A tale of two Chinatowns

kingoftheyeesYesterday I went to Aberdeen Centre in Richmond for the first time ever in spite of it being around since the 1990s. There are usually only two reasons I ever go to Richmond: to get on a plane at YVR or to visit one of my favourite places, the village of Steveston. We CAN be creatures of habit, can’t we?

It was a dreary Sunday and I had no plans so I decided to act like a bit of a tourist. I’d heard that the food court is really good there with all sorts of authentic Asian cuisine and there was some photography exhibit that was on display. Okay, a plan was formulating, reason to get dressed and leave the apartment.

In addition, I’d noticed that a local playwright that I am acquainted with, Elaine Avila, had recommended on her Facebook page, a play, King of the Yees, by Lauren Yee, a San Francisco-based playwright.

The play was at the Gateway Theatre and conveniently there happened to be a 2pm Sunday matinee.  This play, according to Jovanni Sy, artistic director, as he wrote in the program, was “one of the most highly sought after scripts in the U.S. in the past year.”

There was also a good article inside the program written by a professor of history at UBC, Henry Yu, about what defines Chinatown? We could actually all just expand that question to ask ourselves what defines a neighborhood in general. Is it just the way it looks aesthetically? Or is it more about the feeling, the connections between people, the sense of belonging (or not)?  

Yu pointed out that the City of Vancouver still only defines Chinatown’s heritage through architectural details while many other places have accepted “intangible character” as a very important part of heritage policy. As an aside, I noticed that John Atkin, Vancouver Heritage Advocate, was in the audience.

Before I even got to the play, my experience of visiting Aberdeen Centre for the first time left me mentally comparing the experience of the old Chinatowns that I’ve visited — Vancouver, Victoria, and San Francisco —  to this newer version. The new version was like Chinatown in one of those snow globes, perhaps. I didn’t dislike it intensely or anything. I just couldn’t help feel a bit confused. Like I’d been left behind. Like, How did this happen? Is it good or bad or just different. And if THIS version existed did we really still need the old one? Who is the old version for? And when all the old Chinese people, the first and second generation, die off, would the old version still be relevant, and if so, why? These are the kinds of questions whirling inside my head.

In the new version, the herbal shops and the ginseng containers were tightly ensconced beside a Mercedes Benz dealership, under the shiny lights and the changing colours of the dancing fountain. The aroma of noodles and pho and steamy broths mixed in with the scent of refined petroleum products wafting from all that plastic in Daiso, the huge Japanese discount store. 

There was no honking or loud Cantonese ribbing between adjacent shop owners pecking the air in the new version. I didn’t see any chickens hanging upside down. Vegetables and fruits and things I was curious about weren’t nestled inside baskets along the narrow sidewalks. There were just shiny mall tiles and a world record for largest Pez container display.

It was like some altered universe. As if I’d just left the country for a short and curious interlude.

And with that experience lingering, I was primed for the play, King of the Yees.

It was a play that used some of a culture’s most obvious stereotypes– the dragon dance, the face-changer, the gangs, the benevolent Associations, the commitment to family and cultural organizations as fodder for entertainment.  At times it felt like a bit of a Chinese version of Harry Potter with the main female protagonist (actress Andrea Yu) on a quest to find her dad, Larry, the King of the Yees and there, again, was a disconnect between generations that occurs regardless of ethnicity.   

Some of the funniest scenes to me were the dialogue between the actress Donna Soares, who claimed to be Korean in the play, getting instructions from a Chinese guy, actor Raugi Yu, on the correct way to pronounce Chinese. She did such an amusing job.

It’s a creative, unique, and modern twist on an age old problem. What exactly is the definition of progress?  You’ve only got until Saturday, Oct. 22,  to play around with that question in your own mind, with the aid of this play.


  1. I liked this review and those questions are ones that I deal with almost daily having lived in Chinatown/Strathcona for a long, long time.

    Well written, enjoyed reading..and once again it seems we have much in common.

    1. HI Roberta,
      I was sure I responded to this ages ago. Guess not. Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, we definitely seem to have the same interests.

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