Lessons Of Vancouver
Jack Lee has a dilemma. The 42-year-old Vancouver-area developer’s shiny new $60-million hotel, shopping and community centre in suburban Richmond, B.C., is almost complete—financed largely by would-be Canadians from Lee’s native Taiwan who have each put $250,000 into his project, qualifying them for citizenship under Canada’s investor-immigrant entry rules. The finishing touch on the gleaming glass-and-concrete project will be a fountain near the entrance where, Lee says, water will splash from the open mouth of one fish into that of another. One of the fish will be a carp, a symbol of the Orient; the other a dolphin, representing the West. To Asians, he adds, “water is for money.” Lee’s quandary: ‘Which fish should receive it? And which should spit it out?”
The question is on many minds in Canada’s fastest-growing city. Even as Vancouver enjoys the economic benefits of record levels of immigration, the city of 1.6 million finds itself straining to accommodate the needs of an increasingly multicultural population. Citizens of longer standing, meanwhile, are asking other questions: as the face of the city changes, whose values will prevail, those of traditional Vancouver—or those of the newcomers? Indeed, in a city where street names like Blenheim and Balaclava evoke a staunchly British
heritage, the visibly changing population prompts an even deeper question, one that resonates across the nation. As the number of Canadians of non-European origin approaches those of the two socalled founding nations of Canada, who, ultimately, are “we” anyway?
The sensitivity and significance of the issue were driven home again last week. After federal Immigration Minister Sergio Marchi announced that refugee claimants will now be allowed to work while awaiting a ruling on their status in Canada—lifting a load from overburdened welfare systems—critics immediately charged that the decision would deprive Canadians of jobs. In British Columbia, however, another news item drove home a different economic message. Fuelled by record immigration of 76,000 people (from both inside and outside Canada) in 1993, British Columbia generated nearly two out of every three new full-time jobs in the entire country last year.
Welcome as that news was to Vancouver residents, it did little to ease the stresses that have accompanied a sharp reversal in earlier patterns of immigration from abroad. In contrast to newcomers in previous decades, most of whom arrived with little money and a humble willingness to accept whatever work was offered, many of those who now come to the city, particularly the roughly one-fifth of them who arrive from Hong Kong, possess both wealth and high expectations. Both as investors and as consumers,
their growing presence has profoundly visible consequences.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the south Vancouver suburb of Richmond. The elegant compound curves of Lee’s mirrorsheathed President Plaza embrace both a Sheraton Hotel, due to open in April, and the country’s largest Asian-food supermarket, which is already doing business. On its shelves, Old Dutch Potato Chips share space with Korean kim chi and cans of grass jelly drink; a live seafood section boasts tanks of eels as well as lobster. Three floors above the shoppers, seven Buddhist nuns and monks clad in plain ochre habits are preparing to dedicate a 5,000-square-foot temple, the heart of a community centre that will offer adult education in Asian languages and crafts.
Lee’s complex is just the latest addition to Richmond’s increasingly Asian-influenced skyline. Immediately to the south of President Plaza sits the Aberdeen Centre; despite its Scottish name, the bustling complex of shops and restaurants is owned by investors from Hong Kong who modelled it on similar centres in that enclave of capitalism. “You feel very much at home when you go there,” observes Joseph Li, a Hong Kong native who now works for Lee’s President Asian Enterprises Inc. To the north of Lee’s building stands the Yaohan Centre, the first Canadian link in an international chain of supermarkets and department stores owned by Japan’s Wada Group. There, jewelry store owner May Leung surveyed the uniformly Asian shoppers beyond her counter one day recently and observed with unconscious irony: “We do not see many foreigners out here.”
That Leung meant Canadians of European extraction would frankly appall some white Vancouverites. Many feel pushed aside by the Asian influx. “They make no effort to fit in,” complains Elizabeth Campbell, who has lived in Vancouver almost all her life. She was speaking particularly of the large, boxy homes on bare lots, many of them owned by Chinese immigrants, that in the late 1980s began to displace the more modest bungalows with leafy landscaping that once defined her west end neighborhood of Kerrisdale. Locals promptly dubbed the dwellings “monster houses.”
But the sentiment plainly has more general application. At Magee Secondary School in the city’s west end, guidance counsellor William McNulty has witnessed the change over the past 19 years as the once overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant school body has become more than half Asian. “So far,” he says of attempts to foster mutual understanding between the old group and the new, “it is a one-way street:
Canadians wanting to understand the newcomers.” But, McNulty adds, “Canadians do have a culture. There is a case for the Asians § showing they want to understand ft the local culture.” A straw poll of | one typical office floor in down“ town Vancouver, meanwhile, turned up complaints directed at the Asian newcomers from more than half the tenants. Sore points ranged from the inconsiderate rudeness of some new arrivals to the soaring price of real estate, fuelled in part by wealthy immigrants paying top dollar for the city’s most desirable properties. “That’s why I voted Reform [in last fall’s federal election],” volunteered secretary Terri Richardson. She was attracted, she says, by that party’s call for restrictions on immigration.
Some of the harshest criticism of Vancouver’s increasingly Asian cast can be heard in a spacious book-lined basement office a few steps down from Water Street in the city’s historic Gastown district Red and black hand-painted letters across a window facing the street identify the office as belonging to the Procult Institute: “In service to Western
cultural values.” The institute’s founder, former businessman Jud Cyllorn, has written and published a 490-page polemic against Canada's immigration policy called Stop Apologizing. “In 22 years,” he argues, “we have completely changed who we are and what we believe in.” According to Cyllorn, who is of Scots origin, Canada’s “British culture, which is based on trust,” has given way to an “Asian culture [of] individual greed.” Cyllorn, whose tiny organization has little influence, insists he is not a racist “Anything I say is not to raise hatred against anyone,” he told Maclean’s, “but only to raise disgust at our own laxity and stupidity in surrendering our country without even a whimper.” But history, and the numbers, tell a very different story, one that is both more complex and more reassuring than Cyllom’s crudely bipolar perspective. The purely European past that he evokes is a fiction. So,
too, is the alarmist notion that Vancouver is on the verge of becoming a transplanted version of Asia’s teeming city-states.
As a matter of record, the census of 1891 documented no fewer than 42 countries of origin among the 14,000 people living in Vancouver. Orientals even then outnumbered Caucasians from continental Europe, 840 to 560. Succeeding generations of immigrants have added dozens of additional ethnic flavors to Vancouver’s multicultural mix. Until 1942, a prosperous Japanese community abutted Vancouver’s traditional Chinatown; its residents were abruptly interned and their property confiscated following the bombing of Pearl Harbor (the Canadian government formally apologized in 1988 for the mistreatment).
During the two decades following the Second World War, further immigration added a vigorous Italian community to the city’s east end, while the concentration of Germans along one downtown street earned it the nickname “Robsonstrasse.” Greek, Indo-Pakistani, Portuguese and Filipino communities appeared during the 1960s and 1970s, and by 1990, the children of immigrants registering for school in Vancouver came from a breathtaking total of 79 countries. Now, a local joke asks what the shortest distance is between Iran and Hong Kong. Answer: Lion’s Gate Bridge, which links North Vancouver, favored by the city’s Iranians, to downtown and old Chinatown. “Vancouver has always been a seaport,” observes city councillor Jennifer Clarke. “It has always accepted waves of immigrants from anywhere,
and it has always been enriched by them.” For that matter, Vancouver’s Chinese are scarcely less diverse in outlook than the rest of the city’s population. Many families trace their Canadian roots back more than a century to the Klondike Gold Rush or the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway— which drew thousands of Chinese immigrants to the young country as prospectors and laborers. Another wave of newcomers fled the Communist takeover of mainland China in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Still more arrived in the 1960s—many with professional qualifications. The latest group of Chinese immigrants hail mainly from Hong Kong, but many also arrive from Taiwan, Vietnam and elsewhere along the southeast Asian rim. “People like my parents,” observes Sonny Wong, the 32-year-old founder of a successful marketing agency whose parents came to Canada in the early 1950s, “continue to work in Chinese-dominated businesses. All their friends m are Chinese. There is a tremen; dous amount of ethnocentric clustering.” But of himself, Wong adds:
“I was educated and socialized in Western society.”
At the same time, foreign immigration to Vancouver continues to be outweighed by in-migration from elsewhere in Canada. In 1993, the 41,000 in-migrants who came to British Columbia from east of the Rockies outnumbered newcomers from other countries by nearly 20 per cent. Still, the 35,000 people who came to British Columbia from
outside Canada last year, three-quarters of them from Asia and most of them settling in the lower mainland, were hardly insignificant. It is unarguable that Vancouver has already changed mightily and will change still more. According to Bruce MacDonald, the author of a historical atlas of Vancouver published in 1992, residents of British heritage made up a majority of the city’s population as recently as 1961. But in the most recent census, in 1991, barely 24 per cent acknowledged British heritage. They were substantially outnumbered by the nearly 30 per cent of Vancouverites who told censustakers they were of Asian origin—with fully 22 per cent saying they were ethnically Chinese.
The pronounced shift in Vancouver’s ethnic centre of gravity has created new strains on civic institutions as well as striking changes in what constitutes businesses as usual in Canada’s third-largest city. It is not just that white business executives are signing up for classes in Asian corporate etiquette at the downtown campus of Simon Fraser University, or that virtually any hip Vancou-verite can negotiate his or her way through lunch using chopsticks. At City Hall, public notices are now routinely prepared in at least five languages in addition to English: Cantonese, Punjabi, Vietnamese, Spanish and French. “If it doesn’t happen,” declares Philip Owen, a former councillor who won election as mayor last November, “somebody is going to be reprimanded.” And since October, 1992, the city’s 911 emergency line has been equipped to respond to calls for help in an even larger number of tongues, thanks to a computer link to a continent-wide network of translators.
There is no identifying sign—in any language—outside the heavily secured, creamcolored cement building just south of False Creek where a special joint squad of Vancouver city police, RCMP and officers from other nearby municipalities are grappling with a different challenge. According to Staff Sgt. Andy Nimmo, commanding officer of the Asian Gang Squad, mixed in with the tens of thousands of law-abiding immigrants who have come to Canada from various Asian nations over the decades is a tiny but potent minority of gangsters. Their victims, overwhelmingly, have been others in their own community: Asian businessmen who became targets for extortion; shopkeepers and restaurateurs shaken down for protection money; youths studying in Canada who could easily be terrorized into handing over their allowances to thugs. Until recently, however, the mainly white police forces focused most of their efforts on serving and protecting the Caucasian majority.
That began to change in 1990 after a sweeping review of police policy. It uncovered a crippling lack of confidence among many Asians in the ability of the police to protect victims and witnesses who reported crimes—fuelled by a deep-seated fear of violent reprisals from the likes of the Dai Huen Jai, a shadowy Chinese group whose name means Big Circle Boys. “Without support from victims and witnesses,” Nimmo says, “there is nothing we can do.” Still, he was forced to acknowledge: “Their fear is real.”
Last year, Nimmo secured funding for a counterattack. He doubled the number of Chinese officers on his 28-member squad to six and in October put into service a Cantonese-language hotline for crime tips. Those
and other measures have already produced some successes. “We are hearing from more people than we used to,” observes Nimmo, who points to a 35-per-cent jump in arrests during 1993. In one, the victim himself wore a hidden microphone to help Nimmo’s unit snare an extortionist who had extracted as much as $500,000 from visa students in the Vancouver area.
The last four years have seen Vancouver’s schools similarly transform their approach to the children of immigrant families. In place of one overworked English-asa-second-language (ESL) teaching consultant tucked away in a third-floor room at the Vancouver school board main office, the Oak Ridge Reception and Orientation Centre now greets newcomers to the city who register their children for public school. There, a multilingual staff of 10 puts prospective students and their families through a penetrating series of assessments designed not only to grade a child’s grasp of English, but also to prepare youngsters for classrooms that may be very different from the ones they have left. “Many Asian students are used to rote learning,” observes the centre’s director, Catherine Eddy. “And they come into a class where they are supposed to break up
into groups and do problem solving.” For many, she adds, “this is foreign, this is weird.”
One measure of the distance that Vancouver has travelled towards smoothing relations between its old and new residents can be found in the leafy and lovingly manicured precincts of Kerrisdale and South Shaughnessy. In late 1992, the neighborhoods were at the epicentre of heated debate over the right of new purchasers to raze existing homes and replace them with much larger dwellings that frequently struck established residents as glaringly out of place. In a district where many long-standing homeowners are avid gardeners, it did not help that some builders felled full-grown trees in order to accommodate the ambitious scale of the new homes, and replaced shrubs and bushes with multiple parking spaces. “It is the barrenness that upsets me,” Kerrisdale resident Campbell complains of many of the new buildings. “There were old houses here before, landscaped beautifully. Now, it looks like a movie set” At the same time, the owners of the offending homes, many—although by no
means all—of them newly arrived immigrants from Hong Kong, insisted that they had met existing zoning rules and had a clear right to do as they wished with their property.
A series of emotional public hearings during early 1993 led to a compromise. In exchange for permission to build houses larger than any allowed elsewhere in Vancouver, City Hall now insists that builders of new homes take into account the style of the dwellings on either side. “The houses that are being produced now,” says council member Clarke, who actively resisted the encroachment of large, boxy structures into her South Shaughnessy neighborhood, “look just great. It seems to be working.”
At the same time, even many of those who express discomfort with some aspects of immigration’s impact on Vancouver concede that it is largely responsible for the city’s buoyant economy.
Businessman John Walker, for one, complains that the need to provide ESL instruction to nearly half of Vancouver’s 55,000 public school students has helped to drive up his taxes. “But in some ways,” he also acknowledges, “you cannot knock [immigration] . It keeps the economy going, especially construction.” Indeed, construction workers in British Columbia are enjoying good times unparalleled anywhere else in the country.
Much of that activity is visible along the north shore of False Creek. There, a company controlled by Hong Kong billionaire Li KaShing is slowly transforming the former site
of Vancouver’s Expo 86 into what will eventually be 204 acres of parks, highrise condominiums, marinas and public services, including a community centre anchored by a roundhouse where the first steam locomotive to cross the country on the Canadian Pacific Railway now sits in silent and imposing retirement. With eight buildings completed and construction slated to begin on five more later this year, Concord Pacific Place is the largest real estate development under way in the country.
But if the money that is fuelling the activity along False Creek comes largely from the Orient, the development’s Hong Kong-born president, Terry Hui, the 30-year-old son of a junior partner in the $3-billion project, bristles at the suggestion that the dominant esthetic is anything but Canadian. “It is not our vision,” Hui, who is now a Canadian citizen, told Maclean’s. “It is Vancouver’s vision. It is Vancouver’s taste.” To bolster that claim, Concord Pacific points to more than 200 public meetings it conducted to ensure that its plans had support from Vancouver’s residents.
In less visible ways, many other Vancouver businesses plainly hope to share the prosperity that the city’s Asian connection has brought to its builders. The various trade councils, business forums, networking circles, institutes and foundations aimed at fostering closer commercial ties between Canada and the Orient number well over a dozen. And the Vancouver Stock Exchange announced in December that it plans to establish an Asian Board that it hopes will attract
Taiwanese and Hong Kong-owned companies with operations in booming mainland China.
Economic optimism aside, strains and frictions do remain. Although immigration and race do not show up as concerns in the letters from constituents that reach Clarke’s desk, taxes do. And they are being driven up, at least in part, by the need for the new services that Nimmo and Eddy champion.
Even many people of Asian heritage admit that Hong Kong’s frenetic and keenly competitive culture transplants with difficulty to Vancouver’s more laid-back shores. “New immigrants are different from old immigrants,” says Johnny Yan, a house builder who came to Canada from Hong Kong as a child in 1967. “A few rich people always look down on others.” Adds Maggie Ip, a high-school teacher who emigrated from Hong Kong 28 years ago and who was elected to Vancouver city council last November: “In Hong Kong, they never look at the long term, because they can’t plan anything beyond 1997,” when the British colony will revert to the control of mainland China. Adds Ip: “That kind of mentality shows in their daily life. They want something instantly—they can’t wait.”
If those characteristics occasionally grate on the nerves of Vancouver’s more settled residents, Ip and others argue that there are still compelling reasons for patience. For one thing, the newcomers eventually adjust to the city’s slower pace. After three or four years in Canada, says Ip, “they will tell you, ‘This is very peaceful, we have a nice climate, there’s not too much rushing.’ It is almost like two different people.” (For at least a few recent arrivals from Hong Kong, however, Vancouver’s slower tempo has proven too relaxed: there is a steady, if undocumented, trickle of individuals returning to the colony, lured back by its faster-paced economy.) British Columbia’s Hong Kong-born lieutenant-governor, David Lam, meanwhile, offers another argument in favor of understanding. “We have what I consider a secret weapon with the Asian community in Canada,” Lam told Maclean’s. “Everyone of them could be the beginning of the best network linkage to Asia.”
In fact, Vancouver stands little danger of becoming the “Hongcouver” of Jud Cyllom’s nightmares. New arrivals from places no more exotic than New Brunswick and Manitoba will continue to find places in a richly textured ethnic fabric. That many more will also come from across the Pacific should only reinforce Vancouver’s claim to be, in developer Hui’s phrase, “the gateway between North America and Asia.” For most people in this Pacific city, there is far more to celebrate than to fear in its Asian connection. Indeed, when Vancouver’s Chinatown erupts in fireworks and dragon dancers next week in celebration of Chinese New Year, many of the faces that crowd the sidewalks will not be Oriental. They will reflect a Canada of many colors. Jack Lee’s fountain, perhaps, should rightly flow in both directions.