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The Fruits of Their Labour Illustration by Charlotte Guay Williams.

The Fruits of Their Labour

The neglected history of Chinese-Canadian farmers in Vancouver.

On Sunday mornings, twenty-seven-year-old Caroline Chiu sells vegetables. She spreads her week’s harvest across two foldable tables at Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant farmers’ market, tucked between an elementary school playground and a grassy patch known to locals, thanks to a Big Lebowski-esque statue, as Dude Chilling Park. Chiu’s tables are loaded with choy sum, gai lan, bok choi, pea tips, chrysanthemum leaves and napa cabbage—familiar, familial fare that she grew up cooking and eating. Chiu grows it all at Golden Choy Farm, which she stewards with business partner Brendan Lench in Richmond, just south of the city. The plot is on Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Richmond Farm School, where she is employed as the farm school coordinator, working with students on business plans for half-acreages like hers.

Golden Choy’s offerings are staples in many Cantonese households. But in many farmers’ markets around town, it’s rare to find non-Western vegetables like these, or even people who look like Chiu. For all its ideals of inclusivity, Vancouver’s local food scene looks and feels disquietingly monocultural, just like much of the gentrifying Mount Pleasant neighbourhood itself. “At the farmers’ market, I’m the only Chinese person who’s really selling local, organic Asian vegetables,” Chiu says. In fact, Chiu is the only young farmer she knows of her ancestry. “Even though I’m [based] in Richmond, all my colleagues are Caucasian,” she says.

Though Richmond houses the highest proportion of visible minorities in British Columbia—70.4 percent of the population according to the 2011 National Household Survey—its local food scene remains largely the domain of non-minority urban farmers and food activists. Chiu attributes this to an intersecting web of cultural stereotypes that she faces daily. “Being Chinese, a woman, youngish and educated, my parents are very not supportive of what I’m doing,” she says. “Traditional, conservative Chinese parents would think that farming is more like a peasant job.” Similarly, Chiu’s Chinese-Canadian customers often mistake her for a volunteer: an agrarian life is what many left behind when immigrating to Canada, and so to farm as a young Chinese woman in Vancouver seems odd to them.

For these reasons and more, there remains a perception, Chiu says, that the local food movement both employs, and caters to, a specific, privileged set of urbanites—mostly wealthy, mostly young and mostly white. However, looking at the history of farming in Vancouver, most of the key players have been everything but.

The whiteness of Vancouver’s farmers’ markets should not be interpreted as a suggestion that Chinese people don’t care about local food. “There is a whole historical and social context for why we don’t typically see Asian or Chinese farmers at the farmer’s market,” says Stephanie Lim, a member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council’s Right to Food working group. “It’s not because they’re not farming,” she says. Rather, it’s because they’ve built parallel food networks outside of these more visible locations.

These networks formed the basis of sociologist Natalie Gibb’s 2011 graduate thesis, which studied Chinese-Canadian farmers in the metro Vancouver area. “The history of anti-Chinese racism in Canada is linked to the emergence of a food system comprised of parallel networks,” she writes. Rather than running grocery stores (which were the domain of white shopkeepers) in the early twentieth century, Chinese-Canadian farmers tended to sell their wares on foot as vegetable peddlers, using hand-drawn or horse-drawn produce carts. As a result, these two groups rarely crossed paths.

Gibb’s research showed that Chinese immigrants in Vancouver had been farming in the city since the 1880s. By 1921, they were producing 90 percent of British Columbia’s vegetables. Despite these significant contributions, their historical presence as farmers in Vancouver is largely absent from public documents about the local food movement. Gibb notes a 2010 Museum of Vancouver exhibition about local food mounted in partnership with Farm Folk City Folk, a prominent local organization. “All of the farmers featured in the exhibit appear white,” she wrote in her thesis.

In a 2015 article for the Canadian Journal of Urban Research, Stephanie Lim delves deeper. She shows how Vancouver’s parallel food systems are a result of a long history of systemic discrimination against Chinese citizens that dates back to their earliest decades living in the city. Quoting Vancouver historian Paul Yee’s 1989 book, Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver, Lim writes that civic bylaws had begun to restrict the sale of food products to storefronts and so-called “permanent” businesses—the grocery stores run by white owners—as early as 1894. These bylaws penalized and fined the many Chinese vegetable peddlers who, selling fresh produce from their farms door-to-door, provided an important service when household refrigeration was uncommon. “By 1918 the city had imposed a $100 licensing fee on peddlers, a fee which disproportionately (and, not accidentally) affected Chinese vendors,” writes Lim. “The newly formed Vegetable Sellers Association negotiated the fee down to $50 plus police protection from the thieves who frequently stole goods from trucks. By comparison, licenses for ‘permanent’ shops only cost $10 at the time.” 

These bylaws and license fees are just a few examples of how Chinese people in Vancouver have faced exclusion and discrimination from both policy-makers and fellow citizens for generations, despite the many, often overlooked, ways they have shaped the city. Some of these sentiments still linger. “There’s still this idea about the Chinese as an other, as people to be feared, as not really Canadian, as not really ‘us,’” Gibb tells me on the phone from her home in Gatineau, Quebec. As an example, she points to the current debate about Vancouver’s rapidly mushrooming real estate market. “It’s framed as like, ‘Oh, we have to stop the Chinese people invading,’ as opposed to a discussion about how wealth moves around the globe in a globalized world,” she says. “We don’t hear, in Canada, stories about Canadians doing the invading. We hear stories about the Chinese invading.”

“We’re told that the first farmers’ market was in 1995 on Commercial Drive,” says Zsuzsi Fodor, referring to a policy document published by the City of Vancouver. But Fodor, a food hub specialist at the Greater Vancouver Food Bank and former co-chair of the Vancouver Food Policy Council, says that this claim ignores the Chinese farmers selling food on city streets for years until bylaws prohibited them from doing so. “It’s not part of the stories that are told,” she says.

Fodor sees erasures like this in who gets uplifted as “the heroes and the faces of the [food] movement” and “who continues to be invisible but are doing the labour.” It took her years of working in local food, she says, before she started to understand the history of Chinese farming in Vancouver. “It’s not named in the Vancouver Food Strategy,” she says. “If that’s the foundational document that’s laying the path for the city to be more just and sustainable when it comes to food and that’s what people are reading, what gets left out is really important.”

Fodor says she’s envious of how people working in local food in Toronto and the United States talk frankly about how race and privilege impact their work. “They’ve named it,” she says. “It’s hard work to face your own privilege and power, especially if it’s something you didn’t do anything for.” But doing so, she says, is essential for moving towards a food movement that specifically addresses the role of race and privilege in who gets to show up at farmers’ markets, who gets to access local food and who gets to set policy about food security in the city.

Like Fodor, Stephanie Lim suggests that locals could take inspiration from how people talk about race elsewhere. “Because people in the US are more comfortable talking about race,” she says, “in some sense it’s easier for them to name the whiteness in the food movement.” Whiteness, she says, is not just a phenotype, but an organizing principle that serves to include and exclude people: for example, she says it’s become normal for there to be mostly white people talking about local food (she is often the only person of colour at events). Changing that, she explains, requires acknowledging that white privilege in the local food movement can have the effect of erasing the experiences and contributions of racialized people.

Kevin Huang is the thirty-one-year-old founder of Hua Foundation, a local non-profit empowering Chinese youth to engage in social and environmental justice work (where I also serve on the board of directors). He asserts that Vancouver is “colourblind” when it comes to acknowledging the contributions of Chinese-Canadian farmers and migrant workers, either through public policy or the public conversation. The problem, Huang says, is a widespread over-focus on Western local food practices, such as farmers’ markets and community gardens. To define local food exclusively in these ways has the effect of diminishing the less visible, less glamorous efforts that many immigrant families engage with on their own, unaffiliated with on-trend descriptors like “urban gardening” or “rewilding.”

For example, a number of Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking elders across Vancouver have been growing food in their home gardens for generations, Huang says. They possess extensive knowledge about local harvests and growing techniques, but they’re rarely recognized as experts or asked for their perspectives by the policy makers or organizers who shape Vancouver’s local food strategy.

The Hua Foundation is currently at work on several projects that aim to bridge intercultural understanding: a new translation service works to address linguistic gaps that exist between Cantonese, Mandarin and English communities; a series of intergenerational cooking workshops aims to connect new audiences with ancestral foods; and the Choi Project focuses on growing Asian greens similar to those Caroline Chiu harvests on her farm.

Key to Huang’s mission is building pride in shared ancestry by amplifying the voices and experiences of racialized communities. “The biggest challenge right now [is] we fail to recognize that … cultural identities and immigrant histories are unique and we should celebrate that,” he says, instead of promoting a homogeneous, “Canadiana” identity. “In our everyday lives, we need to challenge the way we think,” he explains. “How did this [food] system come to be? Where did our food come from? Know a little more … learn about other people’s histories. If we all take time to do a little bit of that, I believe we’re going to take steps towards a better understanding of each other.”

At the Golden Choy Farm, Caroline Chiu sets a timer on her smartphone while she turns a faucet to water the crops, getting up from our spot in the shade to move the hose to the next row of leafy vegetables each time her phone buzzes. In the late August heat, she reflects on the small steps forward she’s experienced selling her produce at a farmers’ market in an unlikely part of her city.

The Kwantlen Street farmers’ market takes place on Tuesday evenings from the end of May to mid-October near Lansdowne Centre, a bustling shopping mall and transit hub in Richmond. The market is frequented by Chinese-speaking seniors walking over from nearby apartments—the kinds of customers Chiu doesn’t usually see at the Mount Pleasant farmers’ market—and they regularly stop to speak with her in Mandarin and Cantonese. “[They] ask me a lot of questions like ‘Why is organic better?’ or ‘Why is this so expensive?’” she says. “It’s like, ‘$4 cabbage? Whoa!’ At the same time, I’m seeing progress. I’m getting returning customers coming every week to buy just one small thing.”

Chiu’s experiences in Richmond run counter to the conversations she usually hears about Chinese-Canadian consumers. “People always say, ‘Oh, Chinese people don’t care about organic food,’” she says. “It’s hard for [some Chinese shoppers] to find information that’s in their language, in their culture.” Chiu’s role, as she envisions it, is to bridge this gap.

To customers who ask why they should purchase her produce when it’s often more expensive than what they might find at a nearby grocery chain, Chiu explains that it’s an investment in the local economy. “You have to price it that high to really truly reflect the cost, so that farmers actually make a living,” she says. “[But] I would really like to see [farmers’ market] veggies being affordable and available to lower-income people.”

Addressing local food accessibility and affordability is connected to addressing questions of inclusion and diversity within the movement. Huang, Lim and Fodor are all tackling that in their work, part of which involves changing the notion that healthy food is available only to the types of folks with the income and lifestyle that allows them to frequent trendy farmers’ markets on Sunday mornings. “Vancouver’s a very hip place,” Chiu says. “Food, as a basic necessity, shouldn’t be a hip thing.”