Chinese Grocery Stores Futher Define Culture in Madison

Grocery store
Photo by Kyle Jacobson

Defining the word culture is rather simple. Generally, it’s agreed that the art, food, and intellectual pursuits of a community make up part of its culture. But larger cities, like Madison, are difficult to confine to homogony. An effort is made to describe the area as multicultural, but that in itself is only an aspect of a city’s culture and not the complete picture.

Madison observably favors the predominant Western value of convenience. But also a part of Madison culture is a buy local effort to keep dollars spent in the community. For some, this extends to beer purchases. Others take care in making the decision to buy clothing from resident retailers. There’s something that’s inherently unique, though, about shopping at local ethnic grocery stores. Patrons prop up another culture while simultaneously buying from a local business.

While the university-student customer base fluctuates, Ken Yan, owner of Garden Asian Market, says that business since he’s owned the Market is “pretty steady. Pretty much same customer.” This makes sense when considering Madison’s Asian population numbers over 18,000. According to a 2015 census by Statistic Atlas, the next highest demographic after White is Asian. Ken says that first- and second-generation immigrants are his main customers.

Kien Ma at Yue-Wah Oriental Foods, in business for 34 years, echoes these sentiments. Through some rougher times in Madison economically, Kien’s store has done well because of their very consistent Chinese customer base. The city has taken note of the value concerning its largest minority. Kien mentions the city’s efforts to give the south side, where Yue-Wah is located, a facelift. “The city spent a lot of time and energy trying to make it nicer.”

Photographs by Kyle Jacobson

The benefits of Madison retaining and helping to enable these grocery stores pays off. I asked Kien about his American customers, and he says, “We have a lot now compared to when we first started.” And that growth can be attributed to word of mouth and a growing store front, starting at only 500 square feet and now exceeding 7,000.

Having a Chinese extension of culture in Madison has allowed all sorts of residents with different backgrounds to access food they’d not get otherwise. “People are more informed now—more curious,” says Kien. We talk about people having a strong impulse to try new recipes they find online. That’s when they realize that Chinese food goes well beyond what they might be accustomed to seeing on menus. “[At] restaurant, you are limited to a couple dishes. … They will try new things, instead of eating their own food all the time.” That adventurous attitude seems more than a subculture in Madison.

“We have a lot of classes that come here,” says Kien. “Cooking classes like to bring their whole class, walk around, and tour the place.” Access to ideas and a way of life through food creates a tight bond between groups of people from various backgrounds. Simply walking through the grocery store and considering different products tells a story. From specialized ingredients to the packaging of different candies, it’s impossible to avoid putting together a larger picture of not just the Chinese people living in Madison, but Chinese culture across the world.

As Ken points out, “We play a huge role in keeping China’s culture here.” It starts with giving the Chinese population of Madison access to the food they grew up with. Not just rice dishes, but fish, sauces, and vegetables uncommon in Midwestern cooking. Brats and corn on the cob make me feel comfortable, like eating a piece of home, and these grocery stores grant access to that same feeling, which is something any reasonable person would not want to limit another from just because it isn’t their preference.

There’s also the added benefit of having access to some amazing fish. Pompano, red snapper, grouper, and flounder to name a few. Even those that aren’t fans of Chinese food can find something they might want to fillet and grill for a special occasion or to remind themselves of a favorite vacation.

Photographs by Kyle Jacobson

Community isn’t just exemplified by how a business interacts with its customers, but the relationship businesses have to one another. Grocery stores, like Yue-Wah and Garden Asian Market, play a role in helping out local restaurants. Ken talks about how the Chinese restaurants come to his store sometimes when they run out of ingredients. It’s not his main customer, but it’s something that he can provide that boosts the community as a whole.

What it all comes down to is connection. “We are here to help, too, in case [customers] have questions,” says Kien. As the amount of interest from American customers grows to experiment with food, there’s often a learning curve with navigating new ingredients. “We have a bigger selection. For every kind of food, we have almost a full line of everything.” I’m having flashbacks of looking for ingredients in a larger grocery store, not being able to find anything due to lack of selection, then having an internal breakdown where dropping what I’d managed to find and running out the door seems a logical response. The thought of choosing from a wide variety while guided by an expert would cut the frequency of my trips to the psychiatrist exponentially.

For Ken, the experience is important, and he runs all his businesses with three things in mind to keep customers coming back: service, quality, and price. I’m sure he’s right, and both Yue-Wah and Garden Asian Market exemplify these qualities in their own way, but I like to be perhaps unsubstantiatedly optimistic. Madison has an interest in in-person access and opportunity, with the worldwide web acting as a means rather than an end. I’ve no doubt we’d lose these grocery stores and the opportunity to expand the idea of Madison without a Chinese demographic, but it’s also fair to say that without the university and accolade of capital city, the opportunity may never have presented itself in the first place. Poetic interdependence: sometimes thin, sometimes full of holes, but it’s the umbrella I think Madison takes pride in holding up.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.