Richmond, British Columbia, a short 30 miles north of the U.S.-Canada border, is rich in East Asian culture, with a majority Asian-Canadian population—and a wide variety of East Asian foods as a result. Hot pot and seafood restaurants, Chinese bakeries, tea shops and Chinese meat shops sit next to markets where customers can find dumplings, gai lan [Chinese broccoli], noodlefish, dried seaweed and fresh produce, while Chinese pop music plays in the background.
More than 80% of Richmond’s population are of South Asian, Philippine, Japanese, Southeast Asian, Middle East or Latin American descent; more than half are Chinese. Many Chinese immigrated to British Columbia from Hong Kong in the late eighties and early nineties in anticipation of the transfer of Hong Kong from a British to a Chinese territory.
The larger East Asian population brings a wider selection and larger demand for East Asian groceries than in Skagit and Whatcom counties, where Asian-American populations are in the single-digit percentages and Asian markets are scarce, with none in the San Juan Islands.
Local Asian markets compete with large supermarkets that offer supplies of basic Asian cooking ingredients. Offering low prices for fresher, more specialized and authentic ingredients helps these local markets stay in business.
The markets also give customers a window into ethnic cultures by way of food, language and relationships.
Friendly chatter, hard work
Oriental Mini Mart owner Amy Hall chats with customers who browse the Mount Vernon store’s shelves for halo-halo [an iced dessert], ube [purple yam], sweet chili oil, ginger, rice noodles and other assorted items. The small market, decorated with plants and Christmas paraphernalia, is filled with the sounds of crinkling wrappers, a jingling doorbell and Hall’s voice.
Hall’s small Asian grocery store relocated to Riverside Drive four years ago from its original location on College Way where she and her sisters first went into business in 2000. Hall, formerly of Vancouver, operates the store six days a week with her husband, Ron Hall.
Business has been hard for the store, but Hall believes customers are drawn by her friendliness. She chats with visitors of many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds for sometimes a half hour to an hour.
“In a big store, you cannot do that,” Hall said. “That’s why it’s nice. In a small store, you can get friendly.”
Some new customers are drawn by the store’s sign, but most are regulars Hall recognizes and has relationships with. Hall sometimes sends customers off with a free item or two as a thanks for buying often.
Hall is retired and can feel drained by the daily work, as she and her husband cannot afford additional workers. Sometimes, Hall admits, she thinks of selling the store, but interacting with customers and making friends makes her job enjoyable and keeps her happy.
Small market, big challenges
Running an Asian market is difficult in an unstable economy with limited inventory and competition from supermarkets around the corner. Gas prices, increasing wholesale prices and pressures from the COVID-19 pandemic are also stressors.
Customers aren’t buying as much as they used to because of high inflation, Hall said. The store may make $2,000 in a good week, but can make $300 in a bad one. Right now, Hall said, the regular bulk purchases of a single food truck vendor in Bellingham account for a large portion of their profits.
Supply issues also plague the mini mart. Hall has Japanese, Filipino and Thai suppliers; all have raised their prices. Higher gas prices have compelled Ron Hall to cut his weekly trips to Seattle for fresh produce and meat to biweekly. Sometimes, the store runs out of their most popular items—noodles, rice, soy sauce and wraps.
Inventory stresses even larger stores like West Coast Oriental Grocer in Bellingham where owner Chinh Dao stocks many Asian spices, frozen items, meats and snacks he brings from Tacoma, Bremerton and Seattle. The store still must wait on some shipments for an entire year.
Items like canned water chestnut and mushrooms may be out of stock until next year, said Nguyen Pham, a worker at West Coast Oriental Grocer and Dao’s niece. She said shipments are periodically paused coming from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the store has run short of Vietnamese and Japanese foods and even Filipino fish sauce and sriracha.
Supermarket Asian foods sections may not be as extensive as Asian market inventories but their shelves stay well stocked with ingredients nearly every day of the week. Hall said she can’t compete with the inventory of larger stores, but many of her prices are lower—an advantage Pham believes West Coast Oriental Grocer holds as well.
Convenience, price and value
Quangang Mao, president of Bellingham’s Northwest Chinese Cultural Association, chooses convenience when shopping and eschews visiting smaller markets almost entirely.
Mao and his family have lived in Bellingham since 2007 after moving from China. He said he can find 70 to 80% of the Asian groceries he needs at Costco and Fred Meyer, which allows him to shop for all his groceries in one trip.
For special ingredients Mao heads to Shoreline, Lynnwood and Seattle where larger Asian populations mean larger Asian markets with more selection and fresh ingredients such as gai lan, gai choy (Chinese mustard) and live crab and rockfish from tanks. If there were larger Asian grocery stores in Bellingham, Mao said he would go there instead.
The convenience of online shopping. with goods delivered to the doorstep, also takes customers from local Asian markets, too, said both Mao and Pham.
When customers visit West Coast Oriental Grocer, they’re often looking for basic ingredients for an Asian dish they’re looking to cook, Pham said. At such markets, customers can get acquainted with basic Asian ingredients but also access more specialized ingredients as well, Pham said. Some of West Coast Oriental Grocer’s most popular items are Thai basil for Vietnamese pho, cilantro, bean sprouts, red and black vinegar and pork blood, Pham said.
For those unfamiliar with Asian ingredients, browsing shelves of unrecognizable spices, meats and snacks labeled in other languages can be daunting, but clerks like Pham help guide customers in their shopping.
Pham has worked at West Coast Oriental Grocer for half a year. She shopped at the store after moving from Vietnam to Bellingham four years ago, then discovered that the owner was her uncle. By watching her uncle and aunt advise customers and cook special dishes, Pham also learned to assist customers with their ingredients.
“You need to know how to cook some (Asian dishes) to give (customers) help,” Pham said. “Mostly they know what they’re looking for, but for some people (it) is their first time trying Asian food and they have a recipe but don’t know the ingredient. I’m going to help them with that.”
Many customers are regulars, but there are some every day who need help, Pham said. She recommends ingredients to customers based on what is suitable for the recipe, what flavors the customer prefers and the cooking tools they have. Pham recommends pad thai, pho and thai curry, but one of her favorite suggestions is Thai long bean salad.
Hall similarly makes shopping at Oriental Mini Mart a personable experience, explaining certain items to customers, suggesting recipes and even teaching them how to cook dishes like noodles or desserts and telling them to try something new. Sometimes, Hall said, she will give a customer a new item for free if they want to try it out, or cook something at home, such as such as Asian rice, fish, soup or noodles, and then bring it to the store to share.
A taste of culture
In addition to groceries, the markets are connections to Asian culture, Mao said. When he travels to his favorite Chinese shops, he enjoys hearing the pop music from China and Taiwan and seeing store information written in Mandarin.
“You feel like you’re going back to Shanghai or going to Hong Kong or Taipei,” Mao said. “It’s like you are going back to Asia.”
The U.S. Census Bureau defines a person Asian as “having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand and Vietnam.”
Asian Americans make up about 4% of Whatcom County’s population and 1.7% of Skagit County’s.
A trip to an Asian market can give non-Asian visitors a moment of exposure to a different culture.
“For the people who are not familiar with Chinese culture, they really can get a taste to see the Chinese culture and the cooking and the food,” Mao said. “Food is a good way to bridge a culture gap.”
Mao and the Northwest Chinese Culture Association are reaching out to the larger Bellingham community to forge connections between Bellingham’s small Chinese community and those who are interested in the culture. The association hosts Chinese New Year celebrations and summer picnics to introduce Chinese traditions and food and to make Chinese friends.
Asian markets aren’t the only space to familiarize and experience Asian culture, Mao said. There are Chinese churches where people can meet Chinese in their community, the Mei Hua Chinese School offers kids an opportunity to learn basic Mandarin, and the Northwest Chinese Culture Organization has events and online chat opportunities, he said.
“You have Chinese neighbors and in school you can always find the kids, first generation or second generation, who speak Chinese and you can interact,” Mao said. “Talking to them, making friends is easy. Maybe you go to the restaurant, (talk) with the boss when you eat the food, go to Chinese New Year event. In Bellingham, every neighborhood has an Asian neighbor.”
—Reported by Kai Uyehara
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