Inside the legendary Dragon Flowers shop
Dragon Flowers: A tale of perserverance
Words— Yang Shi
Photography— Jean-Guillaume Bastin
A cascade of birdcages graced by a whirlwind of colours, the facade of the Dragon Flowers is alive. It’s still early, Tamey Lau, the shop owner, greets a group of teenagers. She asks them where they are from. They are from Vancouver. She replies she was there a few days ago visiting her daughter.
For Tamey, raising her 14 children as a single mother is her proudest accomplishment. Then, there is the flower shop where she spends most of her days. It underscores a tale of perseverance—and, in a way, helps her keep her memories and her experiences as an immigrant alive. But, it also instills in her the confidence to move forward and forge new ties— to inspire hope and generosity to her beloved community.
What is the meaning of dragon for you?
Dragon means giving people good energy. In Chinese culture, the dragon is the most important sign of the zodiac—it is a symbol of auspicious powers and good omen. It brings good luck to people who are worthy. I have many children. All my sons have the word dragon (“long” in Chinese) in their first name.
How old is your flower shop?
I’ve had this shop for 38 years. I opened it 2-3 years after I arrived in Canada.
What’s your relationship with flowers? Does your affinity for them date from childhood?
No, I didn’t grow up in a household with flowers. I never would’ve thought of owning a flower shop. Back in Hong Kong, I was a model. I loved smiling and posing for the camera as a child so people pushed me to pursue a modelling career. When I arrived here, I lost everything and had to build a new life— I didn’t know where to begin, I didn’t speak French and I had many children to raise. Opening a modest flower shop was the only option. At first, I hated it, but today, I wouldn’t trade my shop for anything else. These flowers are like my children, they mean the world to me.
Do you remember the first time someone ever gave you flowers?
My supplier Michael. He is the one who brings me flowers every morning. We’ve been doing business for 30 years. Our relationship is based on mutual respect and trust. During the first year of my business, I had many debts. Michael was aware of my precarious situation so he didn’t ask me to pay for an entire year. I would think to myself “I am nobody, and this person believes in me”. I was extremely grateful and his support pushed me to work even harder. Today, I am proud of my accomplishments and I owe a lot of my success to Michael.
Your story is very inspiring. It shows the struggle of many immigrant parents who had to overcome cultural and financial challenges to support their families.
It’s really hard for us to start fresh in an unfamiliar land, leaving our cornerstones behind. Parents sacrifice a lot for their children. I really wish the best for the next generation. I want children like you to be strong, to bloom without having to go through what we went through.
I love how you use flowers as metaphors for children. Do you sometimes give flowers to your children?
My own children don’t like flowers [laughing], so no. I like giving flowers to the neighbourhood kids, especially to the underprivileged ones. Every day, I see them wander around the store, and it saddens me when a parent doesn’t want to buy them flowers. So I would give them tiny roses. They would get all excited which is really heartwarming to watch. Kids remember. Some of them are all grown up now, and they still visit me and call me grandma.
What do you think your flowers bring people?
I always thought that flowers are flowers and mine aren’t any more special. But some customers told me that my shop is unique, and my flowers inspire life and have feelings because I don’t stack them on shelves or locked them behind a cold glass the way other shops do. I let them free.
How many species of flowers and plants do you have?
Since the shop has been around for so many years, I’ve lost track of all the different species. To maintain its good reputation, I always offer a wide selection of flowers for all occasions. Each flower carries its own meaning. Elderly people usually buy carnations, because they are timeless. Young artists seek rare and refined species such as hydrangeas, peonies, calas and chrysanthemum green buttons.
Do the birdcages above the entrance have a special meaning?
They mean home and remind us of our connection to our roots. They bring a feeling of safety and provide answers in times of uncertainty. It’s a way for my 14 children and all the other children to find their way home, no matter where they are.
Where is home for you? Is this shop your home now?
Absolutely. [laughing] Although I have a beautiful house, I can’t spend more than two hours there. I practically live here. I come around 7 am, get ready for the day, arrange my flowers and water them. I display my bouquets differently every day because every day is a new beginning. I want my flowers to bring hope and good energy to the passerby.
This is really incredible. I don’t think there are any other institutions in the Mile-End that share a stronger bond with the community than yours. I remember reading how local residents organized a crowdfunding campaign to help you get back on your feet after a devastating fire in 2013.
Yes, that was really moving. I lost everything in the fire. I was depressed and cried a lot. Young people and kids started to collect money to help me out. Within a week, the whole neighbourhood started a fundraiser. Many residents, even if they all had day jobs, gave me a hand to paint and clean. Some skater kids even sold their boards and I told them to keep the money. People have good hearts and I wouldn’t be able to re-open the shop without their contribution.
What does the future hold for Tamey and her flowers?
Ahhh, I am very old and it’s becoming physically challenging. I can retire, but I don’t want to because I love this flower shop. Nothing makes me prouder. For an immigrant who didn’t have any education or spoke the language, I’ve come a long way. I learned through hardship. I was able to raise all my children and set them up for success. And all I want it’s for my flower shop to keep bringing happiness and good energy to people.
After our long exchange, I thanked Tamey for taking the time to meet with me despite her busy schedule. I asked benignly if I could take pictures. She agreed with a smile and started tending her flower stands as if she never left them. I watched her prepare a bouquet with the utmost care and attention. A bright red gerbera occupied the center stage and was adorned by a sunflower and a rose. Then, for the final touch, she loaded her creation with dainty white mums and handed it to me. “It’s for good energy,” she said.
This interview was conducted in Mandarin and translated into English.