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CTGA Members in the News - A Wok Around Chinatown

19 Mar 2024 12:00 | Anonymous

Our current VP, Robert Sung and his company A Wok Around Chinatown were recently featured in the Financial Times (UK).

Please read and enjoy the article!

A tour of



A deep — and delicious

— dive into the past and

present of a storied


Vancouver’s Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden © Gloria Wong

This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s guide to Vancouver

“My purpose is to educate and entertain from a culinary and cultural perspective,” Robert Sung announces when we meet him in the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver’s Chinatown. The garden was built in 1986 on the city’s 100th birthday to commemorate its Chinese inhabitants. More than 50 craftsmen came from Suzhou, China, to construct the Ming Dynasty garden, bringing with them nan, camphor and ginkgo wood, handmade tiles and stone pebbles. 

Sung (who goes by Bob), 72, is a third-generation Chinese Canadian (his family emigrated to British Columbia in the late 1890s and early 20th century) and the universally acknowledged ambassador of the city’s Chinatown. For nearly two decades, he has ushered people up and down Pender Street, the heart of the neighbourhood, to taste, sip and learn about Chinese heritage and culture through his A Wok Around Chinatown tours. He is affable and witty, with a fizzing personality that is an integral part of the tour’s success. In 2022, TripAdvisor users anointed it one of the Top 25 food experiences in the world.

As the scent of incense wafts around us, we venture into a courtyard with a lichen green pond at its centre, where every stone we see was laboriously brought from China, Sung tells us, and slotted into place by hand. 

 Robert ‘Bob’ Sung – a bespectacled Chinese Canadian wearing a flat cap – sitting on a bench in Vancouver’s Chinese gardenRobert ‘Bob’ Sung has led his A Wok Around Chinatown tours for almost 20 years

A sculptural rock formation, a small tree and shrubs in front of a grey wall in Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese GardenSung’s tour begins in Vancouver’s Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

In Chinese culture, “every person, place and thing has meaning”, Sung says, including each object we see and its exact positioning. Even the colour of the pond water is intentional: jade is associated with the soul and immortality. 

The choice of the garden as the first stop on Sung’s tour is also purposeful — the venue for explaining the three traditional pillars of Chinese culture: Daoism, which means yin and yang, or balance; Confucianism: structure and family; and Buddhism — nature. The idea is to absorb these values and take them on the tour, Sung says, imbuing the experience with a richer texture. Of equal importance in this endeavour is learning about the people and the history of the area, a story stitched with prejudice, perseverance and community.

Vancouver’s Chinatown in the late 19th century A photograph of Vancouver’s Chinatown in the late 19th century, with horses and carts in the street and a man crossing a roadVancouver’s Chinatown in the late 19th century © UBC Chung Collection

The first ships of Chinese immigrants arrived in what is now Vancouver in 1858, on the heels of British Columbia’s gold rush. Later arrivals worked on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which today is 12,500 miles long and runs through seven provinces. Unable to lure enough local labour to lay tracks through the treacherous Rocky Mountains, the railroad company petitioned the government to allow it to recruit Chinese workers. More than 15,000 were hired — and it’s said that one Chinese worker died for every mile of track laid.

On completion, contractors reneged on promises to pay for the workers’ passage back to China and, having sent almost all of their wages home, the men were stranded. Most moved to the south of British Columbia and set up Chinese hubs in Victoria, New Westminster and Vancouver.

“They were not allowed to live in different communities,” Sung explains as we weave through the displays of the Chinatown Storytelling Centre on East Pender Street, our second stop. “They sequestered all the Chinese into one specific ghetto area. And that practice happened all over the world: the Chinese subjected to one specific area where they could live and have all their services.” 

A black and white photograph of an Ambulance Corps made up of Chinese Canadian women marching through Vancouver during the second world warChinese Canadian women in Vancouver’s Ambulance Corps during the second world war © Chinese Canadian Military Museum

Discriminatory laws such as the 1923 Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration and split families for decades, meant that Chinese people were legal and social outsiders in Canada. It was not until 1947 that the Citizenship Act removed country of origin as a barrier to citizenship, and in 1947 Chinese citizens were granted the right to vote. The catalyst was the 600 Canadian Chinese who enrolled in the second world war effort.

The racism and ostracism propelled the establishment of self-sufficient community hubs. Clusters of small businesses sprung up to support workers. Community organisations offered services denied by the state, such as housing, employment and business loans. Sung’s father’s brothers founded a corner grocery store that flourished into a major produce wholesaler.

 Roast duck in the window of Chinatown BBQRoast duck in the window of Chinatown BBQ on East Pender Street . . .

The white and red facade of Chinatown BBQ. . . where the tour stops for a quick snack

“That’s the plight of the immigrant: if they can’t find jobs, they start their own businesses,” Sung says, before breezily asking: “Now, folks, how is your appetite?” He nips into Chinatown BBQ, with its rows of glistening duck carcasses hanging in the window, and emerges holding a polystyrene box, laden with succulent slivers of barbecued pork. 

Next, we stop at New Town Bakery, which has dozens of stacks of bamboo steamers on the counter — and a hungry throng of customers waiting to order. Sung steps behind the counter and lifts a bamboo steamer up, revealing its contents: perfectly formed, pale dumplings, huddled together like eggs in a nest. “I’m going to hold it quickly because I don’t want to get a facial,” he jokes. But it’s too late: his glasses steam up immediately, and cameras are whipped out. “You want me to photobomb these buns?”

 A circular wooden tray containing freshly made dumplings at New Town Bakery, held in the hands of Robert SungSung with freshly made bao at New Town Bakery

After tucking into the delicious bao, we visit a traditional herbal medicine shop, every surface stacked with interesting ingredients: feathery clumps of fat choy, bags of ginkgo nuts and goji berries, twisted mounds of ginseng root and splayed geckos on sticks that, dunked in soup, will allegedly alleviate asthma and back pain. Sung stands out front, brandishing different herbs and specimens, directing us to look, smell, feel. Later, at The Chinese Tea Shop, importers of a vast assortment of fine Chinese teas, we are given cups of steaming organic oolong with orange.

 Sung holding a rolled-up herb in a traditional Chinese medicine storeSung’s tour takes in a traditional Chinese herbal medicine store . . .

 Shelves and counters stacked with ingredients in the traditional Chinese herbal shop that the tour stops at . . . where ‘every surface is stacked with interesting ingredients’ 

The final stop is Floata Seafood Restaurant, an old-school establishment fabled for its dim sum, where locals flock on Sundays. The cavernous dining space looks like a faded banquet hall, with round tables draped in white tablecloths, a brown patterned carpet and Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling. It is not long before the tablecloth has nearly disappeared, so completely is it covered in dishes as an endless array of dumplings proceeds. Prawn. Mushroom. Chicken. Stir fried noodles. Crunchy chilli tofu. Crispy pork gyozas. Pak choi dipped in hoisin. Pork soup dumplings administered with vinegar and then poked with a chopstick to release the hot sauce within.

It is a Smart Choice to have lunch as the grand finale — talk stalls and bellies groan as we are rendered wholly incapacitated by the meal. But more importantly, the knowledge that has been imparted to us all day finds its final mooring. 

The dining room at Floata Seafood Restaurant . . . 

. . . the final stop of the tour for dim sum galore

Every aspect is symbolic, from the shape of the table and the number of diners to the substance and rundown of the menu. Sung tells us that Chinese banquet dinners are always served at a round table for ease of fellowship, with a minimum of eight guests — a lucky number that signifies wealth and prosperity.

“And the menu consists of meat, fish and vegetables,” he says, “With a minimum of eight courses.” The menu traditionally starts with savoury dishes “for reality”, he says. Sweet and sour dishes signify balance, while fish symbolises prosperity, noodles longevity, and rice fertility. “And that’s followed by oranges for gold,” he said. “So the whole menu is reality, prosperity, longevity, fertility and gold.”

As we fall deeper into our postprandial stupor, Sung repeats his mantra one last time to drive the point home: “Everything has meaning to it.”

Jessica Rawnsley was a guest of Destination Canada and Shangri-La Group. The Wok Around Chinatown food tour costs C$110 ($81/£64) per person

What for you are the highlights of Vancouver’s Chinatown? Tell us in the comments below. And follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter

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