• Burnaby Beacon
  • Posts
  • A new chapter: Why the story of Crystal Mall is far from ending

A new chapter: Why the story of Crystal Mall is far from ending

For as long as I could remember, Crystal Mall was a part of my summers in Vancouver. I grew up in Hong Kong, and I could only visit my grandparents once a year. Out of all the places I went to over the years, it would probably be fair to say most of my time was spent at Crystal Mall.

With dozens of oranges from Lok’s Produce and Good Friend Supermarket in my grandmother’s trolley, we would go to the now-closed Top Gun Hotpot for lunch so my grandfather and I could each brew our little cup of lychee oolong tea. At the end of the day, we would stop by the food court to buy Chinese BBQ for dinner.

Built in 2000, Crystal Mall was the first and biggest Chinese-Asian shopping centre in Burnaby. From groceries to electronics, and aestheticians to dentists, the mall served as a one-stop-shop for nearly everything while also establishing itself as a cultural centre for the local Chinese community.

Crystal Mall

The Crystal Mall was dreamt up in the 1990s when the cultural hubs for the Chinese-Canadian community were going through drastic transformations. As journalist Chris Cheung of The Tyee writes, “Vancouver’s Chinatown was suffering a classic case of inner-city decline … and Richmond was quickly evolving into a home for new East Asian immigrants.” In the midst of all this, the owner of the Dragon Inn on Kingsway and Willingdon, Larry Lee, saw the chance to redevelop the site.

With little to no precedents to follow, the Crystal Mall was an innovative and unique project. Architect, planner and city builder Stanley Kwok “wanted to avoid criticisms of North American malls, which were being accused of killing local character and prioritizing chains over mom-and-pop businesses,” writes Cheung. Kwok’s decision to stratify the units in the mall resulted in a truly eclectic congregation of businesses, each showcasing the personal tastes of their owners.

Last week, after 5 years, I stepped into Crystal Mall again. It felt so familiar, but also new.

Walking along the main floor I saw shops that I remembered: the Chinese BBQ shop at the entrance of the open market, Lok’s Produce, and Pine House Bakery. And as I went up to the food court, the fluorescent sign for Happy Ice House reminded me of the jokes on their lids that I used to read to my grandparents.

Crystal Mall

But there was also so much that was different. Gone were the shops with the most extensive catalogues of bootleg DVDs and the instrument shop where I used to practice for piano exams, replaced by immigration consultants and empty units. The mall has also welcomed some big chains, such as Yi Fang Fruit Tea.

I wasn’t the only one who observed the mall’s changing landscape. As I ventured through the mall, I spoke with shopkeepers and staff who painted a picture of how the mall has transformed throughout the years while remaining a cultural hub in the heart of Burnaby.

The past and the present

I met Jeff Lui, a salesperson at Forum Home Appliances right by the open market. It was a quiet morning at the shop, and the Crystal Mall regular looked relaxed as he sat on a tall chair behind the plexiglass. For Lui, Crystal Mall is as much a home as it is his workplace.

“I mostly just went downstairs (to the mall) to watch TV and eat. The food court was the most popular place,” says Lui. He lived in the residential building a decade ago before returning to work at Forum, and his favourite stalls in the food court are the cha chaan tengs (Hong Kong-style cafés).

Crystal Mall

“The owners have changed, but they’re still the same,” Lui says, adding new owners were not the only changes in Crystal Mall.

Lui tells me that the mall mostly had fashion and computer retailers at first, and immigration consultants and travel agencies were later additions. He also notes how the food court has expanded its options for Chinese cuisines.

“The food court didn’t have that many mainland Chinese options back then, but they’ve replaced most of the vendors now.”

Patrons of the food court can now choose from Chengdu, Shanghai, and Yunnan style noodles, and the arrival of Money Tea and Shiny Tea have upped the competition for chewy refreshments.

Talking about all the changes with Lui left me craving for some familiarity, so I decided to pay a visit to another veteran vendor.

"Having Crystal Mall in the area makes it easier for people to settle into a new place" -Sonia LiuVikki Hui / Burnaby BeaconPhoto:

“In a couple more weeks I would have been here for 14 years. I’m pretty proud of the fact that my shop is one of the oldest ones in the mall,” says Sonia Liu, a musician and the owner of Crystal Gu-zeng Centre on the other side of the market.

Just like any other musical instrument shop, Crystal Gu-zeng Centre had guzhengs (the Chinese plucked zither) on display all over. While we listened to her student practice in a corner, Liu shared her memories of the mall with me.

Liu came to Crystal Mall for the first time for an appointment with a Chinese doctor.

“As soon as I saw the mall, I wanted to set up shop here,” Liu tells me. The guzheng teacher found the location of the mall and its Chinese-Asian focus to be perfect for her business—not to mention, she would have easy access to the Chinese doctor for the occasional massage.

One of Liu’s favourite parts of being in Crystal Mall is celebrating the festivities.

“Every Lunar New Year, the mall is decked out in festive decorations with a joyful atmosphere. A student of mine writes the spring couplets for me every year,” Liu tells me as she points to the two scrolls at the entrance.

“The Chinese diaspora community gained a new place to gather”

Seen as a home away from home for many, the Crystal Mall was and still is a place for the Chinese diaspora community to stay connected to their cultures.

“Sometimes when you’re in a foreign place, you try to look for things from your homeland. An advantage with Crystal Mall is that it has almost everything you would need. Having Crystal Mall in the area makes it easier for people to settle into a new place,” says Liu.

Being the first of its kind in the Burnaby area, Crystal Mall was exactly what the diaspora community needed.

Crystal Mall

“Burnaby didn’t have any Asian malls, so we just went to Metrotown. Ever since Crystal Mall opened, the Chinese diaspora community gained a new place to gather. The food court has loads of options, and you can get groceries here,” says Kent Lee, the admin manager at the Chinese Christian Mission of Canada Centre (also known as CCM Centre).

Sitting in the middle of the food court, CCM Centre moved to Crystal Mall when it first opened. Its convenient location and the extensive program made it the go-to place for information and activities for the local diaspora community. Like many of the local elderly population, my grandparents stopped by every once in a while to enjoy the facilities and meet up with friends.

“It’s important for the elderly to build their own connections and have their own groups of friends that they can go out with for dim sum and chat with,” he says.

“It’s nice here because they can get dim sum in the mall after they’re done with their classes. They loved Top Gun Hotpot.”

“It reflects the demographic shifts and changes”

While it is convenient to think of Crystal Mall as a game-changing addition to the city of Burnaby, the reality is more nuanced than that.

“It isn’t necessarily about how Crystal Mall changed the landscape, it’s really how much it reflected the changing demographics and the immigrant demographics that were happening in Burnaby,” says Andy Yan, the director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University.

Crystal Mall opened while Yan was in university, and he is one of its food court’s biggest fans.

“Let’s make this quite clear. Crystal Mall has one of the best food fairs in greater metropolitan Vancouver,” says Yan, adding that he highly recommends Shanghai Dimsum House.

Like many of the other cultural hubs in Metro Vancouver—such as Richmond, 41st and Victoria, Burquitlam, and Surrey—the introduction of Crystal Mall and the changes to its line-up of vendors are reflections of the regional distribution and suburbanization of the diverse groups of Asian-Canadian populations.

For Yan, the importance of these hubs lies in their multifunctionality, rather than just about consumption.

“What makes these malls special is actually their growing cultural, social, and political functions. You’ll find that, in particular, when it comes to political rallies or political debates, Crystal Mall has hosted a couple of discussions about local politics,” he says.

In discussing the cultural significance behind culturally distinct malls like Crystal Mall, Yan says it’s often easy to overstate their differences from regular malls.

Crystal Mall

“These malls aren’t necessarily as different as Metrotown or Middlegate. One of the big differences between the Crystal and Aberdeen malls versus the Brentwoods or the Metrotowns is the fact that their anchor is food. There’s a convergence now, because you see a lot of other non-Asian malls similarly converge towards the importance of food as the instigator of gathering in place,” says Yan.

Like many malls, Crystal Mall is facing challenges due to the changing retail environment.

“The mall model has now been heavily disrupted, it has opened up these kinds of redevelopment opportunities,” Yan says, pointing to extensive renovations at the Brentwood and Lougheed malls.

“I think the story of Crystal Mall is far from ending. If anything, there is a new chapter that is forthcoming,” says Yan.

Looking at the spot where Top Gun Hotpot once was, I realized that it had been a while since I’ve heard the mall’s jingle on TV. I still remember it vividly: “Lai6 Jing1 Gwong2 Cheung4, Crystal Mall, we will see you all!”

As Crystal Mall continues to evolve to reflect changes in Burnaby and Metro Vancouver, perhaps more people will see it as a little piece of home.

Get Burnaby Beacon in your inbox.An in-depth understanding of the stories that affect Burnaby and beyond, every weekday.