The demise of Chinatown’s BBQ meat shops

October 1, 2015

By Joanne Lee-Young, Vancouver Sun

It seems absurd in this adventurous foodie city, but there was a time when Chinatown merchants were pitted against city health officials in a years-long battle over juicy pieces of barbecued pork.

Wall Financial Corp. is developing a site of old buildings on the southwest corner of Gore and East Hastings, and as one of the few remaining barbecue meat stores in Chinatown prepares to shut its doors, people are remembering some of the remarkable events and players who fended off what was seen as an attack by city hall on Chinese cultural food practices in the mid-1970s.

In 1975, inspectors temporarily shut down five Chinatown BBQ meat shops for failing to comply with a bylaw that said perishable meats must be kept at above 60 C or below 4 C.

“Health inspectors ran down to Chinatown and jammed their thermometers into the meats and said, ‘you’re closed,’” recalls Jim Wong-Chu, a historian who is writing a book about B.C.’s Chinese-Canadian history.

Other BBQ meat shops in the area halted business in solidarity, and soon shop workers were protesting in the streets. Their banners urged: “Save Chinatown, Support Chinese BBQ Products.”

Andy Joe, the activist lawyer for what became the Vancouver Chinese BBQ Meat Merchants Association, argued customers want roast or barbecued pork that is “moist and succulent, not frizzled or dried up.” He said most meat was sold within a short time of coming out of the ovens, and there had never been any reports of food poisoning due to eating Chinese BBQ meats.

The fight went on for years, even going all the way to Ottawa when the merchants joined a national campaign in support of barbecued meat sold in Chinatown shops across the country. This was spearheaded by Vancouver East MP Art Lee and, in 1978, they took a roast pig to Parliament Hill for a taste and safety test. They won over the likes of then-cabinet minister Jean Chretien by asking them to compare pieces of savoury and tender meat to dry and tough ones stored at regulation temperatures.

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