Uncovering Burnaby: Memories of the Dragon Inn
"I think the reason why the Dragon Inn kind of occupies a certain imagination is because it was a lot of people’s first interface with a version of Chinese food."
You couldn’t miss it: the massive, curling jade and yellow dragon suspended over Kingsway (and other locations in Burnaby and Metro Vancouver) with the iconic red letters reading “Dragon Inn.”
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The legendary Burnaby restaurant was known to serve up a variety of “Canadianized” Chinese dishes and was a much-loved spot known for bringing people together for a quick bite or a celebration.
Larry Lee immigrated to Canada from Kaiping, Guangdong, China at the age of 16 in 1949. He opened the first Dragon Inn chop suey restaurant at 2510 Kingsway at Slocan in 1959. The restaurant began doing well enough that Lee decided to open a second eatery called the Park Inn at Kingsway and 25th Ave.
According to Heritage Burnaby, the Park Inn was the first Chinese restaurant to offer a ‘smorgasbord’ in Vancouver. The smorgasbord concept originated from Sweden and contains a number of hot and cold dishes served buffet style.
The legendary ‘smorgasbord’
Lee’s success kept growing and he went on to open another Dragon Inn at Kingsway and Willingdon in 1964, followed by a location on Columbia St in New Westminster in 1971, and another Burnaby location on Hastings and Willingdon during the 1990s.
“The Dragon Inn is part of that post-war 1950s, 1960s Chinese-Canadian restaurants,” Andy Yan, director of the SFU city program, told the Beacon.
These kinds of restaurants weren’t necessarily serving up authentic Chinese food from the country’s diverse regions but rather dishes that were “Canadian-ized” or “American-ized.”
According to Lee Rankin, Burnaby resident and the founder of the Burnaby Nostalgia Facebook group, the cuisine at the Dragon Inn was referred to as “San Francisco Chinese Cuisine” which reflected the “modification” of traditional Chinese cuisines for westernized tastes.
Diners would be able to choose from offerings like deep-fried prawns, sweet and sour pork, chicken chow mein, and egg-fried rice, to name a few.
“It’s an interesting ebb and flow in what that food is now considered because is it westernized Chinese food or is it a style of Chinese all unto itself? And I think … with the Dragon Inn it kind of presents that type of interface for a lot of Chinese and non-Chinese Vancouverites—particularly suburbanites—into Chinese or a version of Chinese food. …And I think the reason why the Dragon Inn kind of occupies a certain imagination is because it was a lot of people’s first interface with a version of Chinese food,” explained Yan.
It wasn’t just the food that brought people in, it was also the variety offered by the smorgasbord-style of dining.
In fact, that aspect of the restaurant is something well-remembered by local patrons.
“I will always remember their chicken chow mein and the fact that there was a smorgasbord!” wrote one commenter in the Burnaby Nostalgia Facebook group.
“As a kid, this was a very special restaurant. I loved the smorgasbord experience,” said another.
The approachability, variety, and versatility presented by the smorgasbord style of dining lowered the “barriers of entry” for patrons—specifically non-Chinese folks—who wanted to try a new cuisine but weren’t completely sure what to order or what they’d like, said Yan.
The ‘low barrier… low entry fee’
The smorgasbord experience is also tied to labour. In her book titled The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, American journalist Jennifer 8. Lee examines how buffet dining was also advantageous to restaurant staff, management, and non-Chinese diners.
“The all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet is an interesting phenomenon in the South and the Midwest, an economic product of the shifts of capital and labor skills. The food costs for a buffet are significantly higher, but the labor costs are lower,” she wrote.
“In particular, buffets place a low demand on workers in one important way: you don’t need as much English to serve a buffet. There are few waiters and waitresses, and they essentially only have to ask you what you want to drink. (“Diet Coke?”) Meanwhile, Americans don’t have to fumble through the names of Chinese dishes. They can simply take what looks good.”
This, of course, may have not been the exact case at the Dragon Inn, but it does represent a general cultural aspect of smorgasbord dining.
The entire smorgasbord experience at Chinese restaurants like the Dragon Inn is comparable to many Indian buffets in Metro Vancouver—like Tandoori Flame in Surrey, added Yan.
With multiple dishes from different regions, diners don’t have to stick with the all-too-common combination of butter chicken and naan. Rather, they can try small portions of sabjis, kormas, daals, and appetizers.
“It all kind of provides a certain draw in towards that low barrier… low entry fee,” he said.
A family affair
Independent ownership of a restaurant was not only advantageous but economically important for entrepreneurs like Lee.
In Scraps and Dragon, a short documentary about the significance of the Dragon Inn, filmmakers Joty Gill and Debbie Liang highlight that the discriminatory policies implemented by the Canadian government and municipal governments in BC during the first half of the 20th century meant “being an independent business owner was an attractive option for Chinese people and many began to open restaurants.”
This allowed them access to their own property and independence from employers.
Early Chinese-Canadian restaurants were also oriented around family and this was exactly the case at the Dragon Inn.
In Scraps and Dragon, Lee’s daughter Eleanor explained that her parents spent all of their time at the restaurants and it was a second home for herself and her seven siblings.
“Sometimes I wonder if they had that many children so they could staff the entire restaurant without having to hire anybody,” she joked.
“There we worked hard, we played hard, and we ate really, really well.”
The Dragon Inn was not just a second home to the Lee family, it was also home to the servers and staff, some even worked at the eatery for many years–some for the entirety of their careers.
And that feeling of community was reflected in the social aspect of the restaurant as well.
It wasn’t just a place to eat. The Dragon Inn was also a supper club where diners could enjoy live music, dance, host business meetings, and events. It fostered a sense of community connected by the love of food.
All good things must come to an end
Like all good things, the era of the Dragon Inn in Burnaby came to an end.
During the 1990s, Lee decided to redevelop the Kingsway and Willingdon restaurant and the block where it was located as well as the block beside it is now home to Crystal Mall, the first and biggest Chinese-Asain shopping centre in Burnaby.
“[My dad] bought the Dragon Inn, he ran it as a restaurant but not only that starting thinking ‘this area has a lot of potential’ and started buying up the surrounding properties. He bought them all up and finally assembled them such that it was big enough to build the now Crystal Mall,” stated Eleanor Lee in Scraps and Dragon.
The other Dragon Inn in North Burnaby “changed hands” over the years, according to the Burnaby Now and is currently home to Jade Palace Chinese Restaurant.
Yan highlights the redevelopment of the Kingsway Dragon Inn location in particular representing the emerging era of the “ethnoburbs.”
“It kind of marks the fusion of various ethnocultural groups out of the inner city of Vancouver and out into the suburbs,” he said.
“The suburbs post-war, particularly in the US but… there are bits, of course, in Canada that really kind of presented the middle class or white middle-class communities. …But then in Vancouver, I think it’s a lot more complicated that it talks to the social and economic mobility of a lot of ethnocultural groups that aren’t white, if you will.”
Sadly, Larry Lee passed away in 2019, and while the iconic green dragon signs of his restaurants are no longer present in Burnaby, one could say the Dragon Inn itself was a ‘smorgasbord’ of different things that connected people from Burnaby and beyond.
Whether it be food, music, dancing, or socializing, the Dragon Inn was a place where folks would come to fill their plates but left full with happy memories.