Quite often, food is a gateway to another culture.
People make connections through shared meals, experiencing a new dish or an ingredient used in a different way. Food can also transport us to memories of home with a tantalizing aroma or single bite.
For more than 25 years, Phuong Ly has created a connection between the Comox Valley and Chinese-Vietnamese culture through Gold Phoenix Asian Foods. Her business has evolved over time but the goal remains the same: to share authentic Chinese-Vietnamese dishes that bring people together no matter their cultural background.
Ly, who also goes by Tania, came to Canada in 1980 with her parents and siblings at 12 years old as a sponsored refugee from Vietnam. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled at the end of the Vietnam War, often referred to as “boat people.” Ly’s family was targeted by the newly established Communist government for being ethnically Chinese.
Ly has told much of her journey to her daughter, Hollie Ha, who started the podcast Holding Heritage (holdingheritage.com). Listeners can tune into Episode 4 to hear some of Ly’s childhood memories growing up in Vietnam, the dangerous boat journey, and her family’s experiences in refugee camps in China and Hong Kong.
“You need to start where my mom and dad [are] because they made it happen for us to come to Canada,” Ly says.
Her parents were entrepreneurs in Vietnam, where her father was a Chinese herbalist and her mother made and sold candies and baked treats. When settling in Calgary, Ly’s father was introduced to a shoe repair shop owner, where he became employed and stayed for the next 40 years. Her mom worked a number of jobs in hotels and restaurants. To earn additional income, every Saturday and Sunday Ly’s mom would cook and sell steamed rice rolls (bánh cuốn), a traditional dish from northern Vietnam with ground pork, mushrooms, and fresh herbs.
The store would sell out every weekend, she recalls.
“For an immigrant like my mom and dad coming to a new country, they have that food skill, that food to share - that is their survival. That was the key to my dad and mom to build my family, to be able to sustain, and to give to the community or share with the community.”
When Ly moved to the Comox Valley in 1996 with her husband and two young children, she also turned to food for survival and connection. The couple came to the Valley pursuing an opportunity for her husband to work at a Denman Island shellfish farm. They longed for traditional Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, so Ly started making dishes from her childhood for their family and then for friends in the Valley. Soon, she quit her banking job to focus on her enterprise while caring for their children.
All this time, she harboured a dream: to open an authentic Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant in Courtenay. While Ly built her food distribution business she collected restaurant equipment. One day she noticed a restaurant was closing on 29th Street and the space was available.
“I don’t know - how I did get the nerve to do that? But I did,” she says.
Gold Phoenix Asian Foods Restaurant opened in 2007. Ly says the restaurant was busy, but it was stressful and she realized she couldn’t put her family first. The venture was short-lived – after a year and a half, she sold the restaurant. She is proud to have created something that has since provided opportunities for other business owners who are newcomers.
She returned to wholesale and attended local events with her food.
Ly was winding down her business when the pandemic hit and Hollie moved back home. The two decided to offer cooking classes on Zoom and at local farms. They also created wonton soup kits filled with all the tools and ingredients needed to make the dish at home. Hollie made a website for her mom and helps with digital marketing. The pandemic regulations put a hold on in-person classes but they hope to start up again soon (goldphoenixasianfoods.com).
Ly loves sharing authentic Chinese-Vietnamese food with the wider community. The cooking classes give her an opportunity to do that and more - she and Hollie also share information about the ingredients, language, and the history behind the dishes.
“If a person nowadays, if they take the time to learn a skill or cook a plate of food, it just brings people together in harmony no matter what kind of culture you are. I just love that idea.”
This article is the third in a March-long series contributed by The Immigrant Welcome Centre’s Welcoming Communities Coalition that shares the experiences of newcomer entrepreneurs in the Comox Valley. The Coalition is funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). Listen to more of Phuong (Tania) Ly’s story at holdingheritage.com or download the episode from Holding Heritage wherever you get your podcasts.