Filipino restaurants in Metro Vancouver face uncertain Christmas amid flood aftermath, COVID-19 restrictions

For many Filipinos, celebrating Christmas means attending Catholic mass as a family and having large gatherings with treats like suckling pigor whole roast pig, often the centerpiece in a holiday feast.

“They need to have that on their table,” said Mary Loa, owner of Kumare Restaurant and Bakery in Richmond, BC “It’s our tradition, it’s [our] custom, passed from one generation to another.”

Loa was fielding many requests for piglet ahead of the holidays, but problems arose after floods in November killed thousands of animals in the Fraser Valley.

“My heart just sank,” she said. “All those pigs have been ordered. The customers fully paid. We have to do e-transfer, to give them back their money.”

Loa is one of several Filipino restaurant owners that had been anticipating a busy season during a significant holiday for the Filipino community, but now face a challenging December, following devastating floods and new COVID-19 restrictions.

With supply chain disruptions, Filipino ingredients have been hard to come by, and increasing food prices have driven up costs by 40 per cent over the past few months, Loa says.

Mary Loa pictured at Kumare Restaurant, the Filipino restaurant she owns and runs in Richmond, BC Loa says she feels uncertain about the future, with new COVID-19 restrictions placed on indoor gatherings during a typically festive, food-laden time of year for the Filipino community. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

She says Kumare, which has been running for 12 years, can absorb some cost increases but the future is uncertain.

“If it’s long-term, I just don’t know what lies ahead,” she said. “…If we have to really have a huge loss, then I don’t know. Sad to say.”

New gathering restrictions dampen demand

“Christmas is one of the biggest events, if not the biggest event of the Filipino families back home, especially to the Catholics,” said Joel Castillo, president of the United Filipino Canadian Associations in BC (UFCABC).

He says festivities typically begin with Simbang Gabiwhich translates to ‘night mass’ and involves going to church for nine days leading up to Dec. 24, when families prepare a large feast to celebrate Christmas eve with loved ones.

“If it is a Filipino event, there is food, not just enough for the people who are joining the event, but [for] what we call the ‘doggie bag’ after,” he added.

An assortment of Filipino desserts at Kumare Restaurant in Richmond, BC Many Filipino families host or participate in large gatherings to celebrate Christmas, with a large feast featuring enough food not only for the celebration, but also to take home afterwards. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

On Monday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry limited indoor gatherings to household members plus 10 visitors, or one other household, with everyone over 12 fully vaccinated.

The smaller gatherings mean smaller feasts. Since the restrictions were announced, Loa has received calls from customers canceling their large orders.

The same has happened to Bennet Miemban-Ganata, who owns Plato Filipino restaurant in New Westminster.

“We’re sad about it but we need to follow the rules,” she said.

Restaurants to catch in the Filipino community

Miemban-Ganata, who immigrated to Canada in 2016, says she was forced to find a new location for Plato Filipino this year when plans were announced to revelop its original location on Joyce Street in Vancouver.

Now, she’s pushing to keep Filipino Plate going.

“[It’s] the sense of keeping our culture alive,” she said. “My part now… it’s for me to still continue the culture, the food culture of the Philippines.”

Loa feels similarly.

“I know the Filipinos here sometimes have two jobs, three jobs, I can hear them calling from SkyTrain … to pick up [their food] and rush to their next job,” she said.

“We don’t want to keep on increasing the price [of food], I know they have to send money back home. I know how hard it is,” she added.

Joel Castillo, president of the United Filipino Canadian Associations of BC in New Westminster, says he hopes Filipino business owners will be able to adapt and keep the holiday spirit in spite of the challenges. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

“These business people are trying to maintain the traditions and culture they can bring to Vancouver,” said Castillo.

He says he hopes the Filipino community can adapt to the new challenges and keep the holiday spirit as they mark this significant season in their culture.

“Let’s be patient, let’s celebrate, whatever we can do to make ourselves happy,” he said.

“Lechon isn’t the end of everything. Let’s … celebrate Christmas regardless of the effect of the pandemic.”

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