When you first see Richmond, you may think that it is the most visually uninspiring gourmet center imaginable. Drive down one of its main streets, and you see a gray landscape of shopping centers, blocky apartment houses, and hulking megamalls. You don't feel you're embarking on a food lover's adventure. You feel like you're shopping for tires.
Richmond was for decades a farm town, home to dairy cows and blueberries. It then grew into a standard-issue Canadian suburb, probably best known for its proximity to Vancouver's airport. When local businessman and community leader Bennie Yung arrived in 1975, he remembers, Richmond didn't possess any authentic Chinese restaurants. But, Yung recalls, in the mid- to late '80s, many Chinese emigrated from Hong Kong and Taiwan to British Columbia. And they discovered Richmond. The city's name, Yung explains, sounded like "rich land" ― which signaled prosperity. Richmond's location, on the jutting lower jaw of the mouth that is greater Vancouver, was said to possess good feng shui. The city continued to grow in the 1990s, with the impending handoff of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China. The joke became, "What's the quickest way from Vancouver to Hong Kong? Take the Arthur Laing Bridge" (which connects Vancouver with Richmond). Today about 40 percent of Richmond's residents are Chinese; another 20 percent are from elsewhere in Asia. And there are an estimated 400 Chinese restaurants in town.
These restaurants are concentrated in the Asian retail area, dubbed Asia West or Golden Village. Others spill over into the downtown area near Westminster Highway and No. 3 Road, the main north-south artery. Oriental Delight, Garden City Hot Pot ― the names of the restaurants are displayed in both English and Chinese. Every once in a while, you get a glimpse of the Vancouver skyline and the mountains behind it. It's then that you remember Richmond is an island city, and you feel it being set loose from North America to float west to Asia. Richmond is being transformed into something partly Canadian, partly Chinese ― a new world all its own.
At 8:15 a.m. in Lansdowne Park Shopping Centre, a group of early-rising exercisers are doing tai chi. It's fitting that these Richmond residents are exercising at a mall, because in many ways the mall is the center of Richmond life. There are other attractions: the historic port of Steveston, where fresh fish is still sold off boats; two imposing Buddhist temples; a pleasant network of trails along the Fraser River. But the malls ― Lansdowne, Richmond Centre, new and glitzy Aberdeen Centre, and many more ― are king.