I can’t remember exactly when my parents told me we were immigrating from Hong Kong to Canada in 1992. All I remember, as a six-year-old, was my mom selling me on the idea by telling me about the swing set I would have at our new house. I didn’t appreciate what my parents were giving up; their jobs, family and friends, and the sense of security that came with all of that.
Only later did I understand why they, and thousands of others, did it — because they were scared of the unknowns around the handover of their home country in 1997, from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China.
In the late 1980s and early 90s, the special administrative region of Hong Kong was the largest source of overseas immigrants to B.C. At the peak in 1994, 48,000 people moved to Canada, with 16,000 choosing to settle in B.C.
Racial tensions fuelled ‘monster home’ debate
The pace of change that came with this wave of immigration was a source of anxiety for many people, not just the new immigrants. In Vancouver neighbourhoods like Kerrisdale and Shaughnessy, that anxiety centred on the demolition of older, smaller homes to make way for larger homes that some Hong Kong immigrants wanted. It was so common that real estate agents at the time would take new immigrants on charter bus tours around these posh neighbourhoods.
CBC TV’s coverage of the so-called “monster home” debate included Vancouverites expressing their resentment over “orientals” being able to build homes they couldn’t afford and taking over neighbourhoods.
It’s a debate that some say is being rehashed today, with accusations that foreign buyers are driving up property prices in the Lower Mainland. The 2015 version of the debate is just as destructive.
Alden Habacon, the director of intercultural understanding strategy development at the University of British Columbia, says that discontent about demographic changes in a neighbourhood — whether it was during the Hong Kong immigration boom of the 1990s or the Mainland Chinese immigration boom today — too often turns into a blame game.
“People were coming, and are coming, with wealth,” said Habacon. “We know that in our society, that equates to some degree of privilege.” “And when this element moves into our community, it causes people who have privilege to think about whether their privilege is at risk.
“I actually think that is the unsaid root of that resentment,” added Habacon.
Resentment over signs
Resentment about demographic change is something that Richmond city officials understand well because much of the Hong Kong immigration boom landed there.
As recently as the 1960s, No. 3 Road was largely farmland. But today, it is home to strip malls and restaurants that cater mostly to a Chinese-speaking clientele.
Longtime Richmond city councillor Harold Steves says the quick pace of change in the 80s and 90s was difficult, especially for those who had lived in his city for decades.
“The main challenge has been the integration of new residents and the older community, and in some segments of the old community, there is a bit of resentment of new people coming in,” Steves says.
Today in Richmond, that tension has surfaced over Chinese-only signs in the city. Steves says engagement between cultural groups has been slow in the city.
“We got a lot of complaints about the signs being in Chinese, and no English or no visible English. A lot of the businesses, their clientele are Chinese, and they [sell] products that immigrants are accustomed to buying. But if you see the stores with a sign that has nothing in English — some people say that’s not very welcoming.”
The city of Richmond has held several public forums on this issue, and decided last May not to pursue a bylaw requiring English signage.
Staff is now looking to hire a bylaw officer who can encourage businesses to include English on Chinese-only signs.
‘Not all diversity produces harmony’
So, is Metro Vancouver any better today at accommodating new immigrants than it was 20 years ago? Habacon says yes.
“I think we’re in a healthier place where we can acknowledge that not all diversity produces harmony. What we now know is that there is a bit of time and and a bit of effort, and resources needed…in how we bring different groups together.”
Habacon says we need to move beyond “peaceful coexistence” and multicultural festivals.
“We’re familiar with the costumes, but what we really need to figure out is how to deepen our understanding, and become a lot more flexible about the differences that are around us, and a lot more intentional about the kind of neighbourliness we want in our communities.”
Listen to Wui Gwai: Hong Kong Homecoming by the CBC’s Elaine Chau.