Tiffin Project

Vancouver Chinese Food In The 70’s

by Keith Talent on September 27, 2010

(This post will be incorporated into the new HSBC Chinese Restaurant Awards site on launch tomorrow, September 28. This is a preview.)

As a kid growing up in the Vancouver of the seventies, your family, if it had a certain suburban worldly sophistication needed to declare their affiliation. Were you a Ho Ho family, or did you cross Pender to the Ho Inn? Sure the Ho Ho had a better signage, but are you there to eat, or gawk at neon? We were Ho Inn people. The balance of our extended family favoured the (to my mind at least) inferior Ho Ho. We thought they were savages and they thought us barbarians. Neon lights, worn banquets and a cuisine never seen before by anyone that had actually grown up in China. Fusion before fusion was even a word.

We had standbys, things that would not be varied upon. Green peppers with beef in black bean, lemon chicken, and my favourite dish, curry beef and potatoes. No the food was not anything a 2010 version of a Vancouverite would recognize as being Cantonese, but thirty years ago it was exotic and delicious. Everyone at the table was allowed to pick one dish, I formulated a strategy whereby I’d select my second favourite dish, leaving curry beef and potatoes, my actual favourite dish for someone else to select. Someone always did, a trip to the Ho Inn was inconceivable without this Sino-Canadian hybrid classic.

As the seventies came to a close, so too did regular trips to the Ho Inn. My parents started dining alone as my brother and I were old enough to be left home alone on a Saturday, they began frequenting the new Chinese hot spot, which was then Mings. Food was considerably more Chinese, far closer to what we eat today, rather than the pseudo-Chinese of earlier decades. Vancouver was on the edge of the east west migration that transformed our city and is still ongoing and culinary norms changed also. However to my early teen aged mind, wood ear mushroom and snow fungus were poor substitutes for sliced potatoes deep fried and covered in a curry gravy.

If the loved food of our youth turns into the comfort food of our later years, then I’ve been the victim of a cruel karmic trick. The Chinese food of my childhood literally does not exist in Vancouver anymore. It’s gone. The Ho Inn burned down, there was a post fire rumour that prohibition era machine guns were hidden in the walls by a gangster rum runner, a fitting Raymond Chandler-esque twist I’d say. The Ho Ho (now Foo’s Ho Ho) still struggles along, the sole remnant of an earlier age. I’ve been remiss in not giving it a kick, maybe because I’m afraid of what I might find. The last time I was there was the evening before my wedding, it was the last time my family trooped to Chinatown for a “traditional” Chinese dinner, or at least traditional to those of us that grew up in the seventies. That was almost twenty years ago.

I’ve tried to find an equivalent, it’s not possible in new millennium Vancouver. Part of the problem is nothing is ever going to taste like what you remember food from your youth tasting like, and our ingredients are too sophisticated, real Chinese vegetables and supplies are now available in every supermarket. The closest simulacrum is Caucasian mall food court Cantonese. It’s a terrible substitute. Greasy and always bland, it bears about as much resemblance to the Chinese of my youth as it does to the Chinese of my present. Everything old is new again, and I’d love to see a committed restaurateur recreate a space serving the food of pre-immigration boom Vancouver. Done with honesty and integrity, relying on local ingredients cooked with Chinese techniques for local pallettes trying to recapture previous times. If they included the jukeboxes at every table and red vinyls booths like at the Ho Inn, that’d be good too.


{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

KarenDW September 28, 2010 at 7:57 am

Having also grown up in Vancouver in the 70s (ok… 60s), I recall many family suppers at Foo’s, HoHo, and HoInn and, for “fancy” occasions, the Marco Polo. My parents’ wedding reception was held at Ming’s, and we were so disappointed when the restaurant closed before Mom and Dad’s “big” anniversary.

Canucklehead September 28, 2010 at 2:28 pm

As a Chinese kid growing up in Vancouver at the same time – it’s funny to note that I have the same memories of Chinatown – but they run on parallel tracks. Shopping trips to load up on provisions, lunch at Ming’s or lining up for a seat at the original Hon’s, then a box of Maxim’s bbq pork buns for the trip home. All family special occassions were celebreated at New Diamond and I remember having the first fancy swatow style cuisine at Janus – which had one of those lamps that with a statue of Venus under a ‘shower’ of reciruculated oil.

I was just in Chinatown with my mother a few days ago – and she said it was so much quieter than in the 70’s. But she recognized many old faces – shop workers who used to yell out specials and bag your vegatables or chop the BBQ ducks that we brought home all those years ago.

L. Davis September 28, 2010 at 4:11 pm

What about the On On? That was our place. And it was good enough for Trudeau too.

jahvay September 29, 2010 at 12:02 am

Fond memories of the Red door, Orange door, and Green door restaurants in the lane across from the Ho Ho. I can still hear my father proudly declaring ” Dinner for less than one dollar a person”. It was the 60’s ofcourse.

The Marco Polo was the ultimate in Chinese Smorgasbord. Who knew jello was chinese…

mrs_crispy September 29, 2010 at 9:44 am

The Hong Kong Cafe for with their neon ‘steaks’ and ‘chops’ signage. They had a looong counter where you could while away an hour over endless cups of coffee and watch the waiters make that coffee in huge metal urns. Great memories from art school days. I have photos of the HK Cafe somewhere…..

Canucklehead September 29, 2010 at 11:31 am

mrs crispy – if you could somehow share pictures of the Hong Kong Cafe – that would be complete awesomeness. We never went to HK Cafe when I was kid. With their Chinese roast beef and waiters in white coats, it was too fancy for us!

Shirl October 1, 2010 at 12:34 am

I don’t know if this is close enough but there is Ho Ho’s on Davie. I gave them another chance recently as I was low on money and craved Chinese food. They used to be MSG kind of mall food cos that is what the consumers wanted after they first opened and had HK style Chinese Western food.
But they did a customer survey and had to offer what Westerners were used to. I never went back again but apparently they recently had new owners as of two years ago.
I tried them a few days back and the lady was ever so nice and very generous with the portions. Here you will find your sweet and sour pork, sesame chicken, beef and broccoli but actually done quite well. I couldn’t stop eating even though I was full cos I missed good affordable humble Chinese food. I feel bad for those mom and pop places that are vanishing as it’s part of any Chinese Canadian’s growing up in the 70s.
Another really good place though their food is more banquet quality is Tsui Hang Village on Davie and Granville. Too bad they have to deal with the spillover from the drunkards on Granville but I went there late Friday and the food was really impressive and not pricey for the quality. The place is less than fancy but the Saturday morning I passed by and the place was packed with older Asians! A good sign!

gigi October 2, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Have you tried Burnaby Palace in Burnaby (duh!) right off Boundary close to Grandview? That may have the old school Chinese food you are looking for. I occasionally go with some of my co-workers and although I was not around in the 70s, it seems like a bit of a blast from the past to me :)

Marcie February 7, 2012 at 8:24 am

Ho Inn was my fave too. I have never found anything that tastes as good. My dad used to say I would marry someone Asian because I loved the food so much. I didn`t even eat meat unless my parents said it was from Chinatown. The Ho Inn specifically, I just loved their egg rolls. No one has ever come close to that taste. I grew up in Coquitlam and we used to go there at lease twice a month. I would have loved to find out where the cooks went after the fire. That was the saddest day of my life.

Chickitychina April 10, 2012 at 11:26 pm

HK Cafe was great, I have fond memories with my dad taking me there as a very young boy. That is where I experienced the world’s BEST apple tart!

I have recently found some great apple tarts at Newtown Bakery.

ahmet May 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm

i know this one…nightmare. Yep, Europe has it all covered in this draeptment with the relaxing coffee shops. It was amazing to see everyone in Paris sitting at cafes at 9am on workdays sipping on coffees and not rushing with starbucks cups with straws in them!! this reminds of a great quote i heard the other day:”Hell is other people”–Jean Paul Sartre

brian tansley July 16, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Ah, Chinatown in Vancouver in the 60’s and 70’s. I worked my way through university playing sax in Vancouver in the 60’s and early 70’s — much of it in clubs in or within a short distance of Chinatown. I played at the Marco Polo from time to time when they had acts in for the supper club. You had to carry your gear through the kitchen to get it onto the stage. In the passageway there were plucked whole chickens hanging by their legs on wall hooks, waiting for the “board” to chop them into whatever dish they were bound for… They’d all swing back and forth as the band members brushed by them…There weren’t too many Chinese joints open after hours (I think the best of them were family operations — with the kids helping Mom and Dad … and the kids had to be in bed for school). There were a few that stayed open late and if you asked them for a special dish they’d often come up with an improvised version of it for you on short notice. …One impression that stuck with me over the years since was of an after hours stop in a Chinese joint when an elderly man came in and sat down. His dress suggested that he was of extremely limited means. He sat patiently and within a short time he was served a steamed fish with rice and a pot of tea. He was served with respect. I watched him surgically remove every piece of meat from that fish with a pair of chopsticks. After a little contemplation over the remainder of his tea he rose and left. Though his pockets were empty he was full of food and dignity. We all could do a lot worse in treating the disadvantaged amongst us.

TK November 22, 2012 at 5:42 pm

For me as a youngster growing up in Vancouver, the smorgasbord at Dragon Inn & Rickshaw were purely awesome. 100% old school Canadian Chinese food at a very affordable price. By comparison, today’s Chinese restaurants are all overpriced, look too Asia “Asian” and lack the feel and touch of old school Vancouver history.

Joyce December 31, 2012 at 11:56 am

When I was a teenager in the 50’s, and growing up in Vancouver, we used to go to the Ho Ho and the Ho Inn….
I forget which restaurant had the upstairs dining room and we used to take our bottle and buy our mix…… Bottle clubs quite popular at that time

tanya August 4, 2013 at 4:05 am

The Ho Inn also lives on in the memories of my sisters and I. My grandfather was a continental and international traveller who today we’d call a ‘foodie’ (in the 70’s we called those types ‘very picky’.) Though he could afford the grander red-velveted-golden-tassled palaces, the only Chinese food eatery he would take us to was The Ho Inn where the old 50’s formica topped tables smelled of the green tea they were wiped down with between diners. Nothing has ever compared to our experiences there. In the glass walled curio cabinet to the left of my front door sits a small square green glass ashtray I ‘kept’ as a souvenier.

LotusRapper September 10, 2013 at 11:24 am

The original Ho Ho’s has a very special place in our family memory. It was started by Mr. Quan (Kwan) who was a v. close friend of my grandfather, both of whom came to Vancouver from the same area of China, at the same time.They were our close family friends, and of course through the ’70s and ’80s numerous family events and gatherings took place there.

I was only back there (Foo’s Ho Ho) recently as part of the Chinese Laundry Kids event, as seen here. The place hasn’t really changed all that much.


WallaceE January 29, 2014 at 6:53 pm

We were a Ho Inn family in the 60’s.
Big Family treat. Used to hop down in my pick-up truck at lunch from Kits High School for a fifty cent plate of Chicken Chow Mein and back in time for class. Cheeper than the Cafeteria.
In the evening you could see the staff at the rear table prepping food, and the men with their mickies in brown paper bags. Remember Tomato Beef Chow Mein. In university I moved on to the Dai Kee, Main near Keefer, where discovered cloud’s ear mushrooms and of course many a bargain dinner was had on the picnic tables in the basement restaurants in the lanes: The Green, Red and Orange Doors. Maybe went to the Ho Ho once, it was like Beta and VHS, you swore by one or the other.

Lex's World February 16, 2014 at 5:15 pm

Great website. Thanks for posting!

Krystal May 5, 2015 at 10:11 am

I know this is an older post, but oh so helpful when I was researching for some info about ‘back in the day’ … I really love the flood of memories this brought, so cool to know so many others have similar memories from a very particular time in Vancouver’s existence. .
To echo a previous poster, we were an On On family. I don’t know how old I was when I first went there, but I know by the time I was able to handle eating utensils almost every-Friday night we ate at the On On. I still remember learning to use chopsticks by moving ice cubes one-by-one from one full-of-cubes glass to an empty glass.
And I agree, none of these memories could be recreated today due to our ‘evolved sophistication’, tho I do get very nostalgic for some of the smells & tastes of my youth that can only live on as memories. As much as I miss it, I’ve never had lemon chicken since I stopped eating at the On On, I know no one else will do it the same.
I had to pay my respects to the owners to say goodbye (when the building was slated for demolition) on behalf of my family, especially my dad, who ate at the On On a few times a week besides our regular- Fridays … Again, thanks for the memories this stirred up.

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