I love the layers of Chinatown – the colours, textures and architectural styles, the fading Chinese characters painted on buildings decades ago, and the Tupperware tubs filled with tiny, crunchy fish. I also love the layers of generations, customs, cultures. To me, Pender, Keefer, Georgia, Gore, and Columbia are some of the most interesting streets in our city.
The shopkeepers (hit hard by Covid and still struggling) are a huge part of what makes this neighbourhood great. But if Vancouver doesn’t rally to protect and support them, they will continue to vanish. The old-school herb shops, butchers, dumpling makers and fish mongers need community support and patronage in order to stick around. This series aims to familiarize readers with the businesses of Chinatown and the people who own and work at them, and to give you the inside scoop on how to shop at them.
Today we meet William Liu, co-owner of 金 威 點 心 Kam Wai Dim Sum at 249 E Pender for a walk around Chinatown….
Kam Wai is well established and locally famous for their Dim Sum. The recently renovated space has a few dine-in tables but is the best know as a source of quick take-out comfort food and a good selection of frozen grab-and-go Dim Sum favourites, like soup dumplings, Pork Siu Mai, Har Gow (shrimp dumplings), BBQ pork buns, vegan steam buns – the list goes on…
As a second-generation proprietor, William Liu has had a strong connection to Chinatown his whole life (his father opened Kam Wai over thirty years ago, and William grew up on Keefer Street in Chinatown). He knows the neighbourhood’s business owners, where to find which ingredients, and where the best deals are, making him the perfect guide to get to know the secrets of some Chinatown shops. I meet William in front of Kam Wai, and we head out to run some errands together.
First Stop: Dollar Meat
Dollar Meat has been in business since 1971. The team is skilled at butchery – you choose what you want, and they will slice, carve or grind it. “This is where we buy pork belly for our famous Sticky Rice,” explains Liu, “They cut it up for us, we marinate it (a two-day process), and then we add it to our sticky rice before cooking it for five hours. The pork juices seep into the rice, making it a rich and fragrant dish.”
TIP: The bright yellow and red packages of Chinese sausages stacked in the cooler immediately inside the front door are world famous (regular shipments even make their way to China, where they are coveted for top quality ingredients and no MSG).
Second Stop: Hung Win Seafood on Gore
At Hung Win Seafood, William introduces me to Calvin, a second-generation fishmonger. Calvin has a day job in finance that operates on Toronto time, but once that working day is done, he makes his way to Hung Win to pitch in at the family business. Calvin’s goal is to remain at this address as long as possible. “Most of our customers have been coming here since I was a kid,” he says, “I love working here…it’s like an aquarium, but you can feed your family from our tanks.
“I mean, what do we do best in BC? Fresh, wild seafood! In Chinese culture, nothing is more precious than fresh ingredients, and nothing is fresher than ‘live.’ At Hung Win, we pride ourselves on providing great live product. That means that if you buy a king crab, we’ll bring it out to you and show you that it is alive, and then we’ll process it for you to take home. We do the same with fish – and if you’re going to buy a salmon steak, why not buy it from somewhere it’s the absolute freshest? We get fresh stuff in daily!”
Calvin proceeds to give us a quick lesson on assessing the freshness of fish (first, look at the gill – you want it to be as red as possible; but also look at the eyes, they should be clear). “We love to educate people so that we can show them how good our seafood is. It also allows us to talk to people about where and how the product is caught. Someone is always here to answer questions – about anything from sourcing and freshness, to cooking or processing.”
William explains that Kam Wai shops at Hung Win for halibut collar or salmon head, which they steam with greens, black bean sauce, ginger and scallions for their staff meal. They also rely on Hung Win for the seafood that they use in dumplings.
Third Stop: Forum Home Appliances
On our last stop, William takes me to Forum Home Appliances to meet second-generation shop owner Tracy To. Need a new steamer, a rice cooker or a juicer? Skip Costco – this is the place to come to. In addition to a team of very knowledgeable staff who can break down the pros and cons of a wide array of small appliances, Forum is also known for having a top-notch repair shop in the back. If you have a broken air fryer, blender, Espresso maker, or juicer, the crew here can help with parts, repair, and advice. Ask for Tracy; she will sort you out.