The Persistence of Anti-Asian Racism in Vancouver | Part I

EDITORAL INTRODUCTION | From the start, Vancouver has been marked by a history of racism against Chinese and Asian immigrants. This is an uncomfortable fact which few commentators can overlook — albeit not few enough, as this article demonstrates in its sharp critique of Vancouver Courier columnist Mark Hasiuk. Part I of this three-part essay reaches into contemporary Vancouver to find that, despite the passage of time, original assumptions and archetypes of race and class have proven indispensable for an ongoing history of scapegoating. This history has, according to Crompton, reached a peak in today’s discussion of housing and real-estate in Vancouver.

Far from signalling the simple break away from the city’s colonial past, the mystified real-estate economy proves fertile grounds for the re-capitulation of the time-tested logic of political scapegoating. This three-part essay is sure to have an impact not only for its use of historical and empirical research to undermine assumptions that Vancouver’s housing crisis can be explained by Asian capital, but for its direct critique of household politicians and commentators. From Sandy Garossino to Gregor Robertson, few are spared in this militant clarion-call to move beyond the present by clearing out the skeletons of a racist history. Part II is available here. Part III is available here.


At different points throughout the 125 years of its history, colonial Vancouver has blamed its problems on others. The relation between “citizens” and “foreigners” underlying the identity of Vancouver has been at times explosive – as when anti-Asian riots attacked Chinatown and Japantown in 1907. Flashpoints occurred again in the 1880s, the 1900s, the 1930s, the 1970s and 1990s, always with the same result: to draw up new lines of exclusion and discrimination while deepening the political disorientation of the times. At other moments the relationship has been segregated but passive, embedded in the habits and rituals of the city. Today, when it is assumed that xenophobic movements could not gain the same momentum as 100 years ago, the penchant to blame “foreigners” for local problems continues. In an assessment of contemporary Vancouver, Henry Yu once asked presciently, “is Vancouver the future or the past”?[1] If the question reads like a riddle, it is because the answer is equally uncertain. As extreme-right movements today pick up momentum in Europe and elsewhere in the context of financial crisis and long-term economic stagnation, it is now more than ever that we should examine global and local histories of racism and xenophobia.

Fin de siècle Vancouver

Recently, in a telling interchange of past and present, Vancouver Courier columnist Mark Hasiuk used his column to target Vancouver school board trustee, Allan Wong. Hasiuk attacked Wong for a motion put forward at the school board calling on the province to incorporate the history of British Columbians of Chinese descent into the regular provincial curriculum. Curriculum changes were not needed, according to Hasiuk, since there is already too much Chinese Canadian history taught in the secondary curriculum. To add insult to injury, Hasiuk mocks the remembrance of the Head Tax, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Canadian Pacific Railway as a “holy trinity” in both the curriculum and cultural memory of Vancouver.

Hasiuk’s aim seems to be to convince his readers that by introducing the motion, Wong has ‘stepped out of line’ and should now be put on trial by the public. In a time-tested polemic, Hasiuk suggests that if Vancouverites of Chinese descent are going to do cultural work, they should move outside the political sphere. If Chinese people insist on being public figures, according to Hasiuk, they should use their customary “hard work and determination” in order to “give gratitude to the country they call home.” In transparent language, Hasiuk uses long-standing stereotypes to entrench a clearly demarcated set of imagined hierarchies. The irony is that this blatant ignorance is exactly what the educational curriculum Hasiuk attacks is supposed to prevent.

COPE School Trustee Allan Wong (Photo credit Stephen Hui)

In the middle of the article, Hasiuk quotes an interview with Kathy Xie, a middle-aged mother from Richmond who thinks that it is important for people in British Columbia to learn from the history of the Canadian railroad, built by Chinese workers at the end of 19th century in conditions of indentured labour and deep racial segregation. Hasiuk casts doubt on Xie’s history of the railroad, questioning her in a condescending and badgering tone: “Really bad? Really?” In spite of a previous lament about the rise of what he calls “un-Canadian” immigrants in Vancouver, the goal here is clear: to downplay the importance of learning the history of Canada.

Given his shameful outburst (is it possible to imagine that Mark Hasiuk is still employed by the Courier?) there is no surprise that Hasiuk’s version of history is nearly unintelligible. For Hasiuk, “most Chinese workers eventually quit the railway, opting for the higher pay and greater opportunity of B.C.’s goldfields where they prospered.” In reality, of course, those few who made enough money to return to China left Canada, not least as a means to evade harsh laws preventing any women from arriving in Canada under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, cutting hundreds of families in half. Chinese Canadians who stayed were forced to endure continuing levels of poverty in the Chinatowns of the larger cities and towns, abandoned by the false promises of prosperity. As Wayson Choy writes in The Jade Peony, the call to ‘Go to Gold Mountain’ brought thousands of Chinese into lasting poverty:

Poverty-stricken bachelor-men were left alone in the Gold Mountain, with only a few dollars left to send back to China every month, and never enough dollars to buy passage home. Dozens went mad; many killed themselves. The Chinatown Chinese call July 1st, the day celebrating the birth of Canada, the Day of Shame.[2]

Once in the city, Vancouver’s Chinatown (and Japantown) experienced virulent opponents from all parts of Vancouver for the first seventy-five years of its existence. As Kathy Shimizu recently said of Japantown in a public hearing at city hall, “most of the city didn’t want us here.” White lobbyist groups attempted to push the Chinatown neighborhood away from Hastings Street, and by the turn of the century, anti-Asian racism was embedded in all sections and classes of society. In predictable alliances, anti-Asian racism extended from protectionist business interests to colonial planners and discriminatory city councilors. But it also moved into to the culture of labour leaders and white trade unionists, reaching beyond elites into the realm of white populism.

White populism in Vancouver

The historic figure of populist politics in Vancouver is L.D. Taylor, the newspaper owner and real-estate developer who in 1910 became Vancouver’s longest-standing mayor. Taylor aligned himself with trade union and working-class politics at a time of rising land values in Vancouver. By the first decade of the 1900s, land prices were widely out of proportion to stagnant incomes, and well on their way towards the continent-wide housing bubble and crash of 1929. In all of its basic characteristics, the land economy of Vancouver was a mirror image of today’s: monopoly ownership of land, speculative global capital, daily evictions, and the ongoing spatial stratification of central neighborhoods. To cite one revealing passage from 1911:

Land prices are high, it is said, higher than anything would warrant. ‘Why, the workingmen cannot afford to pay at the rate demanded for these tiny outside lots,’ asserted one man recently. The same thing was said here twenty years ago, answer the pioneers; others of us know that it was repeated ten years ago and five years ago, and our children and our children’s children will hear the same tale of woe decades hence.

Despite being a real-estate magnate himself, Taylor did not hesitate to pontificate in the name of white workers. In the midst of a housing crisis, Taylor used his editorials in the Vancouver Daily World, the newspaper he owned, to rally for the “average man.” Taylor “defended” working Vancouverites against the “invasion” of Asian immigrants. Taylor spoke passionately to a crowd of white racists only a few hours before the eruption of the race riots of 1907.[3] Like Amor de Cosmos and other populist figures of 19th century Vancouver, Mayor Taylor argued to “preserve British Columbia for white people.”

By aligning with white workers, Taylor crafted a sense of collective progress while cementing hierarchies of race and class. He drew on a populist model of politics: exploit local workers – both as a source of rent extraction and a source of electoral support – while providing them with the compensation of progressive culture and white privilege. While Taylor’s workers remained poor, they were remunerated with payments of cultural capital, or what has been called “the wages of whiteness.”[4] These non-financial wages (W.E.B. Du Bois had already called them “public and psychological wages”) were at the root of a long-term cultural project to construct a new world city on the North American frontier.

What exactly are the “wages of whiteness” today? Ceaselessly invited to participate in the privileged construction of a World-Class city, we have to ask this question openly and honestly. Does the fine print of this special invitation not also stipulate that we agree in advance to set differences aside and blame our collective problems on others?

Lost Harmony: “It began in the 1980s”

Is it possible that between now and the time of Mayor Taylor, the gaps of history are narrower than a full century would suggest? It is enough to know that today in Vancouver a person can open a page of the Vancouver press and read easily-recognized scapegoating, like that of the Courier. But if the Courier frames its racism plainly and unapologetically, we should read it not only in order to foster a political disgust of figures like Hasiuk (which goes without saying) but to get a more profound view of the underlying logic at work in the act of scapegoating. If political scapegoating is defined as “any search for the intruder who infected the original harmony and set in motion its degeneration” – to quote philosopher Slavoj Zizek[5] – what is the imaginary “paradise lost”?

In a recent article, Mark Hasiuk lamented the loss of idyllic white neighborhoods once inhabited by ‘Jones’ families. In the most xenophobic register free to a mainstream newspaper, Hasiuk invokes time-tested fears of change in the demographics of South Vancouver’s Kerrisdale neighborhood: “Who takes their place? What happens when the Jones move away?” In the 1990s, upper-class white neighborhoods like Shaughnessy and Kerrisdale became centers of anti-Asian racism in a chapter of history marked by a resurgence of historic xenophobia — a period captured in the single moniker, “Monster Home.” From a buoyant view, those days of blatant racism are set in the past, and in many ways that is true. A confident editorial from the Vancouver Sun states, “It’s not even a debate anymore. The days of ‘Hongcouver’ are history. People are embracing Asia now.”

Why, then, do we continue to hear the same logic of scapegoating, with the same tried narrative that Vancouver’s natural harmony is being disrupted by foreigners from Asia? It might be easy to digest, and soberly expected, if these were only the ideas of people like Hasiuk, marginal on the far-right of the political spectrum. Yet candidates and commentators of Vancouver’s 2011 municipal elections were alarmingly at ease echoing the opinion that Chinese people have upset Vancouver’s harmony – or even, more disturbingly, “our” harmony.

Figures in the 2011 election ranged from not-in-my-backyard candidates and organizers with Neighborhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) to independent council candidates like Sandy Garossino, whose primary campaign platform was the ominous talking-point that foreign capital is “corroding the entire local economy.” What should raise our eye-brows is that, appearing everywhere from the Rick Mercer Report to the media appearances of Mayor Gregor Robertson, this version of history is increasingly re-cast as common sense. This common sense is so deeply entrenched that, in order to invoke its effects, one needs only to make vague allusions to it. But when made explicit it takes the form of a historical narrative, one that states that the harmony of the city has been disrupted by the arrival of capital from Asia in the 1980s onwards. As Hasiuk writes, “It began in the 1980s…”

History Lesson I: Hong Kong and the purchase of the Expo lands

In narratives of a lost harmony, there always arrives the moment of a proverbial “fall” — the date when it all went wrong. Like Hasiuk, Bob Ransford can be found reiterating the point that the pivotal moment in the history of Vancouver’s housing market is the sale of the Expo lands of False Creek:

If we’re looking for one lesson around the impact of foreign real estate investment worth studying, perhaps the best one is the first wave of Asian investment that was sparked by the sale of the former Expo 86 site to Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing in 1988. The redevelopment of the vacant site on the north shore of False Creek by Li’s Concord Pacific not only created a new template for the rebirth of Vancouver’s downtown, it also put Vancouver on the radar screen of foreign investors.

To shatter the quaint notion that Vancouver was “off the radar” of foreign investors prior to 1988, one should read a text such as Robert M. Galois’ The Social Structure in Space The Making of Vancouver, 1886-1901, and in particular “The Integration of Vancouver into the Global Economy of the Late Nineteenth Century.” The latter chapter’s epilogue quotes from a speech delivered by D. Oppenheimer exactly one hundred years prior to the mythic sale to Li Ka-shing. Oppenheimer said in 1889, “Here now is the chance for Foreign Capital to step in and by the formation of prospecting and locating companies in the mining centre of Vancouver to reap a bountiful harvest.”[6]

If critics will respond that globalization in the late 20th century was not on the same scale as globalization in the 19th century, they should put down Galois and read perhaps Linda Weiss, who gives a sobering account of what in any case Marx already said in 1848: capital chases every corner of the globe in a century (the nineteenth) when there is no turning back. Without the gusto of a manifesto, Weiss nonetheless demonstrates that by nearly every scale and measurement (eg. global capital flows as a percentage of GDP, etc), contemporary globalization is not new. In the trials of globalization, its newest features are dwarfed by what is oldest.[7]

History further questions mythology by showing that, in the conspiratorial “death” of industrial False Creek, there was a second gunman. Two buyers — not one lone buyer — put their names in for the auction of False Creek. In addition to Li Ka Shing, there was Jack Poole. Both buyers had an identical economic model prepared for the lands: a formula of monopoly ownership called the “land bank.” The formula is simple and can be set to work by any capitalist jock who happens to find himself with enough money (probably by inheritance) and the right connections (likewise, inheritance). The formula is: 1) divide land held within a larger stock (i.e. a land bank under monopoly control) into separate smaller parcels, 2) sell or develop those parcels over time as a means to control macro-economic supply (“slow release”). Contrary to the notion that Li Ka-shing brought a new vital capitalism to False Creek, this latter method of “slow-release” had already been perfected by Jack Poole in the construction of suburban tract homes in Calgary and elsewhere.[8]

For anyone familiar with the history of British Columbia, the transfer of a Crown land-bank to a private monopoly was also nothing new. That this purchase was by a Hong Kong monopolist tells us nothing when we recognize that Vancouver and Hong Kong are twin land economies which, as erstwhile British colonies, inherited identical land ownership regimes. In Vancouver the regime began with the CPR, having been given the title to the vast majority of the city.[9] To the same extent, the political economy of Hong Kong is marked by the “oligarchical political structure left behind by the British.”[10]

If it were not already clear, this political oligarchy is above all one in which elites are given privileged access to “land, markets, and information – turning them into monopoly-holders in a range of key sectors.”[11] In short, Li Ka-shing and the CPR stem from one and the same historic trajectory of capital accumulation. Vancouver and Hong Kong, both products of British colonization and its specific land-monopoly policies, in turn produced real-estates magnates who traded one another’s capital. Nothing J.S. Mill or Marx would not have understood already in the 19th century. In fact the only thing as predictable as the maneuvers of British colonial real-estate is popular resistance and political organization against that system of monopoly capital, to which we turn in Part II.

[1] Henry Yu, “Is Vancouver the Future or the Past? Asian Migrants and White Supremacy,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 75, No. 2 (2006)

[2] Wayson Choy, The Jade Peony (Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1995) pp. 9 – 10

[3] Geoffrey Carr, “Stitching Vancouver’s New Clothes: The World Building, Confederation, and the Making of Place,” pp. 196 – 216 in Architecture and the Canadian Fabric, ed. Rhodri Windsor Liscombe (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011)

[4] David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London; New York: Verso, 2007)

[5] Slavoj Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes (New York/London: Verso, 2008) p. 175

[6] Robert M. Galois, The Social Structure in Space: The Making of Vancouver, 1886-1901, SFU Ph. D. Thesis (1979), p. 203

[7] Linda Weiss, ‘Globalization and the Myth of the Powerless State’, New Left Review, Sep/Oct 1997, No. 225

[8] James Lorimer, The Developers

[9] To get a picture of the scale of the original enclosures of ownership by monopoly capital in 19th century Vancouver, see maps reproduced in Donald Gutstein, Vancouver Ltd. (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1975) p. 12; also see N. Macdonald, “The Canadian Pacific Railway and Vancouver’s Development to 1900,” B.C. Studies, No. 35 (1977), pp. 3-35

[10] Hung Ho-Fung, “Uncertainty in the Enclave,” New Left Review 66, Nov/Dec 2010, pp. 55 – 77

[11] Ibid.