The Art of the Display | Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie

This summer Poppytalk is participating in the Vancouver Chinatown Night Market with a pop-up stall along with a group of other handmade makers and shops selected by the Chinatown Merchants Association under their revitalization plan that will make this much-loved summer event a unique experience. One of the people behind that revitalization is Tannis Ling, owner of the beautiful, Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie.  We love her style and restaurant space (ideas one could easily translate into their own home decor), so we sent her a few questions asking her about Bao Bei's decor and her ideas behind them.  Here's what she had to say.

Bao Bei means "precious" in Cantonese - can you explain your idea behind starting your restaurant and how it all began?
Bao Bei does mean "precious" but in Mandarin. My mom used to make us the most incredible dinners every night growing up. It wasn't until I moved away when I was in my early 20's that I realized how special those family dinners were and eating food like my mom's was impossible to find anywhere. Most Chinese food everyone eats is Cantonese but my mom's family is from Northern China, Shanghai and Taiwan and it's very different. Not only that but to eat Chinese food almost anywhere meant sitting in a large, brightly lit room, at a 10 person table with no wine list, not much thought to decor and usually not very polite service. It started me thinking about actually creating a place where you could have an intimate experience, have a nice glass of wine, listen to good music, get a smile from the server and also eat food like my mom's. I've worked in restaurants my whole life so when I was reaching that point in my life where I was sick of working for someone else, it seemed like the logical step.

What was your decor inspired by?
When I was first dreaming up this idea, I was living in London, England and I was fascinated by all the history, the oldness, the worn out charm of the pubs, cafes, and restaurants we would go to; all the European-ness of it just oozed out of every crook and nanny. I loved it. In 2000's, the restaurant design scene in Vancouver was either very minimal, cold and horribly fancy or just plain cheap and corporate. When I moved back, things hadn't changed too much with the exception of Chambar and I really became excited about combining this old vintage European, almost French look with a Chinese twist. It was also important to me to balance out all this oldness and to some extent femininity with modern, industrial, cleaner looking lighting.

I love the vintage silver trays on the walls - can you tell me how that all began, did you have a collection before it began?
From the very beginning, Craig Stanghetta, a friend who helped me design it, and I would go on buying trips to Value Village, thrift stores and antique stores to see what we could find as inspiration. At this point we hadn't even really touched the room but Craig found these stacks of beautiful trays that really drew the eye and we just bought them all up but didn't really know what we were going to do with them. Much later, we pulled them out and said, "Hey, let's put them on the wall!" and it worked.

I love the layout, not your typical Chinese restaurant layout, can you explain your idea behind that.
It was a long room and the kitchen was originally where it is now so we kept it like that for the easiness of it. After that it made sense to just line the tables all the way to the back. I thought it was important to have at least one large table for family dinners so we kept that back space for that reason, raised it up, filled it with pillows, and put a chandelier in so that it felt private and cozy.

I noticed on your instagram, some beautiful glass cloches that house vintage photographs. They create such beautiful vignette - can you tell me how they came about?
I have been obsessed with Sibella Court for some time and she has the most amazing way of raising ordinary objects up to the status of a prized jewel through thoughtful and creative display. She often uses cloches in her work. I found most of the objects inside a bin in the bargain basement of a thrift store and the picture of my mother as a child rounded it all out nicely I think. Although that picture was stolen a few months ago and my heart is a little broken.

Being part of Chinatown's revival, can you tell those that haven't visited your restaurant, it's concept/idea.
Bao Bei is a modern Chinese restaurant that pays homage to the Chinatown neighbourhood through its decor and cuisine but we also likes to shake tradition up in the kitchen, dishing out Chinese but sometimes not so Chinese food, play loud music, make stupid good cocktails and laugh a lot.

Tell us where you found some of your furniture (eg - the sofa and table below the silver tray wall), the banquettes? Love the industrial lighting also - do you have a source?
The sofa came from Scott Langdon's warehouse in Cloverdale and we had it reupholstered with some vintage fabric that I found on Etsy. The coffee table was made from an old barn door that was practically given to me by a nearby flower store owner in the neighbourhood who was moving. The legs came from Scott Langdon again. The banquettes were custom made. Still so glad we chose that colour. The lights along the wall, we designed and had made by my friend's father. The 2 large lamps are old street lamps from an antique store in New Westminster. The chandelier above the bar was made by Craig with antique shades he found in Toronto combined with partial lamps from Ikea. The red lights above the high tops came from a the Source near Main and Union.

What's your favourite thing (decor wise) in the restaurant?
Probably the super-sized large photo of my dad and his buddies at their high school dance in Hong Kong at the family table. They look like a bunch of cool cats and my dad has this funny sheepish look on his face.

Anything you'd like to add?
We did this all on a really tight budget and it amazes still what we accomplished with so little. I'm glad we didn't have more money because it encouraged us to come up with resourceful and creative solutions that I think sometimes doesn't happen when you do have a healthy budget.
Thank you Tannis, congrats to you and Craig for such an inspiring space! Click here to read about Bao Bei's innovative and delicious mix of Chinese food and cocktails which has been written about worldwide.

Bao Bei is located at 163 Keefer Street, Vancouver and open Monday to Saturday, 5.30pm – midnight. Closed Sundays, (closed Monday, May 27th for maintenance). No reservations Except Family Table  (604 688 0876)

Visit them online:

Jan Halvarson


Unknown said...

Such a beautiful space and wonderful story! I especially love those swinging wall lamps over the row of tables and the little banquet seating area at the front. All the more reason to possibly come out and visit Vancouver this summer!!

Lily from Birch + Bird said...

Oh my, such a beautiful space! Looks like the perfect place to stop for a bite before the night market...I'll definitely be popping by :)

Coco Cake Land said...

i loved reading about this space - so much thought and creativity and it turned out so beautiful. you can feel the warmth and "vintage" feel when you eat there. great interview, jan and tannis!

tannis i adore that big black and white blown up photo, too, nice to hear the story behind it.

and horrid karma to the awful person who stole the cloche and your mother's old photo! aiyahhh!!


Alex said...

Wow, such an inspiring space. Congratulations.

Ling said...

That's so lovely! We must visit it one day. I'm so inspired - Chinese and vintage.