March 8th, 2007

Gung Hay Fat Choy: Notes from Vancouver

Posted in Canada, Demographics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Candy-apple pig’s heads in a chocolate shop in downtown Vancouver

For a Montrealer, visiting Vancouver in mid-February is eerie, at once a glimpse of the future and a visit to some alternate dimension. Fountains gurgle, people sit in sidewalk cafés and flowers are starting to bloom—it’s strange to experience this without having to pass through customs or change currency. No wonder why Vancouver is seen by many Canadians as something akin to our own Hawaii.

It seems fitting, then, that the weather was so springlike as Vancouver rang in the Lunar New Year, also known in Chinese as the Spring Festival. More than anywhere else in North America, the Lunar New Year here is mainstream. A decade ago, it was an essentially ethnic celebration, like in most other cities. Now, it has been fully integrated into the cultural and economic life of Vancouver, just one indication that this city is becoming like Hawaii in more ways than just as a destination for escape. Like the American state, Vancouver is transforming into a multicultural, majority-Asian society.

The signs of this are everywhere, especially around the Lunar New Year. As the employee of one downtown clothing store told the Vancouver Sun, “It has become a marketable holiday.” Non-Asian enterprises have gotten into the business of celebrating the Lunar New Year like never before, taking advantage of what many consider a “second Christmas,” when retail spending is higher than at any other time of the year except December. Shoppers at British Columbia’s provincial liquor stores are greeted by red signs that read, “Happy New Year! Gung Hay Fat Choy!” The BC Lottery Corporation has decorated its outlets with red lanterns and will offer customers the chance to win red lai see envelopes containing up to $888. Even Hermès, the French luxury-goods retailer, has gotten into the act by flanking the doors of its Burrard Street store with gold Chinese script wishing customers a happy new year.

(Politicians, naturally, are clamouring to make themselves seen and heard as well: a subtitled Stephen Harper wished Chinese-Canadians a Happy New Year on Fairchild, Canada’s national Cantonese-language television network, while Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan delivered a several-minute-long address, in fairly fluent Cantonese, to viewers of Channel M.)

All of this is merely the annual culmination of what is, during the rest of the year, the inexorable transformation of Vancouver’s culture and economy by a surging Asian population. The last federal census, in 2001, revealed that one third of Greater Vancouver’s population was of Asian origin; that figure rose to 50 percent in the city of Vancouver itself and 60 percent in adjacent Richmond. Today, it is estimated that the Chinese population alone, which numbers about 400,000, makes up a fifth of the metropolitan area’s population and more than 30 percent of that of the city proper. (In Richmond, the proportion of Chinese residents is close to 50 percent.)

The Asian influence on Vancouver life is evident simply by walking down the street, reading the newspaper or visiting an art gallery. More than anywhere else in Canada, the culture here is a blend of Asian and European. (I wrote about this in more detail in a January post on Todd Wong’s Gung Haggis Fat Choy banquet.) Much of this has to do with Vancouver’s unique history. Although immigration from non-European countries has changed the faces of most Canadian cities in recent decades, Vancouver is the one place where racial diversity has been a prominent and integral part of life since the city’s inception. The Chinese community in British Columbia actually predates Vancouver’s founding; as the young city grew quickly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a truly multicultural array of people–Chinese, Japanese, Sikh, Italian and of course aboriginal–laboured, in restaurants, factories, lumberyards and the port, to build what would eventually become a world city.

For most of the twentieth century, working-class, multi-ethnic Vancouver was confined to the city’s east side. In the neighbourhood of Strathcona, for instance, the local school reported in the 1930s that more than half of its students were Japanese and the rest were a mix of Chinese, Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans. By contrast, Vancouver’s West Side was dominated by a white, British elite. Kevin Griffin, writing in the Greater Vancouver Book, explains:

As English-speaking immigrants from Great Britain and Ireland made Vancouver more British in the early 20th century, they also made the city and region less tolerant of different ethnocultural groups. By stressing the white, Christian and British nature of the dominant groups in the city, Vancouver politicians and community leaders played prominent roles in lobbying for restrictions on Asian immigration from China, Japan and India, and on pressuring Victoria and Ottawa to pass laws discriminating against Canadians of Asian descent. It wasn’t that people of British ancestry were any more racist than others; the difference was that in the Vancouver region their control over government, police and the courts meant they could give their prejudices the force of law.

Vancouver remained a largely divided city until the 1960s, when a shift in attitudes across the country led to federal immigration reform. The last vestiges of racial and national preferences were erased from Canada’s immigration policies in 1967, when the “points system” was established. For the first time, immigrants were evaluated on the basis of their skills rather than their ethnic background. The country’s doors were opened to people whose access to Canada had previously been restricted: non-Europeans and, more specifically, non-whites. Immigration from Asia and the Caribbean surged.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, a unique mixture of economic prosperity and political instability led increasing numbers of the territory’s middle class and wealthy to seek refuge overseas. Vancouver, with its large Chinese community and Pacific Rim location, was a popular choice for many. Unlike older generations of immigrants, these new arrivals from Hong Kong had enough capital to buy directly into Vancouver’s suburbs and upper middle-class neighbourhoods. The same thing happened in Toronto, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but what set Vancouver apart was that it attracted a disproportionate number of the wealthiest Hong Kong migrants—and, by and large, they chose to settle on the historically exclusive West Side. By the end of the 1980s, the sociologist Peter S. Li estimated that up to 30 percent of the residents of some of Vancouver’s elite neighbourhoods, such as Shaughnessy, were Chinese. This was the first time that Vancouver’s wealthiest neighbourhoods had ever been home to people who were not of British, let alone European, descent.

Over the course of the 1980s and 90s, Vancouver’s entire identity was transformed, but nowhere is this more obvious than in its business environment. In 1984, the failing Bank of British Columbia was bought by the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), which rebranded it as the Hongkong Bank of Canada. This provided Vancouver’s Chinese community with an instant base of bank branches offering service in Cantonese. Although the Hongkong Bank of Canada could not be described as an ethnic bank, at least not compared to the Asian-American banks that arose at this time in California, it did offer tremendous financial support for Chinese community events and Chinese-Canadian business ventures.

One of those ventures was the Aberdeen Centre, one of Canada’s first Asian malls, which opened in 1989 in Richmond, an island suburb with a fast-growing Hong Kong Chinese population. A plethora of other Chinese malls and businesses soon followed, turning the area around Aberdeen Centre—now known as the “Golden Village”—into the largest Chinese commercial district in Greater Vancouver.

By 2001, however, it was clear that the Aberdeen Centre was past its prime. It was demolished and rebuilt at a cost of $130 million. The new mall, probably the best-looking shopping centre in Canada, opened to great fanfare in 2003. Designed by Vancouver architect Bing Thom, it eschews the traditional box-in-a-parking-lot design of suburban malls and embraces its surroundings, fronting the adjacent streets with undulating, multicoloured glass walls. Inside, there are no Orientalist pagodas or archways, just spacious corridors flooded with natural light that meander towards a central atrium. In one corner of the mall, vendors sell fresh produce in what resembles an airy, exceptionally clean Hong Kong wetmarket. In other corner, on the fourth floor, a food court overlooks the flat landscape of Richmond. A new condo complex sits atop the western side of the mall. Although most of Aberdeen’s shoppers arrive by car (there is a multistorey parking garage, but no surface parking), the mall will be connected to a new elevated rail station—Aberdeen Station, of course—in 2009.

What distinguishes the new Abderdeen Centre from other malls, Asian and mainstream alike, is its philosophy. (The very fact that it even has a philosophy probably sets it apart from other malls!) When he rebuilt the Aberdeen Centre, its owner, the media and property mogul Thomas Fung, wanted to create a symbol of the global, cosmopolitan nature of both Vancouver and its Chinese community. “My goal for this project is to have a place where East meets West in a true fashion, the first Asian-Western centre of its kind” he told BC Business magazine in 2004.”

Fung’s philosophy is reinforced by the mall’s schedule of events, a sample of which includes the Richmond School District’s “Multicultural Extravaganza 2007,” a regional science fair and performances by Hong Kong pop music and film stars. On a recent visit, mob actor extraordinaire Eric Tseng signed autographs in the mall’s atrium while dozens of photographers and hundreds of fans swarmed excitedly. Although Aberdeen’s customer base remains mostly Chinese, all of its signage is impeccably bilingual and it has worked hard to market itself to a broad cross-section of Vancouverites.

So far, the reaction of Vancouverites has been overwhelmingly positive. Part of the reason for this is Aberdeen’s mix of stores, which have been hand-picked by Fung himself. Along with independent shops and popular Vancouver chains—including Korean noodle-house Jung Mo Jib, Hong Kong-style bakery St. Germain, trendy gelateria Mondo Gelato and Japanese izakaya Guu—Aberdeen features many of the first North American outlets of popular Asian retailers. The most prominent of these is the Daiso, a Japanese store that sells everything from stationery to food to homeware, all of it for two dollars and all of it impeccably stylish. Since it opened in 2003, Aberdeen’s Daiso has become the most profitable of all the chain’s 2,400 locations. (In the past few years, several more Daiso locations have opened in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, but Richmond’s store remains the largest at 25,000 square feet.) Other chains that have opened their first North American locations in the Aberdeen Centre include the Hong Kong-based clothing store Giordano, which has more than a thousand outlets across Asia, and HanZone, a Korean department store.

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Richmond’s Aberdeen Centre. Bottom photo courtesy Fairchild Group

Aberdeen Centre’s metamorphosis from a mid-sized mall that catered to very specific demographic to a much larger, more inclusive shopping centre mirrors some of the changes taking place in Vancouver as a whole. Gradually, cultural boundaries are eroding and the city is becoming a melting pot in the truest sense of the word. Surely it is not a coincidence that Vancouver has, by far, Canada’s highest rate of mixed-race marriages and civil unions: 7 percent in the population as a whole and 14 percent among those under 30.

So what does this all mean? What will it lead to? Perhaps the answer can be found in Hawaii, one of the world’s most harmoniously multicultural places. Like Vancouver, Honolulu—which is 55 percent Asian—owes its prosperity to hard-working immigrants from around the world, China and Japan in particular.

A disproportionate number of successful Asian-Americans—Hollywood actors, United States senators, army generals—come from Hawaii. Perhaps this is because some of the barriers that exist to Asian participation in mainland American society are absent in Hawaii. In a sense, Hawaii’s Asians have been de-ethnicized. Whereas alienation is a theme in mainland Asian-American literature, for instance, there is little such angst among Asians in Hawaii. There, being Asian and being in a position of influence (mayor, police officer, baseball coach) is actually normal. Moreover, Asians in Hawaii occupy such a diverse range of powerful occupations that a Hawaiian of Asian descent has less pressure to conform to stereotypes than his or her counterpart in mainland North America.

Consider the case of Earl Lee, president of one of the United States’ largest property-brokerage firms, who now lives and works in New Jersey. “You learn quickly that not everyone is going to accept you right when you walk through the door. Some of them will make a judgment call on how you look, the color of your skin,” he told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

The Realtor community in general is not very diverse. Ninety-two percent of the Realtor population is white. … I’m one of the highest-ranking Asians in real estate but still sometimes, when I show up, there’s that look, that instant where people see you for the first time and they’re thinking, ‘What’s happening here?’ I get less and less of that but at any rate growing up in multi-ethnic Hawaii helps prepares you for that kind of stuff. Hawaii has great role models in the real estate business from every ethnicity. But we don’t have that yet across this great country of ours.

Increasingly, Vancouver is starting to resemble the kind of multiethnic society that exists in Hawaii. When you encounter school groups at museums or strings of daycare kids being led down the street, it is normal to spot only a couple of white kids in the mix—the complete opposite of what would have been the case in the 1970s or 80s (and what still is the case in most of Canada). It will be interesting to see how this changes the way young Vancouverites perceive the society around them.

In the meantime, Vancouver’s New Year celebrations are over. Now, the city will get on with its everyday life, hoping for the best in the Year of the Pig.


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One comment

  1. Patrick Donovan says:

    Great article. Makes me look forward to visiting Vancouver for the first time later this year. I wish part of that diversity could be exported to Quebec City.

    March 8th, 2007 at 7:20 pm

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