An affordable place to eat in Vancouver's Chinatown, Gain Wah's future is now in peril

·4 min read
Gain Wah, pictured under its red awning, was forced to close last Friday after a fire that started in one of the SRO rooms above seriously damaged the restaurant. (Rafferty Baker/CBC - image credit)
Gain Wah, pictured under its red awning, was forced to close last Friday after a fire that started in one of the SRO rooms above seriously damaged the restaurant. (Rafferty Baker/CBC - image credit)

In a neighbourhood under constant threat of being gentrified, Gain Wah remained a reliable place to get an affordable meal in Vancouver's Chinatown.

The menu featured 10 dishes for $9 each — dishes that Andrew Leung, Gain Wah's owner, claims would cost double at other restaurants.

Crab meat fried rice, BBQ pork on rice, grandma tofu on rice and steamed chicken on rice are just a few of the value options.

About three dozen low-income people lived in the single room occupancy (SRO) housing above the restaurant in Chinatown, near Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Gain Wah had a coupon system for people in need of a meal, and Leung said sometimes, if people came in with no money, he would make sure they got some food.

"If they're hungry, I don't like to see get people hungry," he said.

But decades of reliable service — which has been take-out-only since the start of the pandemic — came to a halt last Friday, after a fire in one of the upstairs rooms spread, causing significant damage to the restaurant.

Shawn Foss/CBC
Shawn Foss/CBC

"It's in terrible shape, the worst I've ever seen," said Leung. "I'm completely shocked."

The dining room is filled with a pungent smell — perhaps some food that's gone bad mixed with moisture from the firefighting effort.

A week after the disaster, dehumidifiers hum, the lights won't switch on, and there's a mess of fallen ceiling panels, crumbling and mashed onto chairs, tables, appliances and the floor.

Rafferty Baker/CBC
Rafferty Baker/CBC

For Leung, who has owned Gain Wah since 1989 and worked there even longer, the forced closure has actually been a bit of a welcome break.

The pandemic forced him to cut staff down to just three people, including himself, and he was working six 13-hour days a week.

"I'll just take it easy, after I worked so hard for so many years," said Leung, adding that he has enjoyed spending a bit more time with Odie, his 15-year-old poodle.

But for Tracy Li, who has been a server at Gain Wah since 1993, the closure hasn't been as relaxing.

"Everything stops, everything stops," said Li. "I don't have interest in doing anything else now, I just stay home and sleep."

Rafferty Baker/CBC
Rafferty Baker/CBC

Li said she misses the regular customers and she just wants the restaurant to return to normal.

"I look around here, and I'm so sad, so sad," she said, gesturing at the damaged dining room.

Community support

Nicolas Yung with the SRO Collaborative works on building solidarity in the community between the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown.

For Yung, Gain Wah was more than just a place to get a bite to eat.

"It's a place where people process trauma and gain energy to keep living," he said. "I would work late and I'd still come here. I'd be seeing other people who have no family, or who went through trauma and need company."

Rafferty Baker/CBC
Rafferty Baker/CBC

And Yung has seen first-hand the way Leung and the restaurant help out its neighbours.

"I have seen the staff helping substance users or homeless people in many different ways," he said.

Yung and his group launched a fundraising campaign online to support the restaurant and its staff. In a week, they've already managed to raise $25,000 of their $30,000 goal. There's a second fundraiser underway to help the displaced residents of the SRO upstairs.

Future of restaurant uncertain

Leung is waiting to hear from the insurance company about what will happen to the restaurant next, but one option is retirement.

"I'm 65 already, so we'll see," he said. "I'm an easygoing guy. I will live with it."

Leung said if he does retire, he hopes somebody else will take over the restaurant and manage to re-open it — and he said he would try to help, but he doesn't know what will happen.

For Li, 60, permanent closure would be an unwelcome outcome of the disaster.

Rafferty Baker/CBC
Rafferty Baker/CBC

She said she won't be ready to retire for another five years, and she hopes to be able to eventually resume serving her favourite dish, BBQ pork with ginger onion sauce and chilli oil sauce on rice.

"This is my only job," Li said. "This is my whole life."