How to Experience Asia in Vancouver

Vancouver, B.C., is the World’s Most Ethnically Diverse City—and the Biggest Asian City Outside of Asia

Based on Resonance Consultancy’s Best Cities methodology, Vancouver ranks #1 in the People category, comprised of the percentage of foreign-born population and resident education attainment. The city is also the planet’s most ethnically diverse, with the title of the “Largest Asian City Outside of Asia.” Here’s where to experience the continent without leaving the area code.

A parade along Vancouver's Chinatown.

CHINATOWN

Vancouver’s Chinatown may be small, but what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in character. The first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the city between 1886 and 1920 to work in local mines, build the Trans-Canada railway.

They settled around Carrall Street and Dupont (now Pender) Street and by 1890 there were more than a thousand Chinese residents in the neighborhood, which was also home to the first of three Chinese opera theaters. Nearly a century later, Chinatown continued to grow in size and population, with various beautification projects mounted, including the installation of red lamp posts with golden dragons, the creation of bilingual street signs, and the planting of gingko trees along the boulevard.

The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park and Classical Chinese Garden were completed in the mid-80s and the Chinese arch from Expo 86 was re-installed in front of the Chinese Cultural Centre. In more recent years, the City of Vancouver worked to repair and maintain storefront awnings and carried out a Lighting Study to use street lights that enhance Chinatown’s nighttime ambience. Today, it’s a bustling corner of the city, with a variety of lively places to eat, drink and shop.

EXPLORE: Start your visit at the corner of Pender and Carrall to check out the Sam Kee Building, touted the world’s narrowest commercial building. Down the street is the beautiful garden of Dr. Sun Yat-Set, which offers interesting perspectives on culture, architecture and horticulture in the Ming Dynasty. Wander the garden then enjoy a traditional tea ceremony. Shop for calligraphy brushes, paper lanterns and tassels, parasols and more at Chinese Art Crafts. Stop for quality loose leaf tea and fine porcelain teaware at Treasure Green Tea Company.

It’s first come, first served at Bao Bei, a trendy restaurant where dinner plates of beef tartare, crispy pork belly and Sichuan cucumbers are meant to be shared. A few doors down is Keefer Bar, a cozy little spot where the decor and the drinks menu is inspired by a modern apothecary. Dance the night away at Fortune Sound Club, one of the city’s best nightclubs for live DJ sessions by local and international producers. In August, the Vancouver Chinatown Festival thousands of festival for a summer celebration featuring a market, multicultural stage performances, a talent showdown, a parade and other activities.

Go way south on Main St. to find Vancouver's Punjabi Market.

LITTLE INDIA (South Main Street and City of Surrey)

Drive south on Main Street, away from the craft breweries and tattooed dudes getting beard trims at corner barber shops. Keep going past the restaurants promoting artisanal-gluten-free-farm-raised menus. Soon, you’ll arrive at an entirely different Vancouver.

Welcome to Little India, a stretch along Main Street from 48th Avenues to 51st Avenue where glittering bangles dangle, saris flow and the aroma of curry fills the air. Vancouver may be known as the gateway to China but the city is also home to more than 200,000 people of Indian and Pakistani descent.

More than a century ago, immigrant laborers from Punjab first arrived in Vancouver to work in the booming lumber trade, and by the 1970s the six-block district where the city’s Indo-Canadian community shop—for spices, Indian snacks, exotic produce, and colorful swaths of silk—was dubbed Punjabi Market. In recent years, high rent and real estate speculation have led to the closing of many storefronts, forcing shop owners to relocate just outside Vancouver to Surrey, which today boasts the region’s largest Indian- and Punjabi- speaking population.

EXPLORE: Fuel up on Main Street at All India Sweets Restaurant, an iconic institution that serves some of the best samosa in town. For a no-frills, on-the-go meal, stop for a falafel sandwich or donair at Main Kabab Hut. Shop for sarees and other traditional dresses at Sadhna Saree House or Mona Cloth House and pick up some bling at Pindi Gold Jewellers.

The district hosts a handful of annual community events, including the five-day Vancouver Celebrates Diwali Festival, which commemorates the Indian New Year and is traditionally celebrated by Sikhs, Hindus and Jains in November. The Vaisakhi Day Parade in April marks the start of the harvest and celebrates the 1699 establishment of the Khalsa (the community of baptized Sikhs).

Not quite in the neighborhood but still worth a look is the Sikh Temple (on Ross Street) designed by Vancouver’s beloved architect, Arthur Erickson in 1969. In the city of Surrey, don’t miss My Shanti, where chef Vikram Vij takes guests on a culinary journey through East India. For meticulously tailored fashions, head to Crossover Bollywood Se or Sunny’s Bridal, both of which offer in achkans, jodhpuris and kurta pyjamas.

Japanese Canadians helped shape the city like few other immigrant groups.

LITTLE TOKYO (Railtown)

Long before this little district in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside became home to hot apparel brands like Aritzia and Herschel, to craft breweries, coffee roasters and bucket-list restaurants, it was known as Little Tokyo. “The first Japanese arrived in Vancouver in 1877,” says Beth Carter of the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby. “The first (arrivals) were working in fishing, then they went into the mills shortly after that.”

Japanese immigrants (called Nikkei) created this micro-neighborhood east of Gastown and north of Chinatown. It grew steadily and even had an all-Nikkei baseball team, the Vancouver Asahi, that played at Oppenheimer Park and went on to win the league championship five years in a row. “It was never called Japantown; sometimes it was referred to as Little Tokyo,” says Carter. “In the community it was referred to as Pauearu-Gai, basically Powell Street.”

Powell Street became the heart of the community, a place where people shopped, ate, and gathered for traditional parades. After the Pearl Harbor attack, Japan and Canada went to war and everything changed. Soon the Canadian government called for internment of all ethnic Japanese in the interior of British Columbia from 1942 until 1949, and the thriving neighborhood ceased to exist almost overnight. There are still traces of the lost neighborhood—if you know where to look.

EXPLORE: Start your visit on Powell Street at number 365 where the name “T. Maikawa” is etched on the facade of an art deco building that was once home to a Japanese department store. Up the block at number 269, the entrance to Big Lou’s Butcher Shop reads “Komura,” the name of a grocery store from 1906 to 1941. Powell Street Festival, the largest Japanese Canadian festival in Canada, showcases traditional and contemporary performances and demonstrations, including taiko drumming, sumo wrestling, martial arts, bonsai and ikebana, folk and modern dance, and visual arts, film/video. It also offers historical walking tours, tea ceremonies, and an array of Japanese food and crafts.

For lunch stop at Dosanko, a cozy little 45-seat dining room on Powell that serves a selection of home-style, seasonally inspired yōshoku (a Japanese interpretation of Western cooking) and classic Hokkaido plates with an emphasis on fresh housemade ingredients and a mottainai or “no waste” philosophy. The restaurant has become a popular gathering place for the city’s Japanese community, many of whom attend Canada’s oldest Japanese language school just blocks away.

Dinner reservations at Kissa Tanto are a must. Located on the edge of Chinatown, the menu at this popular restaurant fuses delicate flavors of Japan and the warmth of ltalian cooking for dishes that surprise and delight. Try the Tempura Shishito, made with house organic stracciatella, marinated sungold tomato and tosaka seaweed.

The Richmond Night Market is an outdoor sensory overload.

RICHMOND

Part of Metro Vancouver, Richmond is a land of many peoples, a scattering of islands where the First Nations first fished and collected berries. In the 1860s, the first European settlers came to farm and settle by the river and later the abundance of fisheries attracted fishermen from Japan and elsewhere to Richmond’s shores.

Today, the city has Canada’s largest immigrant population (60%); more than half of the entire population is of Asian descent, many of whom immigrated in the late 1980s from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China. Located in the southwest corners of the city is Steveston, a quaint fishing village where historic buildings line the streets and where boats bring in the bounty of the sea to Fisherman’s Wharf.

During the summer months, the popular Richmond Night Market draws visitors from across British Columbia, Canada and the world to explore more than 400 booths that serve Asian cuisine and sell eclectic merchandise imported from across the Asian continent.

Explore: Shop for quality tea and delicate stationary at Nikaido then step back in time to a history rich in diversity and culture at the Steveston Museum, which offers a glimpse into the historic village. Exhibits at the Japanese Fishermen’s Benevolent Society building explore the good and bad times experienced by the local Japanese Canadian community.

Ask a dozen locals where to get the best dim sum in Richmond and you’ll inevitably get 12 different answers. For an upscale experience, make your way to the Empire Centre, where Chef Tony Restaurant specializes in Cantonese-style dishes like pan-fried diced pork pandan buns. The latest addition to the culinary scene in town is Origo Club, where East meets West in a beautifully designed dining room decorated with exquisite marble with stone and oak accents. At the bar, you’ll find an impressive selection of imported sake and whiskies while an art gallery and concept store in an adjacent room showcases modern Asian tapestries, pottery, sculpture and paintings.

Do like the locals do and head to the Richmond Night Market for a post-dinner meal, the kind of meal you’d typically find in a Hong Kong night market or in the streets of Bangkok or Singapore. From May to October, a massive parking lot becomes the stuff of street food dreams, the type of place Instagram foodies eat up with their smartphones.

The best way to explore the market is to arrive early to avoid the huge lines. Make your way down the rows of colorful canopied stalls and try everything—the Japanese battered octopus balls and Filipino egg rolls, the Indonesian dumplings, the stinky tofu and the curry potato sprinkled with spices. Take a break to watch a local talent perform live music, a dance or martial arts routine then go back for seconds (or thirds). Entry to the market is $4.25 Canadian dollars and easily reached from Vancouver via Skytrain.