Summer staycation: a taste of Hong Kong in downtown Markham
For everything from congee to karaoke, the GTA’s “mini Hong Kong” is just a short trip away
BY Doug O’Neill
Peter Mak, who was born in Hong Kong and moved to Markham with his family when he was 10, remembers the first time Toronto filmmaker Cheuk Kwan referred to Markham as “a mini Hong Kong” in the national press. “That made total sense to me,” says Mak. “In Hong Kong the living quarters are so small that people stay out late to eat, shop and socialize and while we don’t have night markets year-round in Markham, there is still a huge focus on going out for food, drinks and karaoke.”
Almost 45 percent of Markham’s population of 328,966 has family roots in China, with the biggest contingent having emigrated from Hong Kong. Unlike earlier waves of immigrants from China, those moving from Hong Kong in the 1990s tended to bypass Chinese neighbourhoods downtown and settle in suburbs like Markham. For expats like Mak, Markham has become a home away from home, but it’s also a vibrant, exciting community in its own right, where with just a short trip up the 404, downtowners can get a taste of life in Hong Kong without leaving the GTA. (Photograph by Peter Tung)
Where to eat
“I always order the satay beef vermicelli,” says Constance Sung. It’s her favourite dish at the Phoenix Restaurant in Markham, where she and her family head whenever they’re in the mood for some authentic Hong Kong fare. In fact, the Phoenix was the front-runner in the “best-group-dining” category when we asked three 30-something locals with family roots in Hong Kong—Mak and Sung, as well as Terrilyn Cheung—to share their favourite places to find “the real thing” in the GTA.
Congee Queen came in second, primarily because it’s a great place to introduce newbies to traditional dishes like congee, says Cheung. “They’re more likely to try a version that we’d eat back in Hong Kong, like sliced fish congee or taro-and-sweet-corn congee.” (Photograph by Congee Queen Markham)
Mak also cites the Phoenix as one of his favourite places to dine. “I’ve eaten there with as many as 14 family members,” he says. “It’s not all that different from nights out with my cousins in Hong Kong.” Meanwhile, his favourite dumplings are the dried-scallop-and-pork variety at Ding Tai Fung, which is located at First Markham Place (Highway 7 just west of Warden). And, if you’re hankering for baked goods to take home, try Aroma Bakery, which isn’t too far away on Kennedy Road. (Friendly tip: there is no pineapple in the pineapple bun.)
Spend the day
To immerse yourself in Hong Kong culture close to home, Cheung recommends starting at Markham’s Pacific Mall,which bills itself as “The Largest Chinese Shopping Mall in North America.” Located on the corner of Steeles Avenue and Kennedy Road, the complex houses no fewer than 400 stores, an equal number of food stalls, about 20 places to get bubble tea and 50 tech shops, and it’s packed with all manner of goods ranging from wasabi-flavoured Kit Kat bars to incense holders.
When it comes to food options (“We Asians can’t shop and not eat,” says Cheung), there’s Sun’s Kitchen (for beef-noodle soup), Tung Tung bakery (for Hong Kong-style egg waffles), Wanda’s (pan-fried green beans), Papa Chang’s Express (pork belly buns), Ding Dong Exotic Sweets (preserved fruit snacks)and Spicy Legend (Chinese street food). (Photography by Congee Queen Markham)
Upstairs is The Best Shop, an expansive store that’s often referred to as “a Chinese Walmart,” where shoppers pick their way through rice-cookers, mahjong tables, feng shui charms, smiling Buddhas, brightly coloured plastic buckets and facial masks. If you’re in the market for chopsticks or bento boxes, check out the deals at Ichiban Living, which many Markham residents still refer to as “the $2 store,” even though most items are now priced at $2.25.
Another popular hub is Metro Square on Steeles, which is known as “Little Taipei.” Local groups occasionally host cultural activities on weekends, but the focus is on authentic grub. Popular eateries include Xin Jiang Restaurant-Halal(cuisine of western China infused with Middle Eastern spices) and Chinese Dumpling House (order the ones stuffed with leeks).
Although Markham doesn’t offer the traditional night markets of Hong Kong year-round, you can get a taste at the annual Night It Up market, which is held one weekend every July (July 12-14 in 2019). Or, you can come up with your own evening tradition. Mak and his friends have developed a Hong Kong-inspired ritual for whenever they reunite in Markham: “After dinner at the Phoenix, we drive down Woodbine Avenue for karaoke at Ten23,” he says. “Some traditions stick with you forever.”