Local Food Movement Seeking Inroads with Chinese Community

Protecting agricultural land will largely depend on getting the Chinese-Canadian community on board in the decade to come in Richmond, B.C.

Protecting agricultural land will largely depend on getting the Chinese-Canadian community on board in the decade to come in Richmond, B.C.

Richmond News feature – Last month a leaked document from the office of Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm showed proposals to change the Agricultural Land Commission’s legislative mandate to fall more in line with the province’s priorities for economic development. Among some of the recommendations was to have “community growth applications decided by local governments.”

Following the leak, Richmond city council reiterated its commitment to protecting, enhancing and enforcing the Agricultural Land Reserve with a fully independent ALC.

But Mayor Malcolm Brodie and Coun. Harold Steves, who helped draft the initial ALC legislation in 1973, told the News that should the ALC be weakened and/or decision making return to the municipalities, it will be up to future generations to protect Richmond’s 5,000 hectares of ALR land.

That’s because however noble the efforts of today’s city council are to strengthen agricultural zoning laws and community bylaws to protect soil, such measures can always be overturned by future councils, and without an overruling ALC the road to more development can be paved.

As the Chinese-Canadian community reaches the absolute majority in the city, environmentalists believe a greater importance should be placed on engaging Chinese-Canadians in the local food movement, which has otherwise been indirectly exclusionary to date. The issue, according to environmentalist Claudia Li, is complicated, but there are at least two major factors she says need to be addressed. First, there are misconceptions from outside the Chinese-Canadian community that its people simply don’t care about food and agricultural values, hence, the local food movement, as it currently exists, is indirectly exclusionary.

Second, the Chinese-Canadian community has failed to align its traditional food values with the goals of the local food movement.

“It’s a very big community and one of the problems is people see it as monolithic. They say, ‘Well why don’t Chinese people care?’ It’s not because we don’t care, it’s that the messaging doesn’t resonate with us,” said Li, who was born in Richmond from parents who emigrated from Hong Kong.

This year, Li founded the environmental group Hua Foundation, a byproduct of her first grassroots group, Shark Truth, which sought to dissuade the use of shark fin food products within the Chinese-Canadian community.

Li draws parallels between the shark fin issue and the local food movement in how Chinese-Canadians are perceived as not caring about the environment. Put plainly: Chinese people don’t care about the ecosystem and all they want to do is build large homes and develop condos.

“When we make those explicit assumptions, it creates a divide and an excuse for (Chinese-Canadian people) not to care,” said Li. The more division we have, the more screwed we all are. This environmental movement isn’t going to last if it keeps happening like this. The level of controversy that explodes when something ‘Chinese’ happens is an illustration of the amount of frustrations with both communities not coming to a middle ground to understand one another.”

The key, as it was with Shark Truth, is to find a common ground and frame the matter in a way that makes sense to Chinese-Canadians. It starts with engagement, said Li, and all the tools exist to make it happen.

Not only are there concerns within the community for health and food safety, Chinese-Canadians in Richmond have a long history of farming that has resulted in an unregulated, largely unknown, local supply of popular Chinese vegetables – like leafy greens (choy), roots and Chinese cabbage.


As Hua’s director, Li is hoping the foundation can form connections between Chinese organizations and the mainstream local food movement, which advocates for the protection of nearby farmland and promotes the purchasing of local (and often organic) produce and meat.

Organizing efforts are now underway to create an intercultural food literacy program in Richmond, according to Li. The program is planned for this spring and will aim to educate the Chinese-Canadian community about the importance of sourcing food locally in the context of food security and environmental sustainability.

But it will also frame the issue according to traditional Chinese food values, which are not entirely the same as those in the West, according to both Li and her counterpart Colin Dring, the director of the Richmond Food Security Society.

Dring, who is of half-Chinese descent, says that, while food-related values between the West and East overlap, there are, nevertheless, big differences, particularly in how they are prioritized.

“We want to frame the discourse in a way that’s relevant to people. That has been our real disservice (to date.) We’re talking about food with the assumption that everybody talks about food in the same way and has the same values,” he said.

Like the Hua Foundation, the society hopes to create places – be it at a community garden or a cooking class – where these values can intersect and mingle with residents from all backgrounds. There needs to be more engagement.

“A couple years ago, I would have called (the level of engagement) non-existent, but now I think we’re connecting with a number of cultural organizations within Richmond.

“We’re trying to create a more resilient and robust food system that services everyone in the community and not just a niche few,” said Dring.

In November, Li held one of the foundation’s first events, a cooking class, dubbed “G-Ma,” with Chinese-Canadian seniors instructing others how to make wontons using locally raised organic pork and organic produce from a nearby farm.


Walk into a Chinese vegetable market and you’ll find the majority of bulk vegetables are pre-wrapped for the customers. However misguided this demand for pre-wrapped vegetables may be, Dring says it’s indicative of Chinese-Canadians’ desire for safer food.

Both Li and Dring say of all the Richmond’s residents, it is arguably the Chinese-Canadians who have the most concern about imported food and food safety, particularly when it comes to imports from China.

“So to frame the message in one way would be to say we support our agricultural land reserve because we have greater control and ability to be more accountable to consumers when we localize our food system,” said Dring.

Li cited the 2008 tainted milk scandal as just one example that has led to extreme wariness within the community. Li says one way to hit a note with the community may be to frame local food as essential for one’s health, which is of paramount importance within the traditional culture.

However, on the whole, despite their worries, Li says Chinese-Canadians aren’t connected well enough with the local food movement to take advantage of it, let alone understand the steps needed to move it forward.

“Ask a Chinese person where to get organic bok choy and they won’t know – including myself. Literally, there’s no place to buy it,” she added.

Such knowledge gaps need to be closed, Li said. She added that, if the “eat local” message reached the Chinese-Canadian community, there would be a swell of demand for organic Chinese greens (which, to boot, grow remarkably well in B.C.’s temperate climate.)


Dring says one of the more interesting and positive aspects of incorporating the Chinese-Canadian community into the mainstream talk about local food is the wealth of knowledge it has on sustainable agriculture.

“We’re talking about a culture, broadly speaking, that has been doing sustainable agriculture for millennia. It’s not something that was invented in the West,” said Dring.

For example, typical Chinese-Canadian farms are more labour intensive because many Chinese vegetables require handpicking. These vegetables also have low start-up costs.

Dring says the society is hoping to tap into this knowledge with future research within the community.

“We have a lot to do,” he said.

Li contends seniors who have come from agrarian backgrounds possess a wealth of knowledge when it comes to growing vegetables. “When I came to Canada, one of my first memories was of my grandma growing tomatoes in the backyard.”

But none of that knowledge was passed on as her family became wealthier, she said.


While Chinese-Canadian seniors and others with strong agrarian ties back in China may hold a key to success by possessing valuable knowledge about cooking and growing vegetables, Li acknowledges a paradigm shift needs to occur when it comes to acknowledging their agrarian roots and the positives that come with them.

“Part of the problem is this thing of class. Once you move up the class ladder you stop growing food. That’s kind of how people look at it,” said Li, acknowledging the farmer is less revered.

Another problem, said Li, is a lot of new immigrants are just coming into wealth and don’t understand the consumer decisions they make can impact the environment.

This naivety, however, has been met with indifference from the mainstream local food movement, said Li, who points to a lack of intercultural connections at local farmers’ markets in Richmond and Metro Vancouver.

Given how the vast majority of people shop for food in Asia is by going to a market, Li contends there should be no excuse to not have Chinese-Canadian customers represented at farmers’ markets equal to that of the city’s population.

“Going to a farmers’ market has a certain culture around it and it’s marketed toward the Caucasian community,” said Li.


Part of the problem is rooted in historical racism, Li said, pointing to a 2011 sociology study from Simon Fraser University on Chinese-Canadian farmers and the local food movement.

The study concluded that despite efforts from market organizers to include a diverse group of farmers, Chinese-Canadian farmers, who represent about 15 per cent of farmers in Metro Vancouver, remain underrepresented at farmers’ markets (as well as in the policy, educational, and promotional documents produced by the local food movement) in the region.

This exclusion may be rooted in the fact Metro Vancouver’s Chinese-Canadian farmers were effectively forced into low-earning farming jobs in the late 19th century, but when their businesses grew, they were faced with systemic racism from vegetable marketing boards, wholesale distribution laws and Caucasian farmers. As a result, Chinese-Canadians created an alternative supply chain of Chinese vegetables that exists to this day.

A 2011 food policy study by the City of Vancouver on Asian-owned grocery stores found Asian produce is grown primarily by Asian farmers who have their own distribution networks.

A 2004 Ministry of Agriculture and Lands study found 41 per cent of Chinese vegetables grown in the Lower Mainland were sold on the roadside or through direct sales to retail outlets, whereas only nine per cent of regular field vegetables went through similar sales avenues.

Chinese vegetables are considered a “specialty crop” by the Minisitry of Agriculture. About 1.5 million kilograms of such vegetables are grown in B.C. annually compared to 10 million kilograms of lettuce or 18 million kilograms of corn.

While many Chinese-Canadian independently operated green grocers buy B.C. Chinese vegetables straight from farmers’ trucks much of them are imported from California, or even China, especially in the winter.

Li contends the fact that such a demand for local Chinese vegetables exists is not only proof there is a place for Chinese-Canadians within the mainstream local food movement, but there is a place for them to strengthen the movement.

She also notes that it’s important for both sides to recognize the contributions that Chinese-Canadian farmers had on carving out a place for agriculture in B.C.