Along New Westminster’s Columbia Street, you’ll come across an interesting phenomenon. Turn right from Carnarvon, down where red brick buildings stand, and you’ll see a fancy clustering of bridal shops that exists to entice you. If there were a place to say, ‘yes to the dress’ this weird bunching of establishments would be it. But I’m not here to talk to you about nuptials. I’m here today because I’m concerned. I used to think Wedding Row has always existed—ivory frills, excessively long trains, Pnina Tornai, and all—but Spider Wilson’s abandoned Tattoo parlour down the road and the once-booming shoe cobbler’s shop around the corner seem to tell me otherwise.
Before matrimonial bells rang, small businesses with intricate stories roared louder; the sounds of bustling crowds and hardworking immigrant families permeated through these worn in sidewalks before any other downtown prevailed. New Westminster was once a mecca for culturally-rich connections and brick and mortar businesses. Now, the only businesses we see thriving are the ones that cluster together for security—scared that they’ll be run out by wealthy corporations or cookie-cutter chains. Even worse, some fear the resurgence of a type of hate that existed here not all that many years ago. Deep behind fears of gentrification, there lies a possibility much harder to accept:
New Westminster may never have the capacity to get over its non-inclusive, racist past. And if this is true, the businesses currently existing within it may always be lacking.
Many moons ago, the Royal City was home to a large population of Chinese immigrants. Before Vancouver’s coveted Chinatown came to fruition, New Westminster was the place to visit for essential supplies, groceries, and produce farmed primarily by Chinese Canadians. Yet, the very hands that have been feeding greedy mouths for generations have also been the ones to receive massive hardship in return. Search through the city’s archives and you’ll find overwhelming evidence of the prejudice Chinese Canadians have faced over multiple generations. People of this community have been denied jobs and stripped of voting privileges in municipal elections (1908), among many other losses. Even the original booming Chinatown of New Westminster—a Chinatown larger in its prime than Vancouver’s—was displaced by 1912. This is largely thanks to the Old Capital’s very own, Anti-Asiatic League.
Somehow, most people don’t remember (or choose to forget) this painful history. Sure, city officials “acknowledge, based on a review of records covering the period from 1860 to 1926, that [authorities had] acted in a discriminatory manner towards the Chinese community,” (says Mayor Wayne Wright) – but is this acknowledgment enough? And how does knowing this information change how we perceive the city today? Bill Chu, the founder of Canadians for Reconciliation, believes: “Chinatown in New West was made to disappear by the city. It was systematically removed.”
And if you ask me, the removal Chu is mentioning can still be seen in the businesses that remain here today. We are continually losing businesses with strong cultural ties because the city deliberately chooses to make them disappear.
Here’s why I think you should care: The best places, in my opinion, are the imperfect places. This is because they are the most human. When you remove the endearing quirks of a place and strive for streamlined services and products, the qualities that enable authentic relationships to form become less tangible. Imperfect places have grit and they also have character; they’re places where traditions shine and where genuine relationships are forged but never forced. It’s the Chinese fusion diner on Agnes street, for example: Ask for scrambled eggs, extra crispy bacon, and a piece of white toast and you’ll get exactly that plus bottomless coffee. Sure, the eggs are going to be overcooked around 70% of the time and the toast will likely be soaked in grease and browner than desired, but hey—at least there’s bottomless coffee.
A true New Westminster breakfast calls for more interaction with your server and with the community as a whole. This type of encounter embraces culture and in doing so, holds on to diversity. When you go for the large companies that have nothing to lose—compared to the small ones that put their passion and pride into their craft—it takes something from you. You might not even notice it happening. So as much as you may love the Asian “Dragon” bowl from Milestones
for its reliability, know that the beef noodle soup at Hon’s on 12th is tastier and actually handcrafted by someone who cares deeply about keeping their heritage alive. Further, the beef noodle soup at Hon’s on 12th Avenue is tastier precisely because it varies. When we choose upper-middle-class establishments over local ethnic businesses, we’re valuing safety over vulnerability. When we lose the small family-owned businesses, we also move further away from the stories and connections made within them. In opting for comfort, we risk the loss of originality.
However, I’d like to believe that it’s not all that bad. Perhaps the solution to all of this lies in our intentionality. If more people care for and advocate for independent establishments (cue BIAs, community events, local organizations, etc), more measures can be put into place to keep them alive. Maybe we can’t stop the spread of large scale companies. But I’d argue that it’s possible for both types of places, the big and the small, to succeed. If you want to resonate with the diasporas of immigrant families, then you can find it in a local establishment more closely than you’ll ever find it in a book or in a Netflix original series. If you want to find the best quality product that will last the test of time, buy it from a local company that’s business model is founded upon reliability and integrity—not from one produced in a sweatshop factory across the
globe. If you want to go to a place where the menu, dishes, and the store has been created by the minority group the type of cuisine your eating belongs to, don’t go to a gastropub or upscale- casual joint—go for that little hole on the wall in Uptown New Westminster.
Because authenticity cannot be faked; it’s a real, lived story. If we don’t fight for authentic places to exist, if we aren’t regular patrons for them, we risk losing a part of our history without even realizing it. So next time you’re choosing a place for dinner, maybe try someplace else. And make sure when you walk inside that place feels like a little mini version of your own dysfunctional ‘home’.
Jocelyn Wong is a prospective journalist studying English, Creative Writing, and Dialogue. As a dreamer and a passionate storyteller, she’s passionate about telling complex stories in non-prescriptive, authentic, and equitable ways. She seeks to join collectives that value diverse opinions and varied life experiences. You can always find her supporting her favourite local, grassroots initiatives – or at the best mom-n-pops in town!