Destination: Richmond

Of all of greater Vancouver’s generally boring suburbs, Richmond has historically been my least favourite, though the truth is, all of the suburban cities rate relatively equally compared to the much-preferred Vancouver proper. There’s no single reason for my particular disdain for Richmond; rather, a complex web of accumulated, interrelated flaws has hardened me against feeling affection for the town that serves as the final output for Vancouver’s sewage.

Richmond’s most obvious flaw is its flatness. For most, this is probably a minor characteristic, possibly even an overlooked one, but for me that flatness is evocative of my adolescent years in Winnipeg, though at least Richmond has a habitable climate and considerably fewer mosquitoes. The feeling of flatness is enhanced by the traditionally low height restrictions of buildings and signs, owing to the city’s close proximity to the international airport. When in Richmond, I feel as if the sky is mere inches above and the urge to duck follows me everywhere, as if I were seven feet tall and wandering around in a door shop for dwarves.

Then there’s the traffic plan. Or lack thereof. I suspect that the only reason they thought to lay down any sidewalks at all was so that the car stereo and crap furniture stores that inhabit the strip malls have somewhere to put their sandwich boards that don’t inhibit the flow of cars through the narrow parking lots. The roads are generally too narrow for the volume, since early city managers neither planned for future right-of-way expansion nor tried to foster a pedestrian- and transit-friendly community. If you plan to drive down No. 3 Road, bring along a book. If you plan to walk, bring body armour and a good insurance policy.

Speaking of No. 3 Road, I’d be lax if I failed to mention the lack of creativity in street naming. I’d expand on that, but it gives me a headache trying ponder all the various combinations of names that can contain the word “bridge”, or to sort out the otherwise identically named Crescents from the Cul-de-Sacs from the Closes, all of which seem to intersect, abut, and sidle each other in an endless series of dead-ends and misunderstandings that make me avoid all but a half dozen known routes out of fear that I might be lost forever in a subdivision of identical bungalows.

But that’s enough criticism – let me say something positive.

Though I have for many years actively avoided going to “Ditchmond” (as the locals derisively referred to it back in the day), it has in recent years undergone a major demographic shift, and lately I have been making some tentative forays across the river to see what’s up. This wasn’t completely intentional – I was picking someone up at the airport a while back and the flight was quite delayed, so I had a choice of hanging around YVR or going to Richmond for a couple of hours, and even downtown Kelowna contains more tolerable amenities than the airport, so off to Richmond I went. I’ve actually been back a couple of times since, by choice.

On the initial visit I found myself in what is now known as the “Golden Village” district, a commercial strip that contains a number of Asian-themed shopping malls, and through which a rapid transit line was recently opened that connects the area to downtown Vancouver.

Actually, I’m not all that keen on the expression “Asian-themed”, for it makes it sound like a bunch of white executives over at Cadillac Fairview opened a regular old mall full of Gaps and Grand and Toys but hung giant paper dragons over the escalator. No one ever refers to Cadillac Fairview’s Pacific Centre as a “Caucasian-themed shopping mall”.

At any rate, I kind of like the Golden Village malls, at least as much as someone can who can’t stand malls to begin with can “like” one. I started with Parker Place, based primarily on the great name. In a way it is my favourite so far, for it seems most foreign to my learned idea of what a mall is. The hallways are narrow and (relatively) rabbit-warren like, and the stores generally seem to be independent in nature rather than the bland and predictable chains that inhabit typical North American malls. In fact, I believe that Parker Place is unique in malldom in that its tenants have strata title over their spaces. Perhaps because if this, it has a bit of the ambience of a public market, say, an upscale version of the Mercado Publico in San Jose but with more glass and tile and fewer muggers.

From there, I made my way to Aberdeen Centre. This mall is much more in the western style, a little more upscale and shiny than Parker Place, and the store spaces are rentals, but the stores here are also likely to be unfamiliar to those who know only the typical North American mall. Like any other mall, there are plenty of stores in which I have little consumer interest, but there is one that I like quite a bit: Daiso, the Japanese department store.

Daiso is a sort of upscale “dollar store”. Products tend to be, generally, of a quality on the lower end of the scale, but much of it is far better than what is usually sold in what we typically know of as dollar stores, and products are often aesthetically unique and pleasing. I find it a good place to buy notebooks and assorted office supplies, as well as affordable but nice looking and practical dishes. They also sell replacement rubber ear buds to fit the ear-bud style headphones (that Future Shop will tell you don’t exist as they try to sell you a whole new headphone for $30). The price of replacement ear-buds at Daiso? Four for $2.

One also can’t go wrong with the “Food Court”. Typical malls usually have all the same grease-trap joints as any other mall – bad food at low-ish prices. The food in the Aberdeen Food Court is actually pretty good, though. On my most recent visit, I had a slice of “Teriyaki Chicken Mochi” pizza at the peculiarly named “Strawberry Cones Japanese Pizza & Pasta”. Though pretty tasty, and of a quality vastly superior to any standard discount pizza joint, this was probably the junkiest food offering available in the court.

My favourite part of Aberdeen Centre, though, is also the cheesiest: the musical fountain. It’s a smaller version of the same sort of fountain found outside of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. When I was in Las Vegas I wasn’t at all interested in it, but at Aberdeen I find it fascinating. Perhaps the smaller scale makes it a more intimate experience. The first time I went, the fountain was sending jets of water in all directions in time with the song “It’s a Small World”. On my most recent visit, the jets were syncing with a medley of classical themes, ending in a crescendo with the conclusion of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. It’s really quite silly – I stand there with all the six year old girls, enthralled.

It occurs to me now that if the most exciting product of my recent trips to Richmond is a fond reminiscence of shopping malls, either Richmond still has depressingly little of note to say about it, or I’ve recently been lobotomised, since under normal circumstances I feel as if I’m being smothered by an asbestos blanket if forced to spend 15 minutes inside a mall. I’ve been known to walk four blocks down Granville Street in driving sleet rather stroll through the dry warmth of Pacific Centre, and I’d rather be eviscerated than go to Metrotown Mall.

I’m sure that what makes the Golden Village malls tolerable to me is the extent to which they are “foreign” to what is familiar to me. Visiting them is not like wrestling alligators or hiking across the Brazilian Highlands, but there’s still a sense of adventure to be had in discovering them, the sort of adventure one gets from travelling to another country and immersing oneself in a culture different from one’s own. It’s a shame that more Vancouverites – Caucasian Vancouverites, I mean – don’t feel inclined to that sort of adventure, or so I deduce from the relative rarity of pale faces at Aberdeen, or some other “ethnic” enclaves in the Lower Mainland. It’s much more pleasant to get out an embrace difference than to sit around complaining about it. Isn’t that what multiculturalism should be all about?

As for the rest of Richmond, the city is not without some signs of progress, such as the previously mentioned rapid transit line, which is surely the best thing to happen to Richmond in decades. I also noticed that a number of bike lanes are now appearing on major routes. Overall, though, I’m still a ways from feeling affectionate toward the ugly urban areas outside of the immediate vicinity of the Aberdeen Skytrain station.


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