How Chinatown’s ‘Ding-Ho’ Once Ruled Vancouver’s Take-Out and Delivery Game

Christine Hagemoen resumes her You Should Know column by drawing attention to a Chinatown establishment that was ahead of its time in the 1950s and 60s.

Like many Vancouverites, since the start of the pandemic I’ve been ordering a lot more takeout and delivery. At first, I craved the comfort of the traditional delivery/take-out standbys like pizza and Chinese food, but that all changed as the variety of options exploded.

In order to survive these unprecedented times, businesses have really become creative. Now you can get almost anything delivered or prepped for take-out. I’ve had a flat of craft beer delivered free to my home (for someone without a car this is a godsend), eaten numerous take-out artisanal sandwiches al fresco, and on Thanksgiving enjoyed a take-out turkey dinner for three with all the fixin’s, to name but a few.

I don’t think any of us could imagine urban living today without the availability of home delivery. But did you know there was a time in the city’s culinary history when take-out food was rare, eating in your car was popular, and free home delivery wasn’t available except, curiously, for beer?!

Beer delivery ad. Source: Vancouver Sun, August 7, 1953.

While researching this article I was surprised to find numerous advertisements for home delivery of beer in the newspaper archives. Starting in 1947, Vancouverites could pick up the telephone and order cash-on-delivery beer in any amount from 12 bottles up.

Considering how antiquated BC’s liquor laws have been in the past (and some say still are), I was intrigued to find such a service available in the early 1950s , especially since this was still the era of the ‘bottle-club‘ and highly regulated beer parlours. Surely, it wouldn’t be long until this mid-century convenience would be adapted to deliver food directly to the customer’s door.

In August, 1953 an enterprising group of local investors opened the first Chinese food drive-in restaurant in Canada. Under the leadership of general manager Henry Chow, the “Ding Ho” opened at 30 East Pender on the site of a former gas station where the Chinese Cultural Centre now stands. The name was chosen because Ding Ho is Cantonese for “the best”.

Opening of Ding Ho Drive-in, The Province August 22, 1953.

Drive-ins have been around since the 1920s and ’30s, but its heyday was in the 1950s and 1960s when North American car culture really took off. As the ad below suggests, the informality of casual attire and the personal comfort factor of eating or watching a movie in your own vehicle was appealing to North Americans in this mid-century era. Drive-ins were also a great place for baby-boom families to eat together, where kids could be contained in the privacy of the car without the burden of trying to wrangle them inside the restaurant. (Just don’t forget that you wrapped your dental retainer in a napkin before the carhop takes the tray away like I did one time while dining at the old White Spot on Granville Street.)

Ad for Drive In theatre guide. Source: Vancouver Sun, May 26, 1952.

Joe Quan, the youngest son of Mount Pleasant’s enterprising Gow Quan family, whose father was one of the original investors, stated in a 1984 newspaper article that the concept behind the Ding Ho “was a very radical idea at the time”. Quan said it was “Henry Chow’s idea that a limited menu of Chinese food (with a few “Canadian” menu items thrown in for good measure) could be prepared for pickup or delivery”. Since no dining room or associated dining staff were needed, capital costs and overhead were low. The original Ding Ho building was only 700 square feet, located in the middle of a drive-in parking lot, housing a small kitchen with five woks over gas burners and a cold storage locker. A couple of small cars were kept at the rear for telephone delivery orders. The only standout was the fantastic animated neon sign (see photos at top and below) — totally de rigueur for the time and place.

Ding Ho neon sign. Screen still from British Pathé, Chinese Dragon Parade (1958) via YouTube.

In the early days of the Ding Ho Drive-In, Joe Quan recalled, it was all hands on deck: “The partners who weren’t involved full time in the operation used to come down a couple of nights a week to take phone orders”. A UBC student at the time, Quan also recalled busy Saturday nights when he’d “be in the kitchen, chopping up a 50-pound bag of onions, tears running down my cheeks.”

Former Vancouver Sun columnist Denny Boyd waxed philosophical about the important role the Ding Ho played in the “cross-cultural development of Vancouver” in one of his 1984 columns. He suggested that the Ding Ho was one of the “gustatorial breakthroughs, Great Moments in Grub…that have contributed to {Vancouver’s} restaurant sophistication and which made {Vancouverites} venturesome eaters”. Boyd explained that mid-century Anglo-Vancouverites “learned the early subtleties of Chinese food at the Ding Ho drive-in chain of the 1950s and 1960s”. The Ding Ho was the first Chinese restaurant to offer drive-in chow mein and one of the first restaurants to deliver hot sweet and sour boneless pork to your front door.

Menu for Ding Ho and two newspaper adverts for the restaurant. Photo: Ding Ho menu ca. 1964, Museum of Vancouver, H2011.24.14; The Province, September 1953; The Vancouver Sun, October 1959.

The food at Ding Ho was the type of Canadian Chinese food that journalist Ann Hui described in her engaging 2019 book, ‘Chop Suey Nation’:

This was “chop suey” cuisine, which is distinct from “authentic” Chinese food. The name “chop suey” translates more or less into “assorted mix,” and refers to a repertoire of dishes mostly developed in North America in the mid-20th century. A mix of ideas both East and West and, to my eyes, frozen in time.

Vancouverites who could not (or would not) venture into Chinatown to eat could get a taste of Chinatown delivered right to their home. It was via the Ding Ho that many Anglo-Vancouverites tasted their first fried rice, egg rolls, and Almond Guy Ding. It may not have been great Chinese food, but it was quick, hot, inexpensive and very popular. It was Chinese-Canadian fast food before there was a name for it.

The popularity of the Ding Ho meant that is was also the first Chinese restaurant to become a chain in Metro Vancouver, eventually growing to five locations: 30 East Pender, 2208 West 41st Avenue, 2557 Kingsway, 4524 East Hastings Street, and 2070 Marine Drive in North Vancouver (this location had a dining room). As competition for the home market increased, free home delivery of Chinese food and other types of food became the norm. Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Ding Ho chain, which started a significant food trend in this city, eventually could not compete in the crowded home delivery market and closed up shop in 1970.

Newspaper ads for The Horseshoe. Photo: The Province November 25, 1955; The Vancouver Sun December 1954.

Fun Fact: The Ding Ho can certainly claim the prize for the first Chinese Drive-In and chain in Vancouver, but it wasn’t necessarily the first to offer free home delivery of Chinese food. This advert (above) for the Horseshoe on Renfrew at Hastings from December 1954 states that it offered “Vancouver’s first free home delivery service {of} Chinese and American foods”. Another newspaper ad from 1952, a year before the Ding Ho opened, confirms that Horseshoe owner Henry Wong offered free home delivery to customers from 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. Unlike the Ding Ho drive-in, the Horseshoe never became a chain and instead operated primarily as a dine-in establishment. The Horseshoe later became The Golden Horseshoe in 1959 and operated until 1971 when founder Henry Wong died suddenly at age 49.

Since “restaurants and food offer compelling portals to understanding the Chinese Canadian experience in British Columbia” I recommend checking out the upcoming exhibit called “A Seat at the Table”, a multi-sited and collaborative exhibition project that “explores historical and contemporary stories of Chinese Canadians in BC and their struggles for belonging.” There are two locations for the exhibit:

Vancouver Chinatown – Sister exhibition at the Hon Hsing Building in Chinatown – 27 E Pender. Open now: Friday – Sunday, 10am – 4pm.

Museum of Vancouver (MOV) – 1100 Chestnut Street, Vanier Park. Opens to the public on November 19, 2020.

There are 6 comments

  1. Just to note… ‘Ding Ho’ is CANTONESE for “the best” and not Mandarin. In the 1950’s, most Chinese Canadians in Vancouver spoke Sze Yip dialect (which is similar to Cantonese) or Cantonese, as most Chinese people were from the Sze Yip region (for historical accuracy).

  2. I was born in Vancouver in the 60’s and my husband the 50’s. We both have fond memories of going down to Chinatown with our families to eat Chinese food. The Ho Inn, Bamboo Terrace and Lotus Gardens to name a few. It seems then there were very few restaurants that were not associated with hotels. La Bodega, The Three Greenhorns, Has and The William Tell are the ones I remember from the 70′. It was a real treat or special occasion to go out for dinner then. My sister and I loved going to Chinatown. Our dad insisted we learn to use chop sticks. Good thing. Chinatown seemed so exotic and people were always so friendly to us kids. We also had take out chinese which was great too. Fun and memorable times. Such a different city then.

  3. And there was the Rickshaw Chain: East Hastings at Kootenay Street, and Kingsway and Slocan with large neon structures attracting diners and takeout orders.

    The Horseshow was a sort of White Spot-like place, but had a second Chinese menu.
    Henry Wong sponsored many scout and little league organizations.

  4. Thank you so much, Joyce! I really appreciate you taking the time to let us know the correct origin for ‘Ding Ho’ and for setting us straight. I will ask Andrew to make the correction in the article.

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