Coronavirus: Grocery project comes to rescue of Vancouver’s Chinatown elders, alone and scared to go out for food

Ian Young

Even before Covid-19, the elders of Vancouver’s Chinatown knew all about isolation, having been marginalised by poverty, language, familial dislocation and simply living in one of the city’s most socially challenged neighbourhoods.

But some now have one less thing to fear – thanks to a campaign to deliver free groceries to them during the coronavirus pandemic.

Those behind of the Chinatown Care Packages scheme said some elders had been scared to go outside to get food, while others had limited means and mobility. Canadian authorities have been telling all residents to stay at home as much as possible for about the past three weeks.

Project manager Christina Lee said she had been “overwhelmed, incredibly humbled” by donations and support. The scheme hit its fundraising target of C$10,000 (US$7,100) within 24 hours of the launch of its Go Fund Me campaign on Friday, and then swiftly doubled that goal. It is now directing would-be donors to other projects.

Vancouver Chinatown elders were already faced with a host of challenging social circumstances, before the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Chinatown Care Packages

The scheme provides needy Chinatown elders with a weekly delivery of fruit and vegetables. Masked and gloved volunteers began deliveries on Tuesday.

Lee said elders in Chinatown tended to live alone, since “many don’t have family to check in on them,” she said.

And many speak Chinese dialects like Taishanese, also known as Sze Yup, further isolating them, even in a heavily Chinese city like Vancouver, where about 20 per cent of the greater metropolitan population has Chinese heritage.

[Elders] are the people who are at most risk with this disease. They now need to stay home the most, and they have high anxiety about having to go out and do things

Alain Chow, Bao Bei Chimese Brasserie

Those behind the project include Chinatown groups the Hua Foundation, the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice and Chinatown Today, as well as Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie and the VanCity Credit Union.

The Yarrow society’s long-term work to identify and reach out to isolated Chinatown elders had been crucial to the food project, said Lee.

But the campaign had goals that reversed the previous target of breaking the walls of social isolation.

A volunteer (right) for the Chinatown Care Packages project takes a selfie with a recipient in Vancouver on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Photo: Chinatown Care Packages

“There are so many concerns around elder folk and the risk of infection. We actually wanted to reduce the points of contact for them getting groceries as much as possible,” said Lee.

“Yarrow has been able to contact these people in the language they are comfortable with … they have been a natural fit.”

The focal point of Vancouver's Chinese community long ago shifted from Chinatown to the satellite city of Richmond, which has become the most Chinese city in the world outside Asia.

And many recent immigrants to Canada from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China tend to be wealthier than those who ended up in Chinatown.

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Lee said there were still about 600 needy Chinese elders living alone in Chinatown, although some had family support, and others preferred not to accept help. She hopes the initiative will eventually reach about 200 elders in the neighbourhood.

The initial care packages include about a week’s worth of “culturally appropriate” groceries – napa cabbage, lo bak, bak choi, apples and oranges – but they would eventually be more tailored said Lee. “We all know that Chinese seniors always have lots of feedback to give,” Lee said with a laugh.

Chinatown Care Packages consisting of a week's worth of fruit and vegetables are assembled in the Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie in Vancouver's Chinatown on Tuesday, March 31. Photo: Chinatown Care Packages

“But generally the seniors are really happy to be able to stay safe and stay home, and still have access to fresh food.”

In addition to cash, the campaign organisers had also been flooded with messages of support. “Just to know that someone is looking out for [the elders] means a lot to a lot of people,” said Lee.

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Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie – along with its sister restaurant in Chinatown, Kissa Tanto – have been shut since March 16.

In the meantime, Bao Bei has become the centre of operations for the grocery campaign, turning to its suppliers for the food, taking orders, and donating time and floor space to the project, said Alain Chow, the restaurant’s kitchen operations manager.

“So we had this extra capacity to help … our business is food and getting food to people, and this was just a natural way to keep doing that,” said Chow.

Chinatown Care Packages of groceries for elders are picked up for delivery at the Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie in Vancouver on Tuesday. Photo: Chinatown Care Packages

Chow said he hoped the deliveries could eventually include cooked meals.

“They are the people who are at most risk with this disease,” said Chow. “They now need to stay home the most, and they have high anxiety about having to go out and do things. But the neighbourhood is already a hard one to navigate for them. They need this kind of help.”

Chow said that running restaurants in Chinatown was sometimes challenging, overlapping the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, where street drug use and crime are major problems.

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Both Bao Bei, a modern Chinese restaurant, and Japanese-Italian Kissa Tanto are relatively new additions to the Chinatown landscape, where concerns about gentrification form a backdrop to many discussions about its future.

But Chow said he loved the neighbourhood, and the Chinese background of the restaurants’ ownership put it in an unusual position in relation to the existing Chinese community. He said hoped the grocery project could continue in some form, even after the pandemic.

“We care about this neighbourhood and its evolution,” he said. “You can’t fight change. It’s going to happen no matter what. But we want to have a hand in shaping that change.”

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