Exploring all things Asian in Richmond — no passport required.
By Cinda Chavich
PHOTO: GABRIEL BUCATARU/STOCKSY
A trip to Richmond is like travelling to Asia without the jet lag. Each time I visit, there’s a moment when a sight, a sound or a flavour — the sensory triggers for memories of travel to exotic places — transports me right back to somewhere I’ve been in Beijing or Seoul or Penang.
It might be a juicy xiao long bao dumpling, the soupy filling bursting in my mouth, just like the one I slurped at the source in Shanghai. It could be the strange tingling of fragrant Szechuan peppercorns on my tongue, that addictive numbing that first opened my palate to the spicy chilies of Chengdu, or the flat chewy noodles sold by Muslim-Chinese street vendors in Xi’an, and now set before me in a suburban strip mall.
The giggling girls slurping bubble tea and snowy shaved ice at a hip little dessert café channel memories of Korea. Busy night markets with food stalls and Chinese opera singers conjure the crowded alleys of Hong Kong. And admiring the colourful carving and arching eves of the spectacular International Buddhist Temple, awash in the incense of smoky joss sticks, I’m reminded of the traditional temples I’ve visited all across Asia.
Richmond is a unique corner of Canada. It’s a small city of 210,000, where more than 65 per cent of the residents are immigrants, half with Chinese roots. It makes a unique, and fascinating destination for a weekend, whether you come for the culture, the shopping or the food.
And if you visit during the annual Lunar New Year festival — the Year of the Dog begins February 16 — you’ll find acrobatic lion dancers leaping through the streets, markets overflowing with exotic flowers and fruits, and beautiful banquets from top Chinese-Canadian chefs.
Things To Do In Richmond
It’s so easy to get to Richmond, whether you hop on a ferry, a float plane or a helicopter. The Canada Line of the skytrain whisks me from downtown Vancouver to Richmond’s commercial district in about 20 minutes. And the Aberdeen Centre, just outside the SkyTrain station, is the perfect place to ease into my Asian immersion.
Where To Shop and What To Buy
PHOTO: GRANT HARDER/TOURISM RICHMOND
This glittering mall is Cantonese commerce at its finest, and I’m drawn into stores selling artfully bottled ginseng, pressed black blocks of rare pu-erh tea, Japanese anime dolls, even posh Mercedes-Benz cars and high-tech toilets. It’s always fun to shop somewhere that offers uncommon brands, and this is it, complete with labels found in the bustling cores of so many modern Asian cities yet rarely seen in North America.
There are stylish shops like Kokko and Giordano (China’s answer to The Gap), Korean cosmetics at Aritaum, TonyMoly and Nature Republic, and beautiful Japanese tableware at Utsuwa-No-Yakata.
But my first stop is Daiso, a Japanese $2 store brimming with inexpensive household goods on two levels. This is the place for cute stickers and funky little journals, candy and other loot for your kid’s birthday party, and all manner of unique treasures, from pretty sushi dipping dishes and bento boxes to chic bamboo skewers for appies.
I can waste a lot of time looking at Daiso’s eclectic collection — some 100,000 products — but there are other favourite finds in this massive mall. I snoop for deals on pre-loved designer handbags and other brand name bling at High End Resale, grab an oolong macchiato at Shiny Tea, then stop to watch the Vegas-style dancing fountain (turned into a massive stage for lion dancers and other entertainers for Chinese New Year celebrations).
The mall’s entire upper level is a bustling food court and a great place to nosh your way through some authentic Asian dishes — try the Korean chicken, the ethereal shaved ice at Frappé Bliss, crispy bubble waffles, and the fresh beef and pork jerky at Mei Jan Hong.
Temples and Gardens
The International Buddhist Temple in Richmond, modelled on China’s Forbidden City, is a must-see. Sign up online for a guided tour, or tour the magnificent gardens and buildings on your own. Gourmet vegetarian lunches are served daily at a Taste of Zen in an exquisite setting inspired by Chinese meditation and Buddhist arts. The restaurant blends elements of Western cuisine into traditional Chinese cooking to offer a fresh, flavourful and inspiring foodie experience. PHOTO: ED WHITE PHOTOGRAPHICS
The perfect antidote to Richmond’s retail buzz is its quiet, spiritual side, so I leave the Golden Village district in search of No. 5 Road, dubbed the Highway to Heaven. More than 20 different religions are represented along a three-kilometre stretch, a multi-faith mix of Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim and Hindu temples, mosques and monasteries, and evangelical churches, rising over the flat delta landscape.
But my destination is the International Buddhist Temple, considered the most authentic example of traditional Chinese architecture in Canada. Modelled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, it’s truly a world away from Richmond’s sprawling suburbs.
I wander through the classical Chinese garden, with its lotus ponds and beautiful bonsai, admire the colourful woodwork, golden porcelain tiles and Chinese dragons adorning the swooping, palatial rooflines. The 35-foot Buddha in the Main Gracious Hall is the largest in North America, a camphor-wood carving completely encased in gold leaf. Just beyond the temple courtyard, where worshippers come to burn incense and pray, are the thousand hands and eyes of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Visitors are welcomed here every day, but if you come on a Saturday morning, you can join the weekly meditation class.
If you’ve travelled anywhere in China, you’ll know that another relaxing tradition is a foot massage, and after a day traipsing around Richmond, my tired feet lead me to the Shangri-La Foot Spa, where Chinese experts in reflexology begin my 50-minute treatment with a herbal foot soak and neck massage. It’s a comfortable little space, and a real treat for your feet for just $33.
Where To Eat In Richmond
PHOTO: GRANT HARDER/TOURISM RICHMOND
But Richmond is also about the food, some of the most authentic Asian cuisine outside of Asia, and I’m here to taste as much as I can on my weekend away.
There are more than 800 restaurants in Richmond — from big, shiny Chinese banquet rooms for dim sum and elaborate dinners, to little hole-in-the-wall Chinese barbecue joints, bakeries, Hong Kong cafés and steamy DIY hot pots to share.
Alexandra Road, known as “Food Street,” is a great place to start. With its clusters of strip malls and signage bristling with Chinese and Korean characters, it can be a bit overwhelming, but I have Tourism Richmond’s Dumpling Trail website loaded on my phone and a dozen carefully chosen spots to try. Dumplings are simple comfort food (think Grandma’s tender perogies or fluffy gnocchi), but making them great is all about the technique, and in Richmond restaurants you can watch experts carefully pleating juicy soup-filled pork xiao long bao that rival any in Shanghai.
Beyond dumplings, I’m looking for hand-pulled noodles, authentic Szechuan dishes and that delicious daily ritual, dim sum.
We line up for the latter at Chef Tony Seafood Restaurant, known for its modern bright interior and the giant illustrated menu of updated classics, from fluffy taro dumplings topped with slivers of abalone, to pork and shrimp siu mai with aromatic black truffles.
There are more than 800 restaurants in Richmond — from big, shiny Chinese banquet rooms for dim sum and elaborate dinners, to little hole-in-the-wall Chinese barbecue joints, bakeries, Hong Kong cafés and steamy DIY hot pots to share. PHOTO: ALBERT NORMANDIN/TOURISM RICHMOND
It’s tempting to order it all, but there are so many other delicacies to try in Richmond. I decide to devote a day to grazing — starting with a hot pineapple bun oozing butter with milky tea at the Lido Restaurant. Another must-stop is HK BBQ Master for its perfect crispy pork belly and glazed duck, and Kam Do Bakery for golden coconut-filled buns and egg tarts.
For an authentic bowl of mung bean “jelly noodles” and white fish, swimming in fiery chilies, I take a detour to Szechuan Delicious, then cool down with a big bowl of shaved ice, topped with tropical fruit, at Mango Yummy next door.
The marathon continues with Shanghai pork dumplings (steamed and baked) at Suhang, and addictive spring rolls with sweet Vietnamese coffee at Pho Lan. In the food court at the Richmond Public Market, I watch as the chef pulls noodles at Xi’an Cuisine, then order a plate of his spicy cold flat noodles with cucumber and wash it all down with a milky bubble tea from Peanut’s.
My day ends at Snowy Village dessert café, a popular new spot for bingsoo, a Korean shaved-ice milk dessert that comes topped with red bean paste, fruit, jelly, rice cakes and roasted grain powder.
Unusual? Truly. But where else can you have such a diverse multicultural experience so close to home?
Where To Stay
Pacific Gateway Hotel
The Pacific Gateway Hotel (formerly the Delta) is a friendly, comfortable, independent airport hotel next to the Fraser River, with plenty of parking, a shuttle service to YVR and moorage for pleasure craft. The Club Floor features Nespresso coffee machines, fridges (to store your food finds) and water views. The free-standing Pier 73 restaurant sits out over the river and offers fresh, local cuisine from chef Morgan Lechner, with sustainable and Ocean Wise ingredients sourced from Richmond’s farmers and fishers.
Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel
If you want to be within walking distance of 200 Richmond restaurants, the Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel is a convenient base — right along the Alexandra Road food strip.
Radisson Hotel Vancouver Airport
Another hotel that is close to public transit is the Radisson Hotel Vancouver Airport. It’s next to the Aberdeen Centre and close to the Canada Line skytrain, along No.3 Road.
This article is from the January/February 2018 issue of YAM.