Oriental Market shutting its doors after 43 years Chinatown has turned from ‘good to worse,’ owner says. ‘I’m really sad to leave this community’
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/11/2022 (214 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Heather Sharpe’s tradition of making dumplings is in jeopardy — the 43-year-old Oriental Market is closing.
Sharpe drove past building after building, many empty, in Winnipeg’s Chinatown Thursday. She then scoured Oriental Market, searching the near-bare shelves for dumpling wrappers.
There were none: the grocery store is shuttering Nov. 30, and its owners are not restocking.
“I’m sad,” Sharpe said. “(Oriental Market) was always kind of like a destination… Where am I gonna get my dumpling wrappers?”
She’s been a customer for at least 20 years. Before then, she would visit Chinatown as a youth, wandering the “teeny Chinese food stores” and visiting the steam baths.
Chinatown has changed, Sharpe noted. The small stores are mainly gone; the steam baths were destroyed by fire in 1999.
“I’m going to miss it,” she said, looking around Oriental Market.
Chinatown has turned “from good to worse” during the four decades Oriental Market has been in business, said co-owner Francis Tsang.
“Used to be, Chinatown had lots of those little stores,” Tsang said. “I would say, long time ago it was even busier than it is right now.”
Just down the road, at the corner of King Street and Pacific Avenue, buildings wore “for lease” signs and graffiti.
“I’m really sad to leave this community,” Tsang said. “We really hope more people come to Chinatown to open the stores, any kind of store.”
A quieter neighbourhood isn’t Oriental Market’s reason for closure, Tsang said. He and his sister Peggy, both owners, are retiring. Their kids don’t want the family business.
So, the family is selling its roughly 8,000 square-foot shop.
For around 30 years they’ve stocked the aisles with tea, rice, chinaware, curry sauce packets, dried bean curd, sushi nori and more Asian foods.
“I’m really sad to leave this community… We really hope more people come to Chinatown to open the stores, any kind of store.”–Francis Tsang
Before then, the Tsangs ran a much smaller Oriental Market next to the former Shanghai Restaurant.
“I guess my mom and dad wanted to stick with (grocery stores),” Tsang said.
The family moved from Hong Kong in 1977, he said. Two years later, his parents were opening shop, just like they’d done out east.
A 20-year-old Tsang sold dried goods, and vegetables from Toronto, at the store. The neighbouring businesses were plentiful, and the family’s shop grew.
They moved to 268 King St. around 1991, Tsang said. The family started ordering different foods — Filipino, Thai and Japanese cuisines.
“We tried to carry everything,” Tsang said.
Many customers are decades-long regulars, he noted.
“(I) feel bad. After serving our loyal customers for the last 40 years, (I) really, really feel bad closing it up, but I’m happy for my sister,” Tsang said.
She’s older than him, and he’s in his 60s, he said. She’s retiring; he plans to move to Vancouver and work part-time.
The family has had interest in their building but no official offers, Tsang said. There’s been a migration of Asian shops from Chinatown to elsewhere in the city, like along Pembina Highway, he noted.
“People (are) always saying, ‘Chinatown is old, Chinatown is quiet, why should I come here?’” he said.
It’s rhetoric Kit Lam has heard too.
“Most people say the Chinese… they are living in the south part of Winnipeg, not around the Chinatown area,” Lam, a long-time worker at Kum Koon Garden in Chinatown, said.
Customers aren’t as easy to come by, and crime is prevalent, Lam added.
“When I was growing up… (there were) many shops with the Chinese herbs and everything,” said Sharpe, Oriental Market’s long-time customer. “It was kind of like stepping out to a different world. I used to enjoy that.”
There’s hope for Chinatown, said Ben Lee, board president for the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural and Community Centre.
“I think we’re all affected by urban sprawl,” he said. “When people start to live in a neighbourhood, then the neighbourhoods start to become alive.”
Three apartments — containing a combined 300 units — have opened near Chinatown in the past two years, Lee noted.
Market Lands opening in the former Public Safety Building could “dramatically change the whole landscape in that part of the downtown,” Lee added.
And, Chinatown held its first night market last month, drawing thousands of people, he said.
“We know (change is) not going to happen overnight… but there’s nothing stopping us from activating the streets,” Lee said.
Winnipeg’s Chinatown is more than 100 years old. The downtown area includes the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural and Community Centre, the Mandarin Building and the Chinatown Gate.
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.