• Leung Kin-wah’s family left Guangzhou for Vancouver in 1981, with little money, not much English but a desire to work hard. Now, they own a fruit and veg empire
    • This year, Kin’s Farm Market celebrates its 40th anniversary. Leung, who helped his parents start the company up, talks about its beginnings and its future

Back in 1981, when Leung Kin-wah was packing up to leave Guangzhou with his family and migrate to Vancouver, his 80-year-old paternal grandmother handed him a lai see packet.

“You’re going to Canada, so there is the possibility I won’t see you again,” she told her then 21-year-old oldest grandson. “Don’t open this now, only after you arrive in Canada.”

In it was a 20 Hong Kong cent coin and a small piece of red paper on which Leung’s grandmother had written in Chinese characters: “Work hard for your career, look towards the future, be successful in business and bring glory to your family.”

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“It was so special, better than giving money,” he says of her words of encouragement.

The note Leung's grandmother gave him before he left for Vancouver.

The note Leung’s grandmother gave him before he left for Vancouver.© Provided by South China Morning Post

Leung has since framed the piece of paper and remembers these words every day as he works at the headquarters of the family business, Kin’s Farm Market, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Four decades ago, the family of five, including Leung’s younger brother, Kin-hun, and older sister, Kin-fun, began their new lives in Canada, with only meagre savings, and not much English.

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At first, they lived in an attic in an impoverished area of Vancouver inhabited by drunks and drug addicts. Leung and his sister worked as cooks in a congee and wonton noodle shop in Chinatown while his younger brother washed dishes and his mother babysat.

After two years, Leung recalls, a friend took his family to a tourist attraction called Granville Island, where they saw vendors doing brisk business selling fresh fruit and vegetables on tables they rented out daily.

“New immigrants wanted to get into business, but how?” says Leung of that time. The family decided to give it a try, despite knowing nothing about retail, let alone the fresh-produce business. Back in Guangzhou, Leung’s parents had worked in a state-owned bus company, his father in human resources, his mother in bookkeeping.

Kin's Farm Market in Vancouver's Granville Island in 1983. Photo: Kin's Farm Market

Kin’s Farm Market in Vancouver’s Granville Island in 1983. Photo: Kin’s Farm Market© Provided by South China Morning Post

Leung had just obtained his driving licence, so in the mornings they drove to farms to buy produce and sold it in Granville Island. In the afternoons, he attended a government-sponsored English class, followed by evening shifts in the wonton noodle shop.

“We only knew about gai lan and bak choi, we didn’t know what raspberries and strawberries were,” he says. But when they saw people buying these berries, the family found farmers to source them from, along with other popular produce such as lettuce.

People liked buying their produce because it was fresh, but business slowed down significantly during the winter. Granville Island is located right by the water, and when business was slow, Leung would set crab traps, reasoning that if they didn’t sell much produce, at least his family could eat crab.

Kin's Farm Market in 1987. Photo: Kin's Farm Market

Kin’s Farm Market in 1987. Photo: Kin’s Farm Market© Provided by South China Morning Post

However, they could not watch both the traps and the stall at the same time, and the traps were stolen. Adding to their dismay, they discovered that other stalls were making 10 times more daily revenue than they did.

The Leungs realised they had to step up their customer service and use their broken English to persuade people to buy from them.

“We introduced the produce to them, told them how to prepare it, or gave fruits to the children and chatted with their parents,” says Leung.

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Leung’s wife, Queenie Chu, adds: “At the time paper bags were expensive and we got a lot of plastic bags for free, so we helped people bag their other purchases as an extra service.” Chu started working as a cashier at Kin’s in 1987 and the couple were married six years later.

It was this philosophy of treating customers like friends that helped the family build its business to the point where they could open their first bricks-and-mortar shop, in Richmond in 1987.

“At the time many Westerners didn’t know what a papaya was and I told them eating it was better than skincare,” says Leung with a smile. “My father liked to help customers choose watermelons.”

Leung and Chu with his framed piece of paper. He remembers the words on it every day.

Leung and Chu with his framed piece of paper. He remembers the words on it every day.© Provided by South China Morning Post

“Each farm’s growing season is different, but usually the beginning and end of the season don’t have the best produce,” he says. “It’s the period in the middle when the produce is the best, so I only buy it then. That’s why I go to different farms to source the same produce because I need to give the best to customers.”

In 1990, the family opened their second store, in Ladner, which was double the size of the Richmond shop. Following customers’ suggestions, the Leungs tried selling dry goods, such as sauces and newspapers. But after a few months it became clear that no one was buying these items and they were just taking up space. The Leungs decided to once again focus on their strength – fresh produce.

Leung says his family

Leung says his family© Provided by South China Morning Post

During the 1990s, when a new wave of Hong Kong immigrants arrived and suggested Kin’s add more Asian vegetables to their stock and Chinese characters to their pricing signs, Leung refused.

“We welcome all people to come here to shop,” he says. “We have done so well with the local Canadian population and they have accepted us. We can open shops anywhere.”

They saw their limitations in 2007, however, when they expanded on the east coast with two stores in Ontario, an hour’s drive from Toronto. Finding it difficult to manage the businesses from afar, they closed them after about three years.

(Second left to third right) Lau, Chu and Leung at Kin's Farm Market in 2023. Photo: Kin's Farm Market

(Second left to third right) Lau, Chu and Leung at Kin’s Farm Market in 2023. Photo: Kin’s Farm Market© Provided by South China Morning Post

Leung’s stepson, Victor Lau, is the chief operating officer and third generation of Kin’s Farm Market. In high school, Lau started stocking produce and learning bookkeeping. After graduating from university with a business degree, he worked in merchandising and now focuses on buying, distribution and marketing.

During a tour of their warehouse, we spot supersized button mushrooms, bright-red hothouse tomatoes, deep purple plums, sweet-smelling peaches and several varieties of grapes including the coronation, which starts sweet and has a slightly tart finish.

Kin’s buys as much produce locally as possible, but in the off-season they source from 45 countries, including the United States, Mexico and as far away as Israel, Japan and the Netherlands.

Today, Kin’s Farm Market has 23 stores and Leung says they are keen to expand further.

“I believe every neighbourhood needs fresh fruits and vegetables,” he says, explaining the manifesto that supports their motto: “To inspire a better quality of life in our communities.”

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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