Victoria Jin is determined to change people’s stereotypes of young Asian women, starting with those who call her and her business partner too young to open up a restaurant in downtown Halifax.
BY: Caora McKenna
PHOTOS: Caora McKenna
Victoria Jin, left, and her business partner and best friend Alicia Jieng, the co-owners of Sweet and Tears teahouse and desserts.
Spring Garden road in Halifax is one of the city’s busiest streets. Shoe shops, book stores, bars and buskers line the road and the sidewalks are full of people and their pets. Still life plates of plastic food have been artistically arranged in the window of Sweet and Tears teahouse and desserts. People in Halifax stop and wonder about the plates –a sight that is not uncommon for restaurants in Japan and China.
Like the curiosity that brings people into her restaurant, the allure of an unfamiliar experience is what brought Victoria Jin, 27, from Xin Jiang province in China to Nova Scotia in 2013.
“In Nova Scotia we don’t even have a Chinatown!” says Jin.
Her courage to face something unfamiliar is matched by her drive to defy assumptions. Jin and her business partner Alicia Jieng from Chendu province in China both have an MBA from Cape Breton University. They opened Sweet and Tears in May, hoping to introduce high quality, affordable and delicious Japanese inspired dining to Nova Scotians
“At the beginning, everybody doubted us,” says Jieng. “They all said ‘you’re too young for this.”
Jin and Jieng met working with student services at Cape Breton University. They were the only Asian women in the organization, and moving to Canada was harder than they had expected. “People really stereotyped everything,” says Jin. “We overcame it with time.”
Staying in Canada to start their business wasn’t always the plan, and they doubted at times if it was the best decision. In China there was more support, and a better idea of what their customers wanted. Here, they are working hard to figure out exactly what that is. Their lesson in patience is paying off once more. In Halifax, Jieng says, “people still need a bit of time to know what ramen is.”
Classmates who left Nova Scotia for the big cities of Toronto and Vancouver often ask Jin why she stayed. She tells them: “Halifax is our start.”
Jin sees Halifax as a city with “big potential.” It’s a city that’s just starting to “grow up,” and they want to be a part of that growth.
“We definitely feel there’s a future here. A bright future,” says Jin.
Every time someone tries ramen for the first time at Sweet and Tears, Jin watches to see if they empty the entire bowl, down to the last drop of broth. That’s when she knows they loved it, and they’ll be back again. She says they’ve taken a risk in trying to educate their customers about their cuisine, but hopes it can change traditional perceptions of Asian food and restaurants.
Before opening Jieng travelled to Japan to learn from the masters. Their chef does the cooking and prep work, but she learned from the best to ensure Sweet and Tears’ food would be too. “We’re picky about our food,” says Jin. It’s essential for their business’ success.
“If any Canadian had ever been to Japan, they would be inspired by how much effort people put into cooking,” says Jieng. “You just can’t imagine.”
The pair is perfectly balanced because they too, inspire each other.
Just as they are a part of Halifax’s growth, they have grown up since arriving in Nova Scotia. “Not everyone you meet inspires you,” says Jin. “It’s amazing, to meet somebody who can help you grow up.”
Most of the time they work as one unit. Jieng’s focuses more on the graphic design for the menus and the quality and standards of the food. Jin works on promotion, design and operations. Together, they work to do everything perfectly.
It drives Jieng crazy that Jin can still go to the gym “after a 12-hour work day while I am exhausted and dying,” she says. And it drives Jin crazy that Jieng won’t join her. The yoga pass Jin got Jieng for her birthday is still unused.
Outside of building their business, and Jin’s workouts, they don’t have energy for much else. “Right now, this is our husband,” says Jieng.
Before they put effort in getting their Canadian citizenship, they want to know they have a successful business and are on the path to the life they envision for themselves. “The core of your life is what you do,” says Jieng, “not which country you belong to.”
Jieng wants Sweet and Tears to be an example for future international students with entrepreneurial drive like Jin and herself. By figuring out how to pair culture from home with the Nova Scotian palate they can show them how to do something well.
Since opening in May, business has been good. “Much better than what we expected,” says Jieng. First time ramen eaters are becoming regulars, and they have franchising and expansion in their sights.
“This is just our start,” says Jin, “it’s not the destination.”