Vancouver’s Chinatown, of course, is not Gone, but it has changed a lot since the 1960s.
As a family, our most common pattern was a monthly visit to Chinatown. My grandparents would drive from Coquitlam to our house in Burnaby, and we would go in my father’s car. Arriving at 3:30 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, when all of the popular Chinese restaurants opened, for our second meal of the day, after a Brunch at our respective homes in the late morning that usually included French Toast, Waffles or Pancakes.
As street parking became harder to find, we would, more often than not, end up in a parking lot on the South side of West Pender around Abbott. In later years, it was interesting after Dark as the City tested new street lights in that area. My favourite was Xenon which had a pleasant green-blue colour to them.
We always walked the same route, on the sidewalk on the North side of West Pender, to our current favourite restaurant, one of the four shown below. None of them involved crossing Main Street, with the Bamboo Terrace the closest to Main.
We followed the same route back, though that last block just East of Abbott was dark at night and the one time that I ventured out ahead of the rest, I was approached by a man I would have preferred not to meet.
Between the restaurants, there were interesting shops with goods imported from China, which meant Taiwan or Hong Kong in those years before Canada recognized the Peoples Republic. In the early years, I would often pick out a blown glass animal priced around 19 cents. My last visit in 1976 with my wife when I bought two pounds of the same tea used by Yen Lock.
With five people, we ordered five dishes, which meant lots of variety, as it was all shared, plus lots of Steamed Rice and Chinese Tea. Soon after we started coming to Chinatown, we each learned enough about the different available dishes, that we each were given an opportunity to choose a dish that would be ordered, though we kept to an unspoken rule of never ordering more than one of anything.
American Chop Suey and Almond Guy Ding were the most common dishes ordered.
The restaurants are listed in chronological order.
155 East Pender
The first Chinese restaurant that I remember, at four or five years old. Now, as I read Vancouver newspapers of the early 1950s, it appears to be where most businessmen became familiar with, and enamoured by, Chinese food in the 15 years following World War II.
Around the age of 10, I remember getting a book on Chinese written language from the Burnaby Public Library and translating what was written on the Bamboo Terrace neon sign. It came out “Forest”.
The food remained great, but my father had us go elsewhere as he heard the consensus opinion of his fellow businessmen who felt that the food was even better at another Chinatown restaurant.
100 East Pender
147 East Pender
67 East Pender
Until my early years in Edmonton, I know that I eaten at Yen Lock more times than any other restaurant in my young life. After first trying Yen Lock as a family in the mid-1960s, we never ate anywhere else in Chinatown after that.
One unique feature was a thin slice of large fresh pickled carrot as garnish on top of at least one dish, probably Almond Guy Ding. We fought over as it was so delicious.
All four restaurants are long gone, though I did return to Yen Lock with my parents and my wife in 1999, and had a great meal. Coming in the door, we were initially concerned because of the live seafood swimming around in glass tanks, but the traditional dishes were as good as ever, though American Chop Suey was long gone from the menu, and I’ve never seen it anywhere else than Vancouver’s Chinatown of half a century ago.
Not limited to Vancouver’s Chinatown, of course, Toothpicks were available in all restaurants for use at the end of the meal. They would either be in open containers on the table or near the entrance, or available on request from the waiter or waitress.
For a time in the 1960s, some restaurants in Chinatown upped their toothpick game by offering them individually wrapped in cellophane. Or, what caught my father’s and my attention: flavoured toothpicks. Mint was a favourite, though I do remember Cloves. Of course, I mean Cloves, the spice, not Garlic Cloves.
Dental floss seems to have replaced toothpicks, though neither would be considered polite to use today anywhere other than a bathroom. But until at least the late 1970s, the open use of a toothpick on the way out of a restaurant was considered a complimentary gesture by a Gentleman.