The history of Vancouver's Chinatown, documented in menus

Imogene Lim sits in a Chinese Restaurant with an assortment of menus. Photo by Rebecca Blissett.

Last time you held a Chinese restaurant menu, you probably missed something. It wasn’t the daily special or the egg rolls, but the personal stories, community histories and transnational relationships that are peppered throughout. We rarely read between the lines, but the stories are there.

But for Imogene Lim, anthropologist and professor at Vancouver Island University, these stories are laid bare in her collection of vintage and modern Chinese restaurant menus.

“When you talk about culture and that connection to the larger society, the menus tell it all,” Lim says. “If I had a menu from 1975 and then looked at one from today it would probably be like night and day. So what you have might not be so apparent to you but it’s that long term look back that allows you to see the changes that occur.”

The collection is currently on display at the Museum of Vancouver’s new exhibit, "All Together Now: Vancouver Collectors and Their Worlds." The exhibit features a diverse array of collections, from pinball machines and prosthetic limbs to taxidermy and, of course, Chinese restaurant menus, as well as the personal stories of the individuals who collect them. 

The exhibit offers intimate glimpses at personal passions and how they evolve over time, and together they tell the story of the history of Vancouver. Each collector is influenced by the unique culture of Vancouver, and in turn their collections tell the story of the city.

 “This exhibit allows visitors to enter the rich, often-unknown worlds or collectors, and to think about how private collections can affect our understanding of the past,” says Viviane Gosselin, Curator of Contemporary Culture at the Museum of Vancouver. “In this way, it reminds us of the importance of collectors as memory keepers.”

For Lim, the menus tell the story of a family history and a community in transition.

The daughter of a Chinatown restauranteur, Lim inherited many of the oldest menus in her collection from her uncle who liked to keep a keen eye on the competition. She continues to collect, picking up Chinese restaurant menus from as far away as Italy, although the majority of the collection highlights the cultural shift that has taken place in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown.

“Chinatown is dying,” Lim says. “It’s heartbreaking, this is the place where I grew up, but culture changes.” Many of the newer immigrants to Vancouver are no longer seeing Chinatown as representing them, and the historic significance of the neighbourhood is often overlooked by newcomers. Since its heyday in the 50s and 60s, many of the prominent Chinatown landmarks have closed.

Lim’s family restaurant, the WK Gardens, hosted the likes of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and Frank Sinatra, but Chinese restaurants in Canada have always been for the people. 

“Back in the day you could get a hot dog for 5 cents or a chow mein sandwich for 5 cents, but if you got the chow mein sandwich, you actually got to sit down inside,” Lim says. “You’re in a textile town and you’re working class, and you can say ‘I went to the Chinese restaurant, and they served me.’ That said something about creating food that allowed people to sit down where they might not otherwise.” Coming to Canada without preconceptions about ethnicity, class, and one’s place in society, the Chinese restaurant offered acceptance to all at a time when it was notoriously hard to come by.

Fusion food today is seen as slightly up-scale, but early Chinese Restaurants were fusing something Chinese with something Canadian as a means of survival. This also gave many Canadians their first taste of Chinese culture, with some elementary school classes even taking trips to Vancouver’s Chinatown restaurants to learn about China.

“Chinese menus in Canada reflect the interplay between Chinese culture and Canadian culture. The restauranteur is adapting to the community, and everyone is coming half way,” Lim says. “Nowadays people are so worldly. Just think of all of the things on Youtube and the Food Network. We are not so isolated. Nowadays I would be shocked if a grade 2 or 3 class would go to a Chinese restaurant to learn something about Chinese culture.”

Every collector has their own unique motivation, but each collection is a reflection of local culture and personal identities. Collections represent the hopes and dreams of individuals, the rise and fall of communities, and snapshots in time as the world changes around us.

“This is partly related to my family, but it’s also related to what I do. An anthropologist can study anything but there is a special tie to this particular collection. The food and culture, and the history has a large component.”


All Together Now: Vancouver Collectors and their Worlds runs at the Museum of Vancouver from June 23 to January 8, 2017.

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