"There! Can you smell it?" My Canadian-Vietnamese friend, Van, is sniffing the air like a Bisto Kid as we walk from the Aberdeen Canada Line station along the busy No 3. Road. "Hoisin sauce." she declares with satisfaction. "Nearly there." Metro Vancouver has been called the most "Asian city outside Asia', with around 1 in 5 local residents identifying as Chinese. Twenty minutes from the centre of the Vancouver, just by the airport, is Richmond, whose Asian population is around 65%. The Aberdeen Centre is where a hefty amount of those residents go to shop and hang out each week. That's where we're heading.
It's disconcerting as you walk through the doors. In the few minutes that it takes to walk from the train to the mall you leave Canada far behind and plunge directly into an authentic pan-Asian shopping mall. The Aberdeen mall is spread across three levels selling everything from the inevitable mish-mash of 'Hello Kitty' trinkets, Ginko-based herbal remedies and electronics to more specialist finds, such as 'kigurumi' pajama-costumes (adult animal onesies for when you absolutely, positively have to sit at home dressed as a panda or a tiger) and the fascinating shop which sells electrical toilet seats. Seriously. Just like in that Simpsons episode where the family head to Japan. We were entranced by the possibilities this presented; after all, is $650 so very much to pay for something which heats up (perfect for chilly months) washes you afterwards, then provides a blow dry and 'silent close' lid service? We thought not.
The dancing musical fountain show which takes places hourly in the atrium was, alas, suspended for the more magical sight of the Miss Chinese Vancouver pageant launching instead. The crowd roared its enthusiasm and the Q&A sessions were all conducted in Chinese. My Mandarin is somewhat non-existent but I'm pretty sure they all wanted to work with children and animals. Oh, and promote world peace too.
When (if?) you tire of browsing, then head upstairs to the food court which, aside from local burger chain Vera's (the one you'll see around the city with the enticing slogan, "you can't beat Vera's meat") is all-Asian too. Unusually, however, for a shopping mall, all the food court shops operate on a cash-only system. Presumably to add to the atmosphere. We bought spicy crisp chicken wings, fried dumplings, wonton, and a chicken pancake roll. The wings were the best I've ever tasted; salty, crisp and juicy.
I tried a Honey Green Milk Tea with tapioca balls, aloe vera slivers and coconut jelly pieces added. Cooling and sweet, with a strange (but delicious) chewy element that you don't usually expect in a beverage, it made the perfect slithery foil to the spicy food. As we ate, video screens played pop promos, families slurped their noodles and scooped rice and teenagers devoured heaped plates of tripe like their Western counterparts scoff burgers and fries. It may have only been twenty minutes away from the downtown core but it felt like a world away from Canada. It's one of the joys of Vancouver, the thrill of indulging in wildly contrasting pleasures all in the same day; in the morning, climb a mountain and take in a lumberjack show, in the afternoon, lose yourself in a saccharine swirl of K-pop videos and bubble tea. It's all part of the Pacific North West experience.
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