Natalie Tan

Simmer Down, Issue #15 10.20.2020

where do we meet now?
(emo subtitle: without you is how i disappear)

I often wax poetic about the inimitable cha chaan teng, or Hong Kong café, an institution that embodies the resilience and ferocity of Hong Kongers and holds within its replications worldwide the memories and practices that allow Hong Kong culture to live on in the diaspora, outside a centre of origin that’s currently being dismembered. Most of my cha chaan teng memories take place at Goldstone Restaurant and Bakery in Vancouver’s Chinatown, possibly the best cha chaan teng on planet Earth – the spacious, air-conditioned, friendly neighbourhood restaurant where I can expect the comfort of Canto-only conversation with the familiar faces of the staple servers who ask me where I’ve been, and tell me they never quite understood what my job was. It is there, basking in the glow of cream and burgundy and pastel pink and teal at a level that Wes Anderson could never achieve, with a gigantic clock next to the open kitchen hanging over the kingdom reminding you that you have all the time in the world, you can devour the best baked pork chop on rice you will ever eat.

Open six days a week, Goldstone became the go-to place for lunch when one of us had a bad day at work, if it was so hot we were melting and we needed a pineapple cooler or a lemon iced tea, or if we were hosting visitors immediately considered moving to Canada after a single bite of baked pork chop. Ever-reliable, their good food was a guaranteed perfect pairing to good company. Nestled in their plush booths is where fruitful conversations took place alongside boisterous laughter. It was a place we would randomly see our friends and neighbours, or my favourite one-time collaborator and activist who is now over 100 years old, Mrs. Chang (張太), cutting a thick french toast into 9 squares while telling her party, “those people there run an art gallery–they’re good people.” It was a place where we could stay for literally five hours without being forced to leave, often chatting with the servers, one of whom I sometimes rode the bus home with.

So colour us collectively the deepest blue when on September 30th, news spread online that Goldstone was up for sale.

Internally I grappled with the possibility that Goldstone, with its cheesy charred baked pork chop, crispiest and creamiest egg tarts, its coffee-leaning yuen yeung, may soon be gone. At the centre of this loss, however, isn’t only food as nourishment for the body or the soul – its disappearance is another branch clipped off a legacy of migration and resilience that desperately needs to not only be preserved, but continued in stride. 

I worked in Vancouver’s Chinatown for five years and witnessed the ongoing flattening of a cultural and community landscape so rapid that often overnight I’d see another unit vacated in haste, or a freshly painted new business brightly illuminated for the oncoming gentry. While many of us fought (and are currently still fighting) against it, events occur that are just beyond our control.

Daisy Garden on Pender Street used to be the spot I frequented for a weekly warming lunch of beef brisket ho fun with soup; it was always a thrill to walk in, order at the counter, and wait at the front of the restaurant where they prepared all the noodle soups–reminiscent of a Hong Kong noodle house–the quick motions of the chef clouded by endless plumes of steam that clung to the windows, appearing like a magician’s smoke screen from the street. One day the neighbourhood air was heavy with thick smog, and word went around quickly that Daisy Garden was burning down.

A few months later, upon arrival to the office I was ushered outside, and led to Golden Wheat Bakery at the intersection of Gore and East Hastings Street, a place introduced to me by the late literary pioneer Jim Wong-Chu, who would bring over boxes and bags of what I consider to be “home food” – massive glutinous rice balls deep fried with red bean paste or savory minced pork filling, stir fried vermicelli with dried shrimp, and the thinnest, most succulent cheung fun. It was a spot that I’d stop at for a midday snack, buying a bag of fried goodies and leaving them on the table at work, and that morning I stood across the street from it and watched it get demolished. The recently shuttered Golden Garden, or “GG” as we’d call it, was home to my favourite garlicky and clear-broth noodle soup, lovingly known as HM5. We became such regulars there we were once bestowed with a dish of orange wedges after lunch. Once, as I was doing my morning window wash, I was approached by two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were searching for the best coconut buns they had ever eaten, certain that the bakery was on our street. I told them they were looking for Keefer Bakery, which had closed a few years earlier. Then they said, “since you helped us, let us help you…” and I ran back inside with my Windex.

These eateries, gone for their respective reasons, provided their specialities–the best wonton noodle soup and braised duck, the biggest and QQ-est ham sui gok, the most divine coconut buns–and their disappearance caused gaping deficiencies in the everyday lives of the community. With this loss, accessibility and familiarity for residents and regulars gets chipped away, not only from physical changes to the built environment, but from the lessening of access to nourishment through language and affordability. With Goldstone, we also lose that which is intangible–sensations brought on by the sweet solace of the first gulp of a lemon iced tea on a scorching afternoon, arriving on the day the specials menu changes, or the unexpected joy of seeing someone you know walk in and inviting them to sit with you. 

Setting aside all the complexities that arise from another loss in Chinatown, the absence of Goldstone begs one very simple question for many: where do we meet now?

Listen to a reading of “where do we meet now?” HERE as part of the inaugural 𝓑𝓻𝓮𝓪𝓴𝓯𝓪𝓼𝓽 𝓑 𝓡𝓮𝓪𝓭𝓲𝓷𝓰 𝓢𝓮𝓻𝓲𝓮𝓼 by artist Julia Dahee Hong. 

Listen to my interview on CBC Radio’s The Early Edition about Goldstone and Chinatown HERE.