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How Chinese culture and capital are transforming Canada’s Pacific Coast metropolis Summer 2015
Chinese capital is remaking Vancouver’s skyline.

To the victor go the spoils—or, at least, the naming rights. Consider Vancouver, with its dazzling view from the peninsula known as Stanley Park of snowcapped mountain peaks framed by the rippling blue waters of a Pacific Ocean inlet. The park, one of the city’s prime gathering spots, is named for Lord Frederick Arthur Stanley of Preston, the London-born, Eton-educated, late-nineteenth-century governor-general of Canada; the inlet is named for Sir Harry Burrard, a Royal Navy officer who fought in the Napoleonic Wars; and Vancouver itself is named for Burrard’s former shipmate, Captain George Vancouver, an explorer of these parts in the 1790s.

The British overseers packed their bags long ago, and Vancouver, in the 1960s and 1970s, became known for a pot-infused, countercultural vibe. Peace and ecology activists, including draft resisters from America, founded Greenpeace here, in 1970. And now that chapter in Vancouver’s history has faded, too. The vibe these days is more sleek and posh than funky and weedy. And it is distinctly Asian.

Vancouver is being transformed by a long wave of migration from across the Pacific. Some 400,000 people of Chinese origin, many of substantial wealth, make up about 16 percent of the Greater Vancouver population of approximately 2.5 million. The city proper is 28 percent ethnically Chinese, with Stanley Park’s beaches and bike paths nowadays a mix of Asian and Caucasian faces. Behind the park is a harbor-side phalanx of tall glass condominium towers. The buildings are a conspicuous feature of what some wags have dubbed Hongcouver, to denote a new Vancouver, constructed alongside and on top of the old city, with billions of dollars of Chinese capital.

In this Vancouver, the website for a star real-estate agent specializing in luxury property touts a “fully licensed Mandarin and Cantonese speaking assistant.” In summertime, gleaming white yachts and seaplanes sit at berth in the marina. Hongcouver also includes Richmond, an upscale city-suburb of about 200,000 residents, renowned for its fabulous Chinese food and called the first “majority-Chinese” city outside Asia. Frommer’s suggests a visit to experience “a pocket of Hong Kong without paying for airfare.”

Early-twenty-first-century Vancouver might best be understood as part of a new phase of history marked by the rise of Asia in general and China in particular. That idea pops up often in city conversation—especially among property buyers and sellers, architects, city preservationists, public-policy makers, and political activists, and among the historians, economists, demographers, and others who live in Vancouver and make this region their specialty. What does the substantial and continuing Chinese migration to Vancouver—in the form of people as well as capital—signify? For some, the answer is wrapped in anxiety. “Here you have this former British colony that is now becoming colonized itself,” a longtime city resident told me.

That isn’t quite right. In an authentic colonization, the imperial power makes a full-scale acquisition of the subject territory and establishes hegemony over the people there. The Chinese influence in Vancouver is of a different character, but it serves as an early example of how a rising tide of Asian wealth is making over Western cities.

Today’s wave of Chinese migration to Vancouver dates to Great Britain’s agreement in 1984 to deliver Hong Kong to mainland Communist China. Set to take place 13 years later, in 1997, the handover of the island colony to the People’s Republic of China prompted concerns among Hong Kong’s prospering middle and upper classes, accustomed to British rule of law in a milieu of freewheeling capitalism, for the safety of their assets and possibly even of their persons. With Britain opting not to offer Hong Kong’s residents a right to relocate to the United Kingdom and pursue permanent-resident status or citizenship, Canada stepped in. The federal government in Ottawa established the “Immigrant Investor Program” to award resident visas on a fast track to wealthy foreign businesspeople who pledged to invest a substantial portion of their assets in Canada.

The Pacific Northwest, and the Vancouver region specifically, was familiar territory for the Chinese, who had settled in British Columbia in increasing numbers in a migration starting in the 1850s. The migrants came mainly from the area around Guangzhou, South China’s main seaport, on the Pearl River. The pull was the potential fortune to be made from gold prospecting and, more reliably, the availability of jobs building railroads, harvesting timber, and canning fish; the push was a sickly China ravaged by opium wars, European imperialists, bandits and native warlords, and famine.

A Chinatown settlement cropped up in Vancouver, where groceries, restaurants, and tailor shops thrived—as did opium dens, gambling parlors, and brothels. Before long, the Chinese felt a nativist backlash. The Asiatic Exclusion League formed in 1907 expressly to “keep Oriental immigrants out of British Columbia.” The league fomented a mob attack on Chinatown, ransacking shops and beating neighborhood Chinese. British Columbia’s provincial government enacted anti-Chinese laws, including a Women’s and Girls’ Protection Act in 1923 that prohibited Chinese-owned restaurants and other businesses from hiring white women. Such laws remained on the books for decades, despite opposition from tightly organized civic groups such as the Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver, the so-called Government of Chinatown.

With the establishment of the Immigrant Investor Program in the 1980s, the Chinese newcomers were not impoverished strivers desiring a fresh start, as in an earlier age, but established winners seeking to protect and build on their gains. Vancouver was a natural destination in the ensuing exodus from Hong Kong. Compared with Toronto—Canada’s financial center and another desirable landing spot for Chinese investor-migrants—Vancouver appeared provincial, but the city offered the same attractions of stable banks and rule of law, along with the advantage of proximity: it was a ten-hour nonstop flight from Hong Kong.

The Immigrant Investor Program also was available to Chinese mainlanders, and a growing number set out for Canada following Beijing’s ruthless suppression in 1989 of the incipient pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. According to David Ley, professor of geography at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver and author of Millionaire Migrants: Trans-Pacific Life Lines (2010), about 30,000 Chinese arrived in Vancouver with investor-class visas from the mid-1980s through the end of the 1990s. Ley estimated that from 1987 to 1997, those coming to Vancouver on this category of visa had disposable income of 35–40 billion in Canadian dollars—or about 30 billion in U.S. dollars. Vancouver’s political and business establishment enthusiastically backed the visa program, but it didn’t consider the possible social and cultural consequences.

Today’s Vancouver is not being “colonized” by the Chinese, by any meaningful definition of the term. But such feelings—held most passionately by longtime, non-Asian locals—tell a story of displacement, beginning with upheaval in what had once been a sleepy real-estate market.

The arrival of the Chinese investor-class migrants spurred blockbuster city-development projects. Vancouver’s new era arguably began in 1988, with Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing’s purchase of a 200-plus-acre downtown parcel on the site of Expo ’86, the World’s Fair commemorating the centennial of Vancouver’s formal incorporation as a city. With Stanley Kwoc, a celebrated Hong Kong architect who had moved to Vancouver, Li (today said to be Asia’s richest man) put up luxury condos with prime waterfront views. At the same time, migrants avidly bid for freestanding homes in venerable residential neighborhoods such as Kerrisdale and Shaughnessy on the West Side. The Chinese buyers proceeded to raze many old-style bungalows and bulldoze centuries-old trees to make way for the much larger dwellings they preferred.

It was an aesthetic jolt to Vancouver inhabitants accustomed to a certain look and feel for their city—“Merry Old England suddenly replaced by colonial mansions,” as one critic put it. Property prices soared; today, Vancouver’s housing market is the least affordable in North America, according to Ley, a U.K. native who has lived in the city since 1972. While real-estate prices are higher in markets such as Manhattan, Ley explains, nowhere is there a greater gap between the average price of a home and average incomes, which are much lower in Vancouver than in a metropolis like New York. Without question, wealthy Chinese buyers set the market pace: a study reported by the South China Morning Post (which has a Vancouver bureau) found that “74 percent of all luxury home sales in Vancouver’s West Side and the satellite city of Richmond in 2010 were made to purchasers with ‘purely’ mainland Chinese names.” In 2013, the paper’s “Hongcouver” blog described Vancouver as having the “second most unaffordable” real estate in the world, behind only Hong Kong.

The Immigrant Investor Program, Ley argues, failed to stimulate the growth of manufacturing and other enterprises that produce permanent, high-paying jobs, as its advocates had hoped. And business opportunities back in flourishing China remain more enticing to investor-class visa holders. As a result, so-called astronaut families abound in Vancouver, with fathers working primarily in China and occasionally traveling to Vancouver, where the mothers and children live. Often, homes or condos purchased by absentee Chinese investors stay unoccupied for much of the year. “In British India, the colonial officers went to the hill stations, where it was cooler,” Ley told me. “We are a hill station in the summer.”

The complaint that Vancouver represents little beyond instrumental or recreational value to itinerant Chinese migrants is aggravated by the sense, usually only hinted at by critics, that their money is often of illicit origin. Such suspicions aren’t always unfounded. In 2014, the FBI accused Su Bin, a Chinese citizen with a home in Vancouver, of spearheading a plot to hack into Boeing’s servers to pilfer U.S. military secrets and sell them to Chinese government–owned aviation firms. In agreeing that Su could be detained without bail as a flight risk, a British Columbia judge ruled that his ties to Canada seemed “illusory.” Canada appeared to be a real home for Su’s wife and two children but not for Su himself.

In any case, few in Canada would seriously dispute that the Immigrant Investor Program hasn’t realized its initial objectives; in 2014, Ottawa wound it down. Meantime, the problem of unoccupied homes in Vancouver festers. A website known as “Beautiful Empty Homes of Vancouver” features running accounts, typically supplied by unnamed, aggrieved Vancouver residents, of neglected properties. Accompanied by a snapshot of a sad-looking abode, one typical entry reads:

This beautiful older home in West Point Grey, with a few short interruptions, has sat empty, unheated and without power since 2012. It was sold at that time for a whopping $2.4 million to a man from PRC. He now keeps it as a “holding property” (a.k.a. a rotting bank). Because he will not spend money on heat or lights, the place now has a serious problem with mould. The roof also needs repair and there are mushrooms growing from the ceiling. It’s a sad slow death for such a beautiful old home.

I tracked down the author of that item—let’s call her Margaret. She identified herself as a part-time sociology instructor at a local university who was born in the American Midwest and moved to Vancouver from the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s. Nowadays, she says, finding housing is tough. “We find ourselves,” she said of her family, “dealing quite often with landlords who are absentee landlords, living in China.” She added, “In Vancouver, the market is completely driven by lot value. It’s not a market for people who want to live in homes anymore. It’s all about speculative buying.” Margaret objects to what she sees as the poor taste of the nouveau riche migrants from the Chinese mainland. “PRC people, I find it’s all about wealth,” she told me. “They like to flash a lot of money around.” She fretted over how 16-year-old Chinese boys at Lord Byng, the high school in the West Point Grey neighborhood that her daughter attends, “often drive Maseratis to school,” while the girls get “the pink compact Mercedes Benz.” Margaret also worried that more socially conservative Chinese migrant families will align with conservatives in British Columbia to push for less socially liberal policies in Vancouver.

At the same time, nativist populism remains a live current in Vancouver politics. A group called Putting Canada First—“dedicated to the retention and promotion of traditional Canadian culture, history and language,” as its website states—has launched a campaign against Chinese-language-only signs in West Vancouver, calling for at least two-thirds of the text space in all signage, including advertising, to be in English. The group claims especially to have in mind “the rights of lower- and middle-income Canadian citizens”—which sounds like a shot at Vancouver’s affluent Asian migrants.

It’s possible to see in the displacement narrative a measure of civic-mindedness mixed with a dollop of envy—and perhaps a heaping tablespoon of nostalgia. Vancouver is not what it once was—at least, not what it was back in the 1970s. Cities, though, are by nature organic entities, with few staying “just as they are.” Countering the displacement story line is a sharply contrasting perspective that tends to come, unapologetically, from the city’s Asian community. Theirs might be called the “opportunity taken” narrative.

To understand this viewpoint, I spoke with Henry Yu, a historian and colleague of Ley’s at the University of British Columbia. Yu’s parents were born in China and came to Vancouver in 1965 by way of Hong Kong. Yu was born two years later. He did his graduate work at Princeton and spent ten years at UCLA before moving back to Vancouver in 2004, and he has written widely on the migration of Asians and other peoples to North America. In Yu’s telling, Vancouver’s rather insular Anglo community at the outset of the Asian migration in the 1980s seemed to subscribe, consciously or not, to a “politics of supremacy.” The idea that Chinese people could show up and pay cash for homes in desirable neighborhoods came as a shock. “This was something that people of Anglo heritage were not used to,” Yu said.

As for the notion that Chinese money tended to be ill-gotten, Yu pointed out that the property boom was propelled by the structural disparity between prosperous Hong Kong, a dynamic economy, and the comparative backwater of Vancouver, still “living on the fumes of empire.” For the price of a Hong Kong flat, a Chinese immigrant—even, say, an accountant—could buy a splendid home on Vancouver’s West Side. “The Hong Kong Chinese who came could buy their way into any neighborhood. [They] knew that money was a tool,” Yu told me. “They weren’t going to accept a second-class citizenship in Vancouver. They could say, ‘I don’t care about your British Imperial manners, I am going to buy your house.’ ” The irony was that the Hong Kong arrivals—“more sophisticated than the people they were displacing,” with “better schooling, better English accents,” Yu said—were themselves the products of a system of law and finance instituted by the British with the establishment of their Hong Kong colony in the 1840s, after Britain thrashed China in the First Opium War.

The astounding growth of China’s mainland economy since the market-friendly reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s is among the great feats of modern capitalism—and naturally, some of the new wealth would seek outlets abroad. Yu told me that Vancouver’s Hong Kong migrant community itself has tended to look down on mainlanders as unsophisticated. But he believes that it’s only a matter of time before mainlander families “gild their kids with cultural capital” acquired in fine schools and universities in the United States, Britain, and Canada. “I am now running into people from the PRC who speak perfect American English,” he said.

The “opportunity taken” narrative might sound cold, even arrogant—a tale of the brute tyranny of money, an Asian version of Theodore Dreiser’s stories, redolent of Social Darwinism, from a century ago. But then again, the displacement narrative favored by Vancouver’s Anglos suffers from a telling blind spot: for every buyer of a house, there is a seller. The truth is, native Vancouver homeowners reaped a windfall beyond their wildest dreams in selling their properties to cash-flush Chinese buyers. A house that could have been bought in East Vancouver in the early 1970s for about 20,000 in Canadian dollars would have easily fetched 800,000 Canadian dollars in 2000 (or 538,000 U.S. dollars). Today, that same house is worth about 1.3 million Canadian dollars, or just over 1 million U.S. dollars—which happens to be the average price of a detached home in the Greater Vancouver area.

And for all the grumbling about disruption caused by the Asian migration, the city’s public school system, from the grammar schools to the universities, has benefited handsomely from fees charged to “international students”—again, largely from China—who are neither permanent residents nor Canadian citizens. A cottage industry has emerged in Vancouver that offers housing and other services to such students. Vancouver also has benefited from Chinese philanthropy, with the opening in 1997 of the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of British Columbia, largely paid for by the Chan family, migrant tycoons from Hong Kong. Hong Kong–based Sing Tao News Corporation, which has substantial holdings in British Columbia, endowed the Sing Tao Building, housing the School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia. Meanwhile, ethnically Chinese students have established themselves as highly motivated and award-winning learners.

The question for the city is whether it can apply its store of civic goodwill and wisdom to address unanticipated problems, such as the prevalence of unoccupied properties. Ideas abound. James Macdonald, an urban planner and founder of the Beautiful Empty Homes website, offers a list of policy options—“easy lessons from around the world”—including charging absentee owners a vacant-property fee, modeled after surcharges that Hong Kong and Singapore levy on nonresident buyers. To enforce it, Macdonald suggests that Vancouver municipal authorities establish a comprehensive database for tracking vacant and possibly abandoned homes. “In advocating for an empty homes tax, and a surcharge on nonresident and company purchases of land,” he told me in an e-mail, “we do not want to stop international investment, but want the government to ensure that all residents of the city benefit from global speculation in urban land as an asset class.”

One positive sign is that Vancouver politics is becoming more layered, with “Anglo-Chinese” alliances starting to form. This past November, in a bid to become Vancouver’s first ethnically Chinese mayor, Meena Wong, a Hong Kong émigré fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin (and fond of greeting voters in both), ran on a platform of placing a surtax on vacant homes to help finance affordable housing in the city. That stance attracted support for her candidacy, but she still finished a distant third in the race. Incumbent Gregor Robertson returned to office despite criticism of his close ties to the barons of Vancouver’s real-estate industry, including property marketer and “Condo King” Bob Rennie. In late May, Robertson called on the British Columbia provincial government to enact a “speculation tax” on real estate “to make housing more affordable” in Vancouver and the province—a proposal that appears unlikely to be put into place. Robertson has received tutoring in Mandarin and several years ago launched an account with the so-called Chinese Twitter, Sina Weibo, as part of his aim to foster “better communication with the larger Chinese-speaking world.”

Perhaps one reason Vancouver has been reluctant to tackle ongoing problems like “beautiful empty homes” is that the existing posture of laissez-faire serves the interests of brokers and others who benefit from a manic housing market. The hesitation also may reflect sensitivity about affixing all the blame for blighted homes on the Chinese. Given the city’s history of discrimination against the migrants who settled in the original Chinatown, the hesitation might appear noble. But in this instance, a community’s sense of guilt may be a barrier to sensible thinking and action. It will likely take an ethnically Chinese politician—if not Meena Wong, then someone else immunized against charges of ethnic “targeting”—to enact needed reforms.

All told, the argument that Asian migration has damaged the Vancouver economy doesn’t hold up, even when the spike in housing prices is taken into account. In truth, there was no “golden era” for Vancouver, in economic terms, before the Chinese influx began three decades ago. Metropolitan Vancouver spent the first half of the 1980s mired in recession, with its unemployment rate reaching 13.6 percent in 1984. Seven years later, in 1991, with the migration well under way, the jobless rate had dropped to 7.7 percent. In April 2015, unemployment stood at 6 percent.

Vancouver’s economy has evolved, as have the economies of many other cities of the West, in a postindustrial direction. Consider the transformation of the inner-city neighborhood of Yaletown. A 2008 study by Trevor Barnes and Tom Hutton of the University of British Columbia contrasted the Yaletown of the 1980s, “home to warehousing and prostitution” and “some old working class housing,” with the “New Yaletown,” a “new economy epicentre precinct” with a concentration of jobs in advertising, architecture, computer services, video-game design, and film and television production. One video-game developer set up shop at the site of a former male brothel. The neighborhood’s “social mix,” Barnes and Hutton quip, has gone from the “guard dogs” of bygone industrial days to the “purse dogs” of today’s upscale scene.

The rise of creative and tech-oriented businesses has come at the expense of energy and natural-resources development firms, many of which have decamped for Calgary in oil-rich Alberta. But at the same time, the rapid growth of Richmond, with its numerous Asian theme malls, has helped generate small-business jobs for the Vancouver economy. And, as Ley told me, Chinese as well as Korean migrants have “revitalized independent retailing” in Vancouver even outside the “enclave ethnic economy.”

With the ethnic Chinese population of Greater Vancouver projected to double to 800,000 by 2031, “Asian Vancouver” remains a work in flux. Perhaps the best way to grasp the city’s transformation is to see Vancouver as a node, a peripheral point of connection, on a pathway of people and money that begins in Asia. The Hong Kong–born, Vancouver-based architect Bing Thom, whose firm designed the Chan Centre, has called his adopted city “the Switzerland of the Pacific.” As explained by Canada’s Globe and Mail, Thom drew the analogy in the grander sense, referring to “the way the city offered a safe and comfortable harbour to elites from around the Pacific Rim in search of fresh air, good schools, and geopolitical peace of mind.”

The Chinese aren’t coming only to Vancouver. Michelle Lee, a real-estate agent in business since 1986, gushed to the Dallas Morning News that “the Chinese people have a ton of money, and they pay cash.” So, too, Seattle, where “real estate agents are hiring Mandarin speakers,” with Chinese buyers “accounting for up to one-third of $1-million-plus homes sold in certain areas,” CNBC wealth editor Robert Frank wrote last year in his New York Times column. Barring an implosion of the Chinese economy, the trend is apt to persist. If China continues to experience periodic political instability, such as the recent protests in Hong Kong demanding democratic reforms, Chinese savers and investors will keep looking abroad to ensure the security of their assets. Remarkably, this tidal shift of wealth may be only in its adolescence. Frank cites a survey by a China-based firm that found “64 percent of China’s millionaires have emigrated or plan to emigrate in coming years.” They named their top desired destination as the United States, with Canada second, followed by Australia. Offshore holdings of Chinese residents, pegged at $659 billion in 2013, are projected by the Boston Consulting Group to reach $1.9 trillion by 2018.

The Vancouver experience suggests that the rise of a globalizing China will prove to be as much a psychological adjustment as it is a political and cultural one. Except for New York or London, where large numbers of rich people have long lived, residents of other metropolitan areas are likely to realize that, in primal capitalist terms, a new, unfamiliar class of buyer overwhelms just about everyone else. Tribute will be paid to the ascending rich in the form of renamed or newly named cultural institutions. Political battles may flare over symbolic matters like signage. No doubt, offense will be given and taken. I can’t say that the Hong Kong–like glass towers of Coal Harbour are particularly to my liking, nor are mansions on lots denuded of trees, but that’s something for city planners, developers, and preservationists to grapple with.

For Western policymakers seeking to lure China’s wealth, Vancouver’s recent history counsels anticipation of the consequences of speculative inflows—and the need to put rules in place to stem excesses. Vancouver may yet become less a way station for “astronaut families” and more of a home for migrants aiming to plant roots for themselves and their children. After all, The Economist named Vancouver the third “most livable” city in the world, behind Melbourne and Vienna, based on criteria such as environment, education, health care, and stability. Cultures can clash, but they can blend, too. If, in an earlier age, Vancouver seemed destined to fulfill Rudyard Kipling’s doleful nineteenth-century adage about East and West—“never the twain shall meet”—perhaps in the twenty-first century, the city will expose that maxim for the cliché that it is.

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