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POSTED ON 05/02/05

Dim sum meets cellphone nirvana

On the eve of Chinese New Year, ALISON APPELBE goes shopping at the Golden Village, Vancouver's 21st-century answer to Chinatown

RICHMOND, B.C. -- According to Chinese myth, the rooster is a sharp, resourceful party animal. This makes Year 4702 in the Chinese calendar -- the upcoming year of the rooster -- an auspicious one for the hundreds of merchants and restaurateurs participating in the largest commercial agglomeration of its kind in North America.

This year's Chinese New Year celebrations at the Golden Village in suburban Vancouver, beginning Wednesday, ought to be a particularly good bash. Located in Richmond, which skirts Vancouver to the south, this concentration of indoor and street malls -- all morphing into each other over a dozen city blocks -- is a 21st-century answer to the 19th-century Chinatown.

And from Feb. 9 to 22, it will roar. At Lok's Hapkido School, for example, owner Michael Lok is training 80 of his high-kicking Korean-style martial arts students for the lion dances they will perform in front of Golden Village's businesses. The ceremony aims to bring good fortune -- and customers. During Chinese New Year, "if consumer products aren't red, they're not sellable," warned Barrie Wong, owner of the Golden Jade House. Red is the traditional colour of the fire that fends off a mountain dragon in Chinese New Year mythology.

Thousands of immigrants from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan have come to represent 60 per cent of Richmond's nearly 180,000 residents, making them "a visible majority," according to City of Richmond spokesman Ted Townsend. "There are parts of Toronto with similar elements, but nothing to this degree anywhere else in North America -- a modern shopping area that combines Asian and Western culture and commerce," he said.

The proximity of Vancouver International Airport and relatively modest housing costs have contributed to making Richmond a favoured base for East Asian immigrants. And the fact that Richmond sits on the islands of the Fraser River Delta -- "a pearl in the mouth of the dragon," Townsend said -- and has a name that implies wealth, may have had a subtle impact.

The Golden Village has risen in little more than a decade along Richmond's No. 3 Road. Within and among the malls, several hundred restaurants serve the major Asian cuisines and lesser-known regional specialties.

At the Yuu Seafood and Dim Sum Restaurant on Alexandra Road, where local guide Parisa Tong and I ordered what seemed like a non-stop delivery of small Cantonese dishes, the diners were of many ethnic backgrounds. That's not the case for the malls themselves. "A lot of mainstream shoppers don't venture in," Townsend said. "But when you do, you discover an incredible vitality and culture."

At the large Yaohan Centre, the deli counters in the Osaka supermarket leapfrog from sushi bar to North China grill to Hong Kong and Taiwanese comfort foods to big bowls of Korean dishes such as seasoned seaweed and boneless duck feet. Lotus root, dried octopus, pork shank and green beans are packaged for slow-cooking at home.

Near the entrance, Chinese New Year sweets and delicacies were piling up in their bright red packaging. There were brown-sugar rice cakes and black-bean sesame balls intended to resemble gold coins. "The Chinese love money -- I'm up-front about it," laughed Yaohan promotions manager Elizabeth Tam.

Customers also covet a Western standard of cleanliness, Tam said as she showed off the pristine public washrooms and stooped to pick up refuse from a marble-tiled floor.

"We're not trendy, we're not modern -- but we have a special feeling," she added of the effort by the Yaohan Centre to keep pace in a fiercely competitive retail environment.

My 26-year-old China-born guide and I then made our way to the most upscale and modern of the Golden Village malls, Aberdeen Centre. "The first time I walked in here, I thought, 'My God, this is Hong Kong,' " Tong said of its glossy, multitiered atrium.

The clothing stores feature, to my Western eye, outrageous frippery in, mostly, size 2 or 4. At Envy, a wild slip of a frock looked like little more than an assembly of -- albeit well-chosen -- scraps of leftover fabric.

These skimpy dresses, swordfish-pointy shoes, carnival-hued woollens and similar froufrou are purchased from small factories in Asia in tiny qualities, Tong reported. Racks and shelves are thinly stocked. "That's fashion," she said. "It's got to be unique."

At an outlet called Aisle, two gorgeous twentysomething clerks sat serenely behind a glass counter as Tong and I poked about.

The Aberdeen Centre's anchor business is an upscale take on the Japanese-spawned trend of selling every item at a single price point -- say, 100 yen or 10 Hong Kong dollars -- and the North American dollar store. Except at the centre's Daiso store, everything costs two bucks.

The remaining businesses here reflect a pattern that runs through all the malls: beauty salons and manicurists, jewellers selling gold and semi-precious stones, electronic outlets (this is cellphone nirvana), Chinese herbalists, acupuncturists and massage parlours.

Inside 80-store Parker Place I (phase one) we entered a hyperactive emporium of low-cost fashion and unending gewgaw.

Pass under a neon sign into Parker Place II, and the passages narrow (clearly, the developer ran out of space). "This totally reminds me of Mong Kok," Tong said of the densely populated markets of Hong Kong's Kowloon.

Continue through the alleyways and you come to a phalanx of photo machines that spit out cheap images with cutesy graphics, beloved by teenaged girls.

An Asian wet market dishes out live seafood. A fortuneteller offers divinations for $5. The large food court is jam-packed. Spend, eat and enjoy -- that's the Golden Village.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Pack your bags

GETTING THERE

Richmond is off Highway 99, directly south of Vancouver and about 30 minutes north of the Canada-U.S. border by car. For more information, visit http://www.tourismrichmond.com or call 1-877-247-0777. You'll find a list of daily Chinese New Year events.

GOLDEN VILLAGE

The Golden Village is located immediately south of Sea Island Bridge, about two minutes by car from Vancouver International Airport. For more information on stores and events, call 604-773-1298, e-mail goldenvillage@tourismrichmond.com or visit http://www.tourismrichmond.com.

Aberdeen Centre: 4151 Hazelbridge Way; 604-270-1234; http://www.aberdeencentre.com.

Yaohan Centre: 3700 No. 3 Rd.; 604-231-0601.

Parker Place: 4311 Hazelbridge Way; 604-273-0276.

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