On a hazy Friday morning, Gui Rong Ni, 72, is in her element at the neighbourhood garden in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. As Ni scatters carrot seeds across the bare sections of soil, Ya Qin Wan, 79, showers Brussels sprouts and bitter melon crops with a hose. At an adjacent plot, Yu Ying Guan, 83, harvests the fuchsia-stained leaves of yin choy. Working in synergy, the women employ knowledge and dexterity retained from decades of experience.
Produce farmers by trade, they once played a crucial role in China’s food system. After moving to Canada in the 2010s, they are now among the 12.6 per cent of seniors in B.C. reliant on public pensions who are food insecure. While old age security helps cover their monthly rent and bills, there’s next to no money left for food. As a result, they count on food banks, charity meals and other programs run by youth-led grassroots initiatives for nourishment.
Only 2.4 per cent of older Canadians are estimated to be moderately or severely food insecure, according to a 2020 study led by researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, a proportion lower than the 14.6 per cent of the general population reported as food insecure by Statistics Canada in May 2020.
But that figure papers over serious difficulties that many immigrant seniors face in sourcing adequate amounts of nutritious food—populations undercounted, overlooked or excluded from many surveys and studies because they don’t speak English. Struggling under limited fixed incomes, many toil daily to put food on their tables, making use of grocery distribution programs led by outreach organizations and charities. Worse, some Chinese seniors interviewed by Maclean’s in Vancouver say they’ve faced stereotyping, hostility and overt racism while accessing these services.
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“Due to language barriers, many seniors living in Chinatown don’t get the help that they need,” says Teng Lai Lim, the dedicated outreach worker for Chinese seniors at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre who organized the garden Guan, Ni and Wan are using.
Lim assists 43 Chinese seniors in situations where language is an impediment, but she often does additional work at the centre off the side of her desk. As a result, she says, she’s at risk of burnout, struggling to accommodate everyone who needs her help within what is supposed to be a 30-hour workweek. “I am doing multiple people’s jobs,” she says.
Lim and others who work with Chinese seniors have asked for more hours and additional staff, saying it would allow them to help more people—but so far to no avail. “It’s sad, because a lot of the [seniors’] problems are not on the surface,” she says. “You have to dig down.”
A genuine personal connection is what many elderly people seek from social workers, Lim says, especially for those who recently uprooted their lives in their homeland. One of the seniors Lim currently accompanies to doctors’ appointments, Xiao Wen Shi, 73, was sponsored by her son nine years ago to come live in Canada, along with her husband, Bing Xu Jiao, 83. They made the move from their home in Heilongjiang—a province in northeast China that borders Russia—to help care for their grandchildren. Most of the seniors Lim works with made the move for the same reason.
Shi, then 65, found work at a blueberry farm to help pay the rent, as she and her husband were living with their son’s family at the time. Through 14-hour workdays, she squatted under the blazing sun, earning 40 cents per pound of berries picked. Eventually, severe knee pain forced her to retire. “Recently, she has had to lie down a few times in between preparing meals, because she is in pain,” a visibly concerned Jiao says of his wife, in Mandarin. “I’m worried about the day she can no longer stand up.”
When their grandchildren reached their teen years, the couple made their home in Vancouver’s Chinatown, one of the distinct areas that make up the city’s Downtown Eastside. Founded in the late 19th century, the area expanded after the Chinese Immigration Exclusion Act was repealed following the Second World War. Today, it lies within one of Canada’s poorest postal codes, in the sightlines of Yaletown’s luxury condos and only kilometres away from Canada’s richest neighbourhood, West Vancouver.
Yet Asian seniors regard Chinatown as a naturally occurring retirement community. The area offers a kind of subdued facsimile of home, Jiao says, with greengrocers, fishmongers, barbecued-meat stores and dry-goods shops whose owners speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Those businesses are slowly giving way, though, to luxury gyms, vegan restaurants and faddish clothing shops selling $400 sneakers.
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All this can be seen from the window of Shi and Jiao’s fixed-rate studio apartment, though their small monthly budget for food leaves little room for staples, let alone edible luxuries. Their son, who is working to feed his own family in the high-cost B.C. Lower Mainland, brings food once a month when he and his family visit, though some of it is consumed during their time together. So the bulk of the couple’s diet is based on food from the local food bank.
Each week, the couple makes the trip down the block together to collect it. Shi clutches her husband’s arm for stability; his other arm tows a foldable trolley they fill with mainstays like eggs, milk and seasonal vegetables. Despite their lack of English, they are welcomed by food bank staff who are aware of Shi’s disability; they often invite her to collect food without lining up.
But positive experiences are not universal. Jing Li, another Chinese resident using food banks in the neighbourhood, recounts hostile interactions the 72-year-old and her friends have had with volunteers from another organization while in the lineup for its streetside food bank.
In the early days of the pandemic, Smoke Signals—an Indigenous-led organization whose primary mission is reconnecting First Nations peoples in the Downtown Eastside with their families and culture—partnered with the Salvation Army in North Vancouver and the Korean American Presbyterian Church to distribute food at an outdoor location steps away from the intersection of Main Street and East Hastings.
Once the food was laid out on a table, the distribution became chaotic; it was common for a frenzy to ensue between volunteers and the people in line, further complicated by miscommunication about the amount of food each person could take.
Li believes that she and her friends were racially profiled, grouped in with others who tend to skip the line and, as she puts it, “grab everything they can” when they see food or essentials available. Li says these individuals dress and present much as she does, but she’s quick to empathize with them: the habit of stockpiling food, she says, is a response to being raised in a food-scarce environment in Asia; for some, doing so was vital to survival.
“When [the volunteers] saw someone who was not Asian walking by or sitting by the street, they would toss them better produce even though they are not in the lineup,” she says in Mandarin. “Then they would shoo us away with a stick . . . I felt terrible when my friends and I were treated that way. It’s disrespectful and unkind.”
When told of Li’s experience, Chris Livingstone, the outreach coordinator and mental health worker at Smoke Signals, says, “I feel terrible,” adding, “Lateral violence and violence in general really has no place down here.”
Livingstone says he’d heard of such incidents involving Chinese seniors before being contacted by Maclean’s, and had removed one volunteer from the streetside food bank due to multiple instances of hostile behaviour. The organization had previously taken steps to repair its relationships with the seniors by adding a Chinese interpreter, Livingstone adds, but abandoned the measure after finding it led to more confusion and disputes between the interpreter and volunteers.
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Concerned for the safety of both people in the lineup and volunteers, Smoke Signals discontinued its participation in the streetside food bank two weeks after Maclean’s spoke to Livingstone. He stresses that “happy, grateful Asian and Chinese seniors” comprise most of the lineup for food, but adds that he understands why Li and her friends might be apprehensive when accessing food programs after this experience.
Speaking before Smoke Signals withdrew from the program, he said: “I talk to [the volunteers] and tell them that giving out food should be a happy thing, and that if you’re feeling anger or frustration, then you have to step out of the equation.”
Instances of profiling and discrimination against Asian seniors are a long-standing problem at some food banks and programs in the Downtown Eastside, according to frontline workers in the community who spoke to Maclean’s. Mainstream portrayals of Chinese communities “perpetually paint them as better off compared to others,” says a former outreach worker who asked that her name be withheld to protect her current job; the effect, she says, obscures the poverty, marginalization and violence many experience.
Barbara Lee, founder of the Vancouver-based advocacy group Elimin8hate, says the discrimination arises partly from stereotypical depictions of Asian communities in film, TV and media. In this country, she says, the result of these rigid portrayals are racist notions that Chinese people living in Canada are “economic hoarders, that we don’t need assistance, and we’re out here to take up all the space and resources.”
Elimin8hate was created in response to a rise in reports of anti-Asian hate crimes: data collected in 2020 by the organization, in collaboration with another grassroots group called project 1907, revealed that B.C. had the highest number of reported anti-Asian hate incidents per capita in North America. In the first five months of 2021, project 1907 reported a 50 per cent increase in reports of anti-Asian incidents in Canada over all of 2020.
In Vancouver, as the pandemic set in, there was also a 717 per cent increase in reported anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020 over the previous year, according to a log of such incidents kept by the Vancouver Police Department. Lee and other activists who work in Vancouver’s Chinese community believe many experiences like Li’s go unreported.
As unprovoked attacks against Asians made headlines, Chinese seniors voiced safety concerns to volunteers at the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, a non-profit organization that supports low-income immigrant seniors. The youth-led organization responded by creating a delivery program to supply staple foods of East Asian cuisine and prepared meals to seniors on a weekly basis, in collaboration with the Hua Foundation, S.U.C.C.E.S.S., Bao Bei Brasserie and the United Way.
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A recent grant guarantees that the program will continue for another year, though Beverly Ho, the operations manager for Yarrow, recognizes it as a “Band-Aid solution” to a larger systemic issue. “Ideally, all of us at Yarrow hope we can work ourselves out of a job,” she says.
An organization called the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative also runs a weekly grocery delivery program that provides food to people living in single-room occupancy units in Chinatown and adjoining areas. Nicolas Yung, the organization’s Chinatown tenant and community organizer, notes that some single-room buildings—known colloquially as SROs—are infamously lawless and almost uninhabitable due to health and safety code violations. “Individuals living in [them] are often in difficult financial situations where they cannot afford enough food to eat,” he adds.
Once bags of groceries are prepared by workers and volunteers, Yung calls on a “team leader” living at each building to collect the groceries from volunteers outside their buildings and distribute them among their neighbours. “The delivery process requires the tenants to work with each other. So in a way, the food encourages relationships and builds a support network among people who share a kitchen and bathroom,” says Yung.
Anna Lao, the team leader for an SRO on Keefer Street, is also a chef at Gain Wah Restaurant, located on the building’s ground level. Once a month, she distributes coupons to residents living in her SRO and others, which they can exchange for meals at the restaurant, funded by donations and grants to the SRO Collaborative. She glows when recalling how one of her neighbours saved up his coupons for a year to buy Christmas dinner for his estranged son and daughter-in-law, in an attempt to repair their relationship.
Lao says her neighbours often confide in her if they are hungry, and she will always find them something to eat. The hardships she and her fellow tenants face create a perpetual bond, she says; she considers everyone living in the building her family.
To Christina Lee, who manages operations and special projects for Hua Foundation, a youth-led non-profit based in Vancouver’s Chinatown, this generosity reflects long-standing cultural values. “Maybe it comes from farming communities,” she says. “But we often convey love and care through food and collective food sharing.”
It is common, Lee adds, “for folks within our community to grow up and call everyone auntie and uncle, even though we don’t know who they are. I think that sense of family toward people who are not related to you by blood really contributes to this feeling of collective responsibility.”
Intergenerational reciprocity is embedded in the upbringing of many Chinese-Canadians, says Lee, which rings true through the work of youth-led initiatives like the Hua Foundation and the frontline workers who grind away to ensure the well-being of their elders.
Back at the garden, as the morning shifts to afternoon, Lim, the women’s centre outreach worker, and the retired farmers begin to wrap up. They’ve been working for an hour, and Lim will be back tomorrow to water the plots, as she does every day, even on her days off.
This day’s harvest of a dozen medium-sized tomatoes and a bag of yin choy will suffice as a side dish for two, and it’s fresher than anything bought at the store. One of the women saunters up to Lim and offers her the bags of produce, forcing them into her hands. The others look on, smiling and nodding.
“They’re all very generous,” says Lim, discreetly placing the vegetables back into one of the seniors’ shopping trolleys. “They grew up understanding the hardship and struggle that people go through. So even though they are poor, they still want to give.”
Nathan Sing writes about food security and hunger issues in Canada. His one-year position is funded by the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security, in partnership with Community Food Centres Canada.
This article appears in print in the February 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “In need of a helping.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.