Last spring and summer, a group of poh-pohs (Cantonese for “grandmothers “or “elderly women”) gathered every Saturday to grow fresh vegetables in raised beds and pots on the edge of the parking lot at East Hastings Street and Jackson Avenue. Led by local organizer Doris Chow with support from the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House and Carnegie Community Centre, this Chinese Seniors Community Garden became a new space for seniors to share skills and stay healthy.
In Fall 2018, the Sun Wah Centre on Keefer Street hosted CHINATOWN GENERATIONS as part of the Heart of the City Festival. This intergenerational community event celebrated Chinatown and its ongoing presence of cultural heritage. It featured a photo exhibition by and of urban farming poh-pohs and their gardening activities in the Downtown Eastside.
During this event, an attentive audience listened to these seniors share stories from their experiences in this project with the support of English translators. Unlike many other community garden spaces, these elderly Chinese women tended to the garden beds in a communal fashion and shared the harvest. In addition to obtaining produce and new garden skills, they cultivated stronger friendships and community with one another.
Seniors’ photography shares personal memories
Upon my arrival to the event, one of the senior participants, Kong Tai (Mrs. Kong) came over to say hello and handed me a small photo album. Mrs. Kong is a well-known elder in the Chinatown community who advocates on issues of housing justice. Despite the language barrier between us, the photos she offered me conveyed her excitement and happiness for the garden project.
As I flipped through the photo album, the 4×6 prints displayed the unmistakable film aesthetic of a disposable camera. I realized these photos were taken by the poh pohs themselves. The photos captured many bright faces, green growth, and blurred smiles: Mrs. Kong and her friends working in the garden, a group of elderly women displaying large bunches of Asian greens, a harvest of juicy mo gwa (fuzzy melons). These photos captured the seniors’ experiences through their own lens.
“No one needs expensive coffee or skateboards, but we need groceries”
While the Chinese Seniors Community Garden project is joyful, it is also critically important. With increasing gentrification in Chinatown, 55% of grocery stores have closed down or moved out of the neighbourhood within the past decade (according to a report by hua foundation).
As Mrs. Kong expresses:
We had all the grocery stores and herbal stores, cafes, a variety of restaurants to eat dim sum or dinner, which are important social spaces for us Chinese people… [but] there are not even a lot of grocery shops left.
A big problem is that the new places opening in Chinatown are either a coffee shop or a nightclub. These places are really expensive and they don’t sell things that we need, nor are they welcoming spaces for us. They are unsuitable to our needs. I never go into these places and I drink my coffee at the Carnegie. No one needs expensive coffee or skateboards, but we need groceries.Mrs. Kong 鄺太, Carnegie Community Action Project Report: “We Are Too Poor To Afford Anything”
Seniors often overlooked in Western society
Beyond the needs of the Chinatown neighbourhood, increasing numbers of seniors are unable to afford to feed themselves. In December, CBC reported that approximately 10,000 seniors—a figure on the rise—access the food bank each month in B.C. As life expectancy increases, food insecurity for seniors is expected to worsen, too. For seniors who live in poverty, B.C.’s disability and welfare rates do not support them to afford healthy foods. Nearly a third of seniors are deemed “at risk” of not getting adequate nutrition from their diets according to Statistics Canada.
At the intersection of age, class, gender, and race, many elderly Chinese women experience discrimination while navigating social services. For years, service providers in the Downtown Eastside have recognized the need for more culturally-specific services for Chinese seniors.
“The [seniors] that are healthiest come [to resource centres in the Downtown Eastside] in the biggest groups. They don’t have any education. They can’t read. They can’t write. But the way they’re happy, the way they survive, and part of why they’re healthy, is because they have each other.”Deanna Wong, Chinese seniors outreach coordinator in “Old, Alone and Victims of Racism in Downtown Eastside,” The Tyee
The success of the Chinese Seniors Community Garden is even more meaningful with an understanding of how immigrant seniors’ needs are not adequately met by Western society. The role of friendship and community in this neighbourhood are necessary for survival. Growing gardens may be the vehicle, but this multi-lingual, culturally-focussed project will have lasting impacts through its built relationships.
A future with food for all, seniors included
As the gardening season begins again, more local food security projects are continuing to center the needs of seniors in other parts of the city.
In the coming months, Little Mountain Neighbourhood House will launch “Sowing the Seeds of Inclusivity,” a gardening project at Riley Park Community Garden to specifically support food security for seniors in Little Mountain-Riley Park neighbourhood. In addition to gardening and cooking activities, the project will provide lunches in the garden and shuttle rides to and from the sessions, as a means of increasing accessibility.
For those who are looking to get involved or are passionate about seniors’ food security, Riley Park Community Garden is currently looking for new members to join their Seniors Engagement Committee for their “Sowing the Seeds of Inclusivity” project.
The Chinese Seniors Community Garden is also welcoming new volunteers and gardeners, with no prior experience needed. They will host a public re-opening celebration on Saturday, April 20, 2019 at 10AM. The group will celebrate the new growing season with snacks and an official lion dance opening.
As the food movement shifts to prioritize more and more underrepresented voices, like those of our elders, I hope we will continue to listen to elders’ stories and learn from the wisdom they have to offer. I hope projects like the Chinese seniors garden plant the seed for more of Vancouver’s food communities to address seniors’ specific needs to access healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate foods with dignity and respect.
Congratulations to all the poh-poh participants and project facilitators Doris Chow and Simin Sun. This project has been supported by the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, Carnegie Community Centre, New Horizons for Seniors, and Wing Wing Sausage Co. Limited. Thank you to Clare Yow for permission to use your photos.