Neon Restaurants: From Racism to Diversity in Chinatown

Image of Chinatown Neon


This Visible City activity is an introduction to the history of Chinese immigration in Vancouver. The photos and descriptions of Foo’s Ho Ho’s historic neon sign in Chinatown, as well as original interviews with patrons will introduce students to the importance of food and gathering places for immigrants in Canada. Students will be asked to compare the significance of this historic traditional restaurant with a contemporary fusion restaurant, Bao Bei. Photos, descriptions, and original interviews will be provided. To conclude, students will be asked to identify links between their own heritage and its contemporary placement by designing their own fusion restaurant and sign. 

Learning Objectives

  • Demonstrate effective research skills, including accessing and assessing visual and auditory information in order to summarize and form a critical opinion
  • Introduce students to the history of Chinese immigration to Vancouver
  • Learn about historical and contemporary factors that help define Canadian civic identity, including culture, language, heritage, and community
  • Explore the links between food and cultural identity
  • Demonstrate effective written, oral, and graphic communication skills
  • Speak and listen to extend thinking by personalizing new ideas and information


1. Group Research Work or Information given by the teacher:

Short overview of Chinese immigration to Vancouver, provided by Library and Archives Canada.

2. Discussion Questions.

  • From the information provided, what has been the environment for Chinese immigrants in Vancouver? Give specific examples from the Library and Archives overview, and/or the interviews you listened to or read.
  • Based on your observations and the information provided, for what reasons do you think that places like Foo’s Ho Ho were important to people in the area?
  • How do you think their large neon sign contributed to this significance?
  • Tannis Ling, owner of Bao Bei, talks about being a blend of Asian and Canadian cultures; her restaurant reflects this. What do you think of Ling’s idea? How is the idea behind Bao Bei different from Foo’s Ho Ho?
  • How does the new restaurant, Bao Bei, relate to older establishments like Foo’s Ho Ho? How does it differ?
  • Why did Ling decide to use a neon sign?
  • What kinds of people do you imagine would go to Bao Bei? Why? How does this compare to the people who frequent Foo’s Ho Ho?
  • Why do you think it is important to celebrate diversity in places like Chinatown?

3. Personal Reflection:

One thing that is evident from the information about Foo’s and Bao Bei is that food is especially important to the identity of many generations of immigrants in Vancouver. While Foo’s reputation is based on its authenticity, serving recipes from hundreds of years ago, Bao Bei’s owner thinks of her restaurant as a blend between east and west. Her neon sign is reminiscent of old Chinatown, while her restaurant’s décor tries to create something new.

Can you think of particular foods, places, or practices that are important to you and your family? If you were to create a restaurant that reflected your heritage as well as your life in Canada, what would be on the menu? What would the restaurant look like? What kind of sign would you create, and why?

Learning Objects

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Chinese Dragon Parade in front of Ho Ho Chop Suey 1960
Spectators sitting atop the Ho Ho Chop Suey sign to get a better view of the Chinese dragon parade circa 1960. Don LeBlanc photo, Vancouver Public Library 79795B

The Ho Ho Sign at Night
The Ho Ho sign at night. The Ho Ho did not become Foo's Ho Ho until 1998, when Joanne Lam Sam and her late husband James took over the business. City of Vancouver Archives CVA 780-475 F14-E-1 Folder #20

Bao Bei Sign
In a neighbourhood once known for its flashy neon signs, Bao Bei is reviving a longstanding tradition. <em>Phoebe Glasford photo</em>

Bao Bei Exterior
It can’t stay like the old Chinatown forever, but we don’t want to also move it into this completely different direction, owner Tannis Ling explains Chinatown neighbourhood tensions and the role new business owners play in its future. Brandy Waterfall photographer

Jim Wong Chu
Jim Wong Chu.tif (Photo name included for reference)

Tannis Ling
Tannis Ling said…
"It's always been a dream of mine to put a neon sign up because it’s reminiscent of old Chinatown. The city was trying to revitalize this area..."
Tannis Ling
Tannis Ling said…
"It seems to be happening very quickly. All of a sudden in the last year, Chinatown has just gone crazy. And you know, I worry, obviously…"
Jamie Lee Hamilton
Jamie Lee Hamilton said…
"The Ho Ho Chop Suey, as it was known back then, I would often go there. It had a really interesting vibe to it. It was very eclectic, you know…"
Liz Lee
Liz Lee said…
"I’ve had all my children’s moon-yets here. That’s a celebration of their first month of life. And all my grandchildren, six of ‘em..."

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