With its colorful ornamental gate, traditional garden and old-Shanghai-style street lamps, a small section of Vancouver lays claim to the title of Chinatown. However, it's the nearby suburb of Richmond that acts like it. Home to one-sixth of Vancouver's nearly 700,000 Asians, Richmond considered installing Chinese street signs due to the prevalence of Chinese speakers. The city entices visitors with working museums detailing the lives of Asians and others on the coast of British Columbia, a multitude of dining choices, and malls which transport visitors to the other side of the Pacific.
Richmond was founded in 1879 with an already-thriving aboriginal culture added to by British, Japanese and Chinese immigrants. Recent immigrants have come in waves from Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. All have left an indelible stamp on the Vancouver region's culture.
For fascinating shopping or lunch outings, Richmond's Yaohan Centre and Aberdeen Centre malls are must-sees. Yaohan Centre is home to a vibrant food fair catering to the many palates of Asia. Near Richmond Centre mall is Kirin Restaurant, which boasts a celebrated Cantonese and seafood menu. Richmond's Aberdeen Centre kicks off the Chinese New Year Feb. 14 at 11 a.m. with Chinese dragons and lions and dancers backed by Chinese festival drums.
In Vancouver, the Year of the Tiger parade starts to roll through Chinatown at 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 14. For those with a spiritual bent, the International Buddhist Society's Kuan Yin Temple in Richmond is considered North America's most magnificent and authentic temple of traditional Chinese architecture.
At 11 p.m. on Chinese New Year's Eve (Feb. 13), Abbot Guan Cheng, will lead chanting and group prayers. Visitors are welcome. Chinese architecture can also be explored at Vancouver's Sun Yat-Sen Traditional Chinese Garden, a Ming Dynasty oasis of serenity in the busy downtown core.
But the Chinese community is just one of many diverse ethnic groups adding to the vibrancy of the Vancouver area. Japanese contributions to B.C.'s culture are celebrated at the University of British Columbia's Nitobe Garden. It's considered one of the most authentic Japanese gardens in North America, and among the top five outside of Japan.
"I am in Japan," Japanese Emperor Akihito once said as he strolled past Nitobe's reflecting pond with Koi, streams and waterfalls, stone lanterns and the teahouse.
For more than a century, Sikhs from India have made their homes in the Vancouver area. The 49th Avenue and Main Street area is known as the Punjabi Market and is alive with stores, markets and restaurants. The Sikh presence is marked by two large gurudwaras or temples. Vancouver's Ross Street Temple and Guru Nanak Gurdwara in the suburb of Surrey welcome visitors.
A darker side of Olympic history is documented at Vancouver's Jewish Community Centre's Holocaust Education Centre. Two current exhibits, More Than Just Games: Canada and the 1936 Olympics and Framing Bodies: Sport and Spectacle in Nazi Germany, caused a sensation when they opened prior to the start of the Olympic Torch Run.
Back in Richmond, the early contributions of the region's diverse populations to B.C.'s economy are preserved at the Britannia Shipyard National Historic Site. It's a rare surviving example of a once-thriving mixture of fish canneries, boatyards and heritage buildings. Situated atop wooden pilings over the Fraser River, the village of Steveston's Gulf of Georgia Cannery is one of the few remaining 19th century salmon canneries on the coast.
A less-talked-about piece of B.C. history is the seizure of Japanese-Canadians during World War II. Fearing a Japanese invasion, the Canadian government rounded up Japanese-Canadians, stripped them of their belongings, and forced them into camps in the province's interior. (The U.S. conducted a similar round-up of its Japanese residents.) That dark episode in Canadian history is commemorated at Richmond Museum, as is the rich coastal aboriginal culture. For visitors heading into the province's Interior, New Denver is home to a haunting internment camp museum.
Steveston is also a great place to wander through quaint shops or have a beer on the docks. After that, Dave's Fish & Chips serves up a hearty English meal. This is where the Brits eat.