The Chinatown Economy

Take a walk through Chinatown, any Chinatown, and you’ll notice a few things they share in common: Old shopkeepers selling a multitude of goods in dilapidated quarters, Cantonese or Taishan dialect being spoken, Chinese restaurants, bakeries and ‘fast food’, groceries, Chinese souvenirs, service providers, and a host of other ethnocentric products and services.

There’s another significant aspect of Chinatown: everything is cheap. And most merchants will only accept cash. I call this the Chinatown Economy. Here, all manner of goods and services can be had for a song. Want dumplings? Get a delicious container-full for $2.50, enough for lunch and a snack. Feed a family of four a sumptuous dinner for less than $30. Shop for fresh groceries at a quarter of the cost of conventional stores. And haggle your way to an armful of trinkets at half their original price. It’s truly a stitch in time.

Most major cities in the world have a Chinatown. It’s emblematic of the Chinese diaspora when citizens of China began migrating to foreign lands due to political, economic or social persecution. As a result, Chinatowns became iconic representations of China at a certain point in time, unchanging and familiar.In fact, so pervasive is the Chinese diaspora that Sing Tao Newspapers once had 26 separate editions across the globe, including locations as unexpected as Paris.

But in this age of mobility, Chinatowns are being replaced by new communities of gathering whether they be shopping malls or new geographic locations. For example, in Vancouver there is now another unofficial Chinatown at 41stAvenue and Victoria Drive. Within a five-kilometre radius of that intersection you will find the most dense community of Chinese residents anywhere in the Lower Mainland, including Richmond! Yes, the Chinatown Economy is still alive and well here, for now.

The Chinatown Economy hearkens back to my childhood and a quickly disappearing way of life. Many Chinese residents still shop daily in Chinatown, or their equivalents, but gentrification is slowly changing Chinatown and the traditions we once knew. The Chinatown Economy — buy it while you can because it may be disappearing soon.

Photo credit: Meghan

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