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Meet East Vancouver’s original urban farmers

August 10, 2016

Vancouver Courier | Michaelina Teo has grown produce for many years, from mangoes in Brunei to the Swiss chard at her Renfrew home, but last year was the first time she ever won a prize for the sexiest squash.

The prize was awarded to her by Collingwood Neighbourhood House for its harvest festival. But for the 72-year-old, who likes to be called Mee Mee, the fruits of her labour were always their own reward.

“I’m a very casual gardener,” she said, although she’s known in the neighbourhood for her green thumb.

Mee Mee waters the goodies in her backyard everyday, always wearing one of her many colourful bucket hats. Chinese celery and Chinese mustard. Green beans and green onions. Potatoes and tomatoes. Strawberries and Swiss chard (her favourite). She even has goji berries, which her young grandchildren love to pick with their little hands.

Mee Mee insists she’s not an expert. She worked as a technical drawer for Brunei Shell, nothing to do with growing things. The mangoes she once grew in Brunei were for fun. When she moved to Vancouver in 1988, she started her garden very casually: throwing seeds randomly into her backyard.

“If it grew, then it grew,” she said, with a cheerful shrug.

Mee Mee’s not the only one with a casual but hardworking attitude towards urban farming. Walk down an East Vancouver street or alley and you’ll eventually come across yards taken over by impressive amounts of produce.

Chayote squash and calabash. Cucumber and kale. Fuzzy gourds and bitter melons.

It’s a mix of eastern and western crops, and you’ll notice that many of the gardeners tending lovingly to their produce everyday are immigrant Asian seniors from a variety of backgrounds. A common East Van scene, one you seldom see on the West Side, with many seniors working hard because…

Well, just because.

“Nothing special?”

Try to praise these seniors for their garden work and they’ll close their eyes, shake their heads and dismiss your compliment with the wag of a hand.

“My garden is very messy!” laughs Mee Mee.

“It’s really nothing special,” said Queenie Tien, 66, in Cantonese. Tien lives near Mee Mee, and grows winter melon and zucchini.

She’s from Vietnam, with roots in Guangdong.

“It’s just a good way to save money as I get older,” said Mai Jian in Cantonese. Mai, 65, originally from Longchuan County in Guangdong, grows Indian lettuce, tung ho and chayotes at the back of his Joyce -Collingwood home.

The humility of these seniors seems mismatched to their abundant harvests. Like Mee Mee, they insist gardening is just a good hobby with good results to share with family and friends.

Jason Lee, who lives off Slocan Street, would agree.

“It’s a great way to burn time now that I’ve retired,” Lee said in Cantonese. He used to work for a furniture company. “Where did I learn how to grow produce? Right here in my garden!”

His yard is fuzzy gourds, bottle gourds, cucumber, choy sum, eggplant and okra galore.

“Some other Chinese like to go to the casino or dance, like my wife, but that’s not for me.”

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