Mexico already working on our farms.

“I’m not advocating a full-scale overhaul in immigration policy to bring in more farmers, but if you give more points for farming expertise, and you move the agribusiness model from one of having a lot of migrant workers to one encouraging the rise of small entrepreneurial farms, then you’d have two beneficial policies that don’t require a system overhaul.”

On the front of increasing consumer awareness of local produce, Huang said it is up to everyone, including the Chinese-Canadian farmers themselves who have been shying away from co-operation with other communities to continue their business, to start breaking down these “parallel economies” that exist in B.C., to help local farmers of all backgrounds to raise their market potential.