A short history of Chinese farming in the Lower Mainland

King George Park Community Garden. | Photo by Audrey Tung

King George Park Community Garden. | Photo by Audrey Tung

The Chinese community of the early 20th century played an integral role in Vancouver’s agricultural industry. Urban development has lowered regional food security, and BC’s agricultural land may be further undermined if the provincial government’s proposed changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) are realized. Although the Lower Mainland’s Chinese agricultural community has diminished over the years, the rising popularity of urban gardening marks a resurrection to old ways of adapting to a changing landscape.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, former peasant farmers from China – in search of a better life – flocked to the fertile lands of the Fraser Valley. Because farming was an occupation familiar to them, many were drawn to the burgeoning agricultural industry.

More recent encroachment of urbanization and urban sprawl on agricultural lands has threatened the Chinese agricultural community. According to a 2005 Statistics Canada report, half of Canada’s urbanized land in 2001 was located on formerly dependable agricultural land.

From commercial to urban farming
Although commercial agriculture is threatened to a certain extent, with the increasing popularity of community gardens and backyard-grown produce, urban farming is beginning to gain traction among the Chinese community.

“In the spring, I attended a vegetable gardening class at the Richmond Community Centre. Many class members were Chinese,” says Lai Man Kam, a citizen service representative for the City of Vancouver – and prospective gardener.

Because she is unable to cultivate vegetables in her backyard, due to townhouse restrictions, she is considering renting a plot at the King George Park community garden.

“I don’t own a plot here yet. I came here just to check it out, and this looks like an exciting opportunity,” says Kam. “Before, I grew some strawberries and herbs in my old backyard; but I’m not allowed to garden, now that I’ve moved to a townhouse. Community gardens seem like a great idea, especially for people who don’t have access to a backyard.”

The organic lifestyle afforded by gardening appeals to Kam.

“Food from the supermarket is probably covered in pesticides, but organic food is expensive. If I could grow some of my own food, I wouldn’t have to worry about that as much,” says Kam.

Cultivating a piece of history
According to a 2011 Simon Fraser University study, Chinese immigrants produced 90 per cent of BC’s vegetables by 1921.

Familiarity with the agricultural lifestyle, though, proved elusive as Chinese immigrants not only adapted their farming practices – from one of small-scale subsistence farming to one of industrial-scale agriculture – but also navigated the difficulties of living in a new country.

“It was a lot of work, dawn to dusk. I remember my mum out there with a kerosene lamp hung on a pole harvesting stuff for the next day,” recalls Ken Yip, in a video produced for the Chinese Canadian Stories project.

The success and proliferation of Chinese farmers provoked discrimination from society at large. In 1935, the introduction of the Vegetable Marketing Act made it difficult for Chinese farmers to distribute their produce with ease, leading to the violent arrests of several Chinese farmers who did not adhere to regulations. To stay afloat in a competitive market, Chinese farmers were forced to sell their produce cheap.

Locally-sourced Chinese crops
The loss of agricultural land in the Lower Mainland has had a negative impact on food security (the degree to which access to food is guaranteed). A 2010 Vancouver Food Policy Council reports that BC’s self-sufficiency in fruits dropped from 72 to 49 per cent, and self-sufficiency in cereals plunged from 267 to 54 per cent.

Notwithstanding the increase in imported fruits, Chinese vegetables sold in Vancouver’s grocery stores often remain locally sourced.

“All of our vegetables are local – many from Langley and Surrey,” says Ming Ho, manager of New Hong Kong Supermarket.

Despite the threat of urbanization, he is confident BC’s agricultural land will be preserved.

“Luckily, a lot of farmland in the Lower Mainland is protected by the provincial Agricultural Land Reserve,” explains Ho. “According to the law, a certain amount of land must remain farmland.”

Although the BC government is currently seeking major changes to the ALR, he remains optimistic about the situation.

“I don’t think it’ll change much because agriculture is important to BC,” says Ho.

Long wait lists, of up to three years, for community garden plots in the Lower Mainland indicate a high demand for urban agriculture. As a result, Vancouver (as part of its Greenest City 2020 plan) has established a target of 5,000 community garden plots by 2020. Similarly, Richmond’s legislated 2041 Official Community Plan, in response to high demand, set an objective of developing new community gardens around the city.