The Persistence of Anti-Asian Racism, Part III | The Politics of Space

EDITORIAL INTRODUCTION| The first part of Nathan Crompton’s three-part essay introduced the history of anti-asian racism in Vancouver, while the second part focused on contemporary scapegoating in Vancouver’s politics and culture. But if racism and scapegoating are used to hide reality, the following essay asks a simpler question: what is the reality it hides? Behind the “empty signifiers” of culture and its discourses, what exactly is happening on the ground in Vancouver?

Despite constant monolithic invocations of “the Chinese” in debates on the housing crisis, the Chinese community in Vancouver is highly diverse. And like all communities in Vancouver, it is divided along strong class lines. A full third of all people living in poverty in Vancouver are Chinese. Today’s escalated gentrification of East Vancouver is having its most direct effect on immigrants and racialized communities, particularly Chinese renters. Crompton draws from countless academic publications and recent demographic studies to reveal that the complex diversions of scapegoating conceal the racial and class divisions that define contemporary Vancouver.

Ground Zero: Mount Pleasant

The signs are difficult to ignore for anyone taking a walk down Main Street. Since at least 2008, the Mount Pleasant neighborhood has experienced a renewed wave of gentrification. Major shifts in the movement of capital have brought a sea-change in the number of rental apartments upgraded, renovicted, converted into strata condos, or altogether demolished to make way for new condo towers. High-end storefronts and promotional materials from the local BIA give an impression of a settled middle-class neighborhood, and the image depicted by local boosterism is slowly in the process of matching up with a new reality. But yet the hype also tells us surprisingly little about the neighborhood. At this stage of gentrification, image-making still lacks control over the world it might hope to represent. A vast majority of residents in the North Mount Pleasant area are renters (70%), most of them first and second-generation immigrants (58%).[1] Despite being put in the unforgiving cross-hairs of gentrification, and despite superficial appearances suggesting urban lifestyle and conspicuous consumption, Mount Pleasant is today a proud and alive immigrant neighborhood.

A 2008 report by PIVOT found that the gentrification of Mount Pleasant carries an expected class divide, but also a strong racial divide. Similar to the recent gentrification of Portland – which expelled nearly 10,000 people of color from the gentrified urban core between 2006 and 2010[2] – massive shifts are underway in Mount Pleasant. The report states:

Significant shifts in tenant demographics are occurring in the rental housing stock: newer residents of North Mount Pleasant tended to be Canadian-born singles or couples with no children, rather than the immigrant families that defined the longer-term residents. 77 percent of residents who had lived in the neighbourhood for more than two years were first-generation immigrant headed households. In comparison, only 31 percent of residents who had lived in the neighbourhood for two years or fewer were first-generation immigrant-headed households.[3]

What stands out is the study’s commentary on the emerging Mount Pleasant neighborhood plan, a heated topic of debate in the recent public hearings for the Rize project at Kingsway and Broadway. “Given that the City of Vancouver is in the process of drafting a new community plan for Mount Pleasant,” the report writes, “it is of utmost importance for any new plan to take into consideration the housing needs and rights of the existing low-income tenant population in the area, in particular first generation immigrant-headed family households.” The report concludes that in light of the direction of the new community plan, “low-income tenants in North Mount Pleasant are threatened by development that does not include adequate provision of lower-income rental housing, and places a disproportionate emphasis on strata developments.”

Despite these threats – most recently confirmed by evictions at Richard Watson Court and an attempted 45% rent increase for seniors at Lions Manor – the Vision council recently voted in favor of a large-scale strata development at the corner of Kingsway and Broadway, in the heart of North Mount Pleasant. The Rize project is an all-market development with no rental housing and a negligible development tax that will allow the developer, a campaign contributor to Vision Vancouver, to walk away with at least $20m in profit. Instead of accounting for the needs of existing communities of residents and protecting the existing stock of affordable housing, or even conducting an often-promised (but never delivered) social impact study concerning displacement, council cynically hid behind its progressive and green rhetoric in order to give its support to Vancouver’s capitalist interests.

Four years ago the Mayor announced that if elected he would adopt a Portland Model for addressing homelessness and poverty in Vancouver.[4] At the time it was difficult to imagine how our American neighbors could be upheld as a model to follow. Between 2006 and 2007, homelessness in Oregon had increased 16%.[5] By 2008, after increasing again, Oregon was found to have a higher share of homelessness than any other state in America.[6] The situation continued to worsen throughout 2008, with another 11% increase in homelessness in the city of Portland alone.[7] For Portland, the year 2008 in particular marked an intensification of urban regeneration, with a heightened push on poor populations and homeless Portland residents. Between 2006 and 2010, policing and revitalization have together combined to displace thousands of people, with Census reports showing, as mentioned, an exodus of 10,000 people of color from the urban core.[8] Simply, the ‘Portland model’ was and continues to be marked by the massive displacement of people of colour away from the urban core of Portland, either to suburbs or prisons. As Clark Williams-Derry of the Sightline Institute put it, Portland’s large and growing prison population casts a large shadow over the city’s “success” in combating homelessness. “As is completely typical in the United States,” he writes, “Portland locks a large portion of its homeless problem in jail.”[9] Instead of meeting the needs of those it claims to help, the market and state-heavy Portland model produces poverty, exclusion and segregation.

Despite Canadian impressions of liberal multicultural fairness, a strikingly similar city is taking shape in Vancouver, where more than half of all people living in poverty are racialized (58%).[10] To quote community organizer and COPE activist Richard Marquez, who migrated to Vancouver from San Francisco: “Many say Vancouver is different; the greenest city of all. Bike lanes and liberal tolerance. But it’s one of the meanest cities to live in if you’re poor and of color.”[11] As we witness declining class mobility and even higher levels of poverty, a regenerated capitalism – bounding back from the brief recession of 2008 – deepens its hold over the city, consolidated by an aggressive neoliberal governance masked as green and progressive. In the middle of an increasingly Americanized city-state, the only body saturated with added state funding is the police force, invested with more emergency powers and discretionary projects, including ticketing quotas and other make-work projects of the revanchist city. This year the Vision council has increased the police budget by millions, in time to enforce the Conservative government’s new law and order crime agenda (Editor’s Note: see “Policing the Crisis,” a forthcoming Mainlander series on policing in Vancouver).

Tale of Three Cities

Recent research from UBC shows that in today’s ‘green city,’ mixed neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant are in the process of being pushed further south and further east. David Ley and Nicholas Lynch have recently completed a study, “Divisions and Disparities: Socio-Spatial Income Polarization in Greater Vancouver, 1970-2005.” The research shows a city marked by racial and class segregation, divided into three distinct parts. The first part, City Number One, is primarily white and high-income, concentrated in segregated neighborhoods like Shaughnessy and the UBC Endowment Lands. The second city is middle-income, less homogeneous than City One and drawn from a dwindling middle-class. The third and poorest of the neighborhoods is City Number Three, “mostly located in South and East Vancouver, along with Surrey.” In summing up his research, Ley reminds us what people like Marquez already know: “In City Number One, we have primarily people who are primarily white or European origin. In City Number Three, we have primarily immigrants and primarily people of color.”

In the battlefield of East Vancouver, gentrification is pushing City number Three into the suburbs. It has to be understood, however, that despite images in media and advertising used to boost the creative city, areas like Mount Pleasant still have more workers and immigrants than boutique shoppers. The Rize site itself is surrounded by thousands of Filipino, Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants living in rental apartments between Fraser and Main. The people who use the Mount Pleasant community centre, ride the Number 19, or rely on Kingsgate Mall, remind us that before anything else Mount Pleasant is a thriving immigrant neighborhood. One of the profound contradictions of Vancouver is therefore that while the housing crisis is blamed on “Asians immigrants,” instead of Vancouver’s political and property elite, the real brunt of the crisis is being borne by Vancouver’s Asian immigrants and immigrant neighborhoods.

In today’s Vancouver, assumptions about the “Asian invasion” should be tested against facts on the ground. Whereas the vast majority of political elites are white property-owners, Vancouverites living in poverty are mostly people of colour, more than half of them speaking Chinese as a first language (54%).[12]

Glimpses from the recent push against Rize suggest potential breaks in the status quo. Speeches, pamphlets and articles argued for “housing justice now” and called for a condo freeze in affordable neighborhoods across the city. Organizers and some residents argued that, instead of being dissected with a fine-tooth comb, projects like Rize should be understood in the broader context of the ever-worsening housing crisis. In the end, however, defeat was inevitable when the debate turned towards issues like consultation protocols, planning schedules, architectural setbacks, and debates over the accuracy of design drawings. Or worse, nimby residents focused on whether or not commercial trucks will be able to turn left on Watson Street.

The official letter of the Residents Association of Mount Pleasant did not include housing affordability among its list of reasons for opposing the project, and critics like Ned Jacobs (son of Jane Jacobs) buried the issue at the bottom of a long list of planner-speak. If affordable housing and gentrification were conspicuously absent, even less was said about the disappearance of low-income housing for the thousands of immigrants who live in Mount Pleasant.

Chinatown Today

While gentrification is moving south and east along Kingsway, the line of flight also traces North to Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside. Today there is no single neighborhood feeling the effects of gentrification more intensely than Chinatown. The recent history of Chinatown is complex and constantly evolving. What appears in the present essay is only an introduction, beginning in 2010 when developers and city staff announced plans to build towers on top of the Chinese Cultural Centre, including a massive condo complex of 400-700 feet that would tower over the cherished Sun Yat-Sen gardens. While the overhaul of Chinatown was averted and the plans were withdrawn, those early designs also served to reveal that the leveling of Chinatown would be an ideal scenario for developers.

By 2011, city staff returned with a new plan to increase heights for development in the Chinatown area. The revised plan, still presented within the earlier framework of a “height review,” faced organized opposition from hundreds of low-income Chinatown and DTES residents. Chinese-language activists organized with longtime Chinatown residents, and at city hall Chinese seniors were joined by Vancouver’s former director of planning, as well as dozens of professors. Residents spoke about the effects of gentrification, including rent increases and the disappearance of low-income shops, demanding that the height review be postponed until the future of renters be included in city plans.

City councillors argued that renters in the neighborhood were already secure since 50% of private apartments are owned by traditional Benevolent Societies. According to the councillors, the benevolent societies would not evict their tenants or cash-in on the transformed property market of the Downtown Eastside. The message was that renters would be safe – or at least half of them. Yet recent developments at the Asia Hotel point sharply in the opposite direction. After assessing new land values, the Mah Society (owner of the Asia Hotel) is planning to evict its tenants this summer. Evictions at the Asia Hotel and elsewhere are a direct consequence of Vision’s strategy for “state-led revitalization,” identified by Jeff Derksen and Neil Smith as the vanguard mode of contemporary urban gentrification.[13] One block over from the Asia hotel is “The Keefer,” a renovated boutique hotel where rooms cost $700 per night. According to Canadian Architect, “The entire project would not have been possible were it not for financial incentives offered by the City of Vancouver. A 10-year property tax exemption.”[14] Down the street from Asia hotel is Bob Rennie’s new head office for Rennie Marketing Systems, also funded by fee exemptions and heritage incentives from city hall.

This month the city approved a 10-storey condo at 189 Keefer, on the north-west corner of Main and Keefer. The project will not include social or affordable housing and is the second proposal to come forward in the context of the height review. Across the street on Keefer, and next to “The Keefer” boutique hotel, is a rezoning proposal for a 17-storey condo tower. These projects will all have a direct effect on low-income renters and immigrant residents, and yet again the city is indifferent – despite claiming to care about housing and homelessness. To quote Ivan Drury of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council, “It’s clear that the city’s vision is for a Chinatown without low-income people.” If a report like PIVOT’s for Mount Pleasant were conducted for Chinatown, it would convey the same bleak results.[15] According to the report, most condo buyers in North Mount Pleasant (a few blocks from Chinatown) have moved east because they could not afford to be homeowners in their parents’ neighborhood.[16] Unless there is a sudden change of direction, the fate of Chinatown is sealed as a gentrified – and therefore white – neighborhood.

From Eviction to Expulsion: City-state and Nation-state

Contrary to racist conceptions of the ‘Asian invasion,’ immigration to Vancouver increasingly represents the net-sum-zero of economic emigration, marked by deportation, eviction and failed attempts at permanent residence. A recent study estimates that up to 40% of post-1998 immigrants from Hong-Kong have already left Canada.[17] Another study by Shibao Guo and Don J. DeVoretz forecasts a high likelihood for the “continued large-scale emigration of post-1998 Chinese immigrant arrivals [from Vancouver].”[18] Guo and DeVoretz find an increase in the number of Chinese immigrants living in rapidly-gentrifying Vancouver who are forced to leave Canada due to low incomes, poor employment, devalued labour-market credentials, and generally “dire economic circumstances.”[19] To be evicted or forced out of the home in Vancouver is to be repelled not merely from the city but from the nation itself.

Notions of an “invasion” should be radically replaced with an actual analysis of the exploitation in Vancouver’s revolving door of cheap, excluded labour. As in global capitalist cities like London, the intensification of precarious immigration and the heightened circulation of immigrant workers serves the rapid turnover of the built environment.[20] Here the global real-estate industry is inseparable from the global economy more generally: in the same way that cheap labour in China facilitates the 21st century conveyer belt for the production of consumer goods, “cheap Chinese” and other immigrants living in Vancouver do the same for the local real-estate economy. Today’s minimum-wage labourers put the vast majority of their wages into rent. They are what Michael Geller transparently calls “mortgage helpers.”[21] It is increasingly apparent but rarely acknowledged that exploited immigrant renters uphold the local economy from below, including its homeownership market.

The focus on deepening levels of poverty and neighborhood displacement helps us understand why Chinese migrants today refer to Vancouver as shangshanxiaxiang: a temporary work camp. The latter term appeared often in research by Sin Yih Teo, who interviewed a large random sample of Chinese immigrants in Vancouver. Although the parallel may be misplaced, shangshanxiaxiang refers to the rural “labour and reform” camps set up by the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution.[22] It should added that, even if they have permanent resident status, immigrants cannot vote in Vancouver’s municipal elections.

While the mythologies of “the Chinese” have already been questioned in studies by Ley[23] and others, Teo’s study goes further in giving voice to Chinese immigrants and their lived experience in a so-called world class city. As mentioned, Vancouverites living in poverty are mostly people of color, more than half of them are from China (51%).[24] In sharp contrast to the notion that Vancouver’s Chinese immigrants – most commonly referred to in white culture as “the Chinese” – are here to purchase prime real estate, almost all of the immigrants interviewed by Teo have undergone a decline in living standards since moving to Vancouver. In addition to shangshanxiaxiang, it was common for Chinese immigrants to refer to their experience in Vancouver as yiminjian (“immigrant prison”). What comes after yiminjian – i.e. emigration or out-migration – casts precious light on the obvious but little-reported fact that evictions in low-income areas are pushing people not only out of Vancouver but also from Canada.

Yiminjian: From Permanent Residency to Temporary Foreign Worker

It should be acknowledged from the beginning that the term yiminjian applies to permanent residents, who comprise the bulk of Teo’s interviewees, in addition to those denied status altogether, particularly temporary migrant workers. Today there are almost 100,000 people per year assigned various categories of “temporary worker” status by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. This number is set to increase under the Harper government’s dramatic expansion of the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program. Recent statistics show that even before the expansion of the program scheduled under the Conservative government’s current proposed legislation, temporary foreign workers already accounted for almost 30 per cent of all net new paid jobs created in Canada between 2007 and 2011.

Protest against Bill C-31

Temporary workers have little to no rights and work under the threat of expulsion, even for making minimal demands on the employers who hold possession of their visa papers. The option of seeking help from or becoming part of organized labour is often out of the question for temporary workers, given the risk of being blacklisted. In addition to working conditions and safety, temporary foreign workers are paid dramatically below a living wage. While wage racism already exists in practice in Canada, the government has now made it legal, introducing a two-tiered wage structure for the Canadian labour market: migrant laborers will now be paid 85% of the legal minimum wage.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney defends the new policy on the basis that it will reinforce the Canadian economy. “It would not be correct to say we are crowding out refugees and family class. Rather, we’re trying to get much better bang for the buck from the economic immigrants that come here.” The problem is that getting a “bang for your buck” is fundamentally racist, not only because it excludes people who are not considered immediately beneficial to the productive economy, but because it includes immigrants in a new system of precarious labour laws and uncertain residency status, positioned at the hands of employers and state authorities now given expanded powers of expulsion. Instead of treating immigration as a human right, immigrants are treated as economic commodities. This commodification and labourization of immigrants is profoundly racialized, and racist, for two interconnected reasons: “Abstractly, commodification is like racism in assigning value to individuals on the basis of superficial markings and indicators rather than on the basis of the inherent dignity of each human being. Concretely, people of color are first in line for exploitation, both as wage earners at the hands of capital in the de-unionized/“flexible labour” economy, and as subjects of the administrative authority of the state.”

Vision’s “Eviction Alliance” with Jason Kenney

As mortgage lending and rent extraction become engines of the Canadian economy (real-estate was recently revealed to be “leading” Canada out of the 2008 recession), a different kind of eviction machine thus plows forward as well.  Jason Kenney’s plan to get “a better bang for the buck from economic immigrants” is inseparable from the construction of Canadian cities, and Vancouver is no exception. Vancouver is a place where investment in condo and home-ownership is underwritten by the low wages of the propertyless masses, racialized and with precarious citizenship. At least 55% of Vancouverites are renters, many of who are now finding themselves included in the economy, but only as a means to produce the wealth that excludes them.

Immigration Inspector aboard the Komagata Maru

What matters in this equation is not just eviction or just exploitation, despite the many commentaries that focus on one or the other, oscillating between the image of a city that will become a resort town (frequently expressed in mainstream media) and the image of a city of drudgery, with its underpaid work and unrelenting poverty (expressed between each other, in our private lives). The reality is that Vancouver is a constant interplay between the two sides of the same coin: outright eviction and displacement, on the one hand, and increased rent extraction on the other.

In these terms, the gentrification of urban space is best thought of as the recycling of displacement, reflecting not only a final expulsion of the poor, but also a perpetual displacement – a cleansing that is always partial. Vancouver today requires an increasingly displaced labour pool whose mobility gears the machine of the rent economy and paves the way for constantly new stages of gentrification, rather than some kind of final stage.

This fragile assimilation requires a forceful “inclusive exclusion,” and a real discretion over who is and is not included in the productive economy.[25] Immigrant renters are precariously included, but despite their necessity for the system they are excluded from the wealth they produce. Their inclusion, their right to be exploited, is therefore highly controlled, and Myka Tucker-Abramson and Naava Smolash have spoken of the “controlled inclusion of those hierarchized within the emerging state apparatus.”[26] Drawing from migrant justice activists, Tucker-Abramson and Smolash recently stress that assimilation is increasingly tied to outright exclusion in a two-tiered system of labour exploitation. The politics of assimilation – criticized by Roy Miki and countless others – has now merged with a system of expulsion and a heightened refusal of citizenship, marked by denial of entry but also the deportation of permanent residents and refugees.

In other cities, progressive municipal governments have stood up to reactionary national regimes. And yet, as the Conservative government sets out to entrench further barriers to status for immigrants in Fortress Canada, the Vision-led city council is found pushing on the other shoulder, hastening the eviction of immigrant neighborhoods in the construction of a “World Class city.” Under the guise of “social mix” and implicit desegregation, gentrification in Vancouver in fact represents a combination of the two sides of inclusive inclusion. This controlled inclusion probably comes naturally, I will argue in the next section, because it has such deep roots in the history of Vancouver’s neighborhoods.

Segregation: The Spatial History of Chinatown

It is often said that Vancouver is entering a new era. But if contemporary Vancouver marks a break in the course of its brief history, we should try to pinpoint when the break may have occurred. The celebrated narrative about the emergence of Vancouver as a “Pacific Rim city” holds that the city has entered a new period of globalization since the 1980s. While the “newness” of this globalization can be debated, what is significant is the way these narratives re-frame the discussion about Vancouver’s neighborhoods.

A landmark Vancouver Sun editorial writes that following the 1980s, the main benefit of the arrival of investment and immigrants from Hong Kong and China has been the “desegregation of the city.” The editorial remarks that Chinese people now live in every part of Vancouver, and that “immigrants from Hong Kong have in particular helped with this desegregation.” On the one hand, the editorial indirectly announces progressive change, signaling that fewer doubt city-wide immigrant settlement as a major advance forward, breaking apart the exclusive white claim on universal values and white neighborhoods. Pointing to shifts in neighborhoods like Shaughnessy and Kerrisdale, Henry Yu writes, “a long history of assumed white privilege was disturbed by the intrusion of wealthy newcomers into previously segregated communities.”[27] Despite recent Vancouver Courier columns in defense of white neighborhoods for “Jones” families, the white sense of exclusive entitlement over social and urban wealth is slowly eroding.

In the midst of neighborhood change, however, we should at the same time pay attention to the status of neighborhoods that are today deemed “too segregated” by the standards of city hall and ruling class Vancouver. If Vancouver’s major planning objective is “social mix,” and if this policy inherits American “ghetto talk,” as stressed by Nick Blomley in Unsettling the City, what is the identity, history and future of racialized neighborhoods like Chinatown, Mount Pleasant and Kensington-Cedar Cottage, to name a few? In the midst of supposedly dramatic changes to the demographics of ‘Pacific Rim’ Vancouver, totalizing weight has been given to wealthier immigrants and their supposedly “different aspirations and different expectations.” How are these representations navigating when defending Chinatown against colonization by city hall, as residents and activists have been doing since the announcement of the height review in Vancouver, and equally in cities like New York and L.A.?

Some of these questions seem to lead to a more fundamental one, posed by the respected Chinatown architect Joe Wai: What is Chinatown? The recently published childhood memoirs of Larry Wong offer a possible response.

Wong’s book begins: “Some people may ask, ‘Why is there a Chinatown?’ I usually answer that there was a language barrier and plenty of racial prejudice.”[28] In memorable passages recalling early segregation, Wong writes about his father’s decision to stay in Chinatown for safety reasons, despite having earned enough money to afford other parts of the city.[29] In 1921 Wong’s mother arrived to encounter the same state-enforced segregation. Upon arrival to Vancouver she was charged with the legal head tax and held in custody for three weeks before being released. Wong recounts how the Canadian Immigration building was “a dreaded place” for people living in Chinatown. When immigrants first arrived to the city by steamer, “they were escorted to that building for questioning and paid their $500 head tax. If deemed necessary, they were detained in cells for days or weeks. It was an experience not often recounted.”[30]

It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to understand ‘What is Chinatown?’ or ‘Why is there a Chinatown?’ without the origins of Vancouver’s segregation. Because those origins are still with us. Despite being residents from the beginning, founding the city, Chinatown’s residents were permanently deemed foreign to it. Their arrival to Canada was a perpetual arrival. Chinatown itself was treated as a neighborhood constantly “new” to the city.

The question today is whether or not Chinatown has stopped “arriving,” and if the calls to revitalize the neighborhood are not part of the same paternalistic history of city planning. To problematize the “post” in postcolonial history, Dipesh Chakrabarty has stated that the end of colonialism is a deferred arrival, placing people in the “imaginary waiting rooms of history.” But while these waiting rooms are at times more real than imaginary – something made all too clear by the experience of Wong’s mother – they are also profoundly symbolic and cultural.

Segregation and Desegregation: The Logic of Inclusive Exclusion

Vancouver’s response to the “arrival” of Chinatown has historically straddled two opposing paths. On the one hand, the city has attempted to contain Chinatown and segregate it within clear boundaries. On the other hand, city policy has represented a prolonged attempt to push the neighborhood out of Vancouver. As Geoffrey Carr writes, the city’s policy has alternated from “containing and controlling Chinatown to displacing it altogether” – sometimes performing both at the same time.[31] One of the fundamental contradictions of the emerging city was that while it argued for the desegregation of Chinatown, it simultaneously prohibited the migration of Chinese residents into neighboring areas.

Today, the two halves of this equation have not shared the same history. The attempt to block immigration to other neighborhoods within Vancouver has been abolished, both publicly and in theory.[32] What has never disappeared, however, and what persists to this day, is the call to assimilate and desegregate “concentrated” neighborhoods. The Vancouver Sun’s celebration of urban “desegregation” rides the wave of a full range of political common sense in Vancouver from left to right, whether it is the city’s current revitalization policy of “social mix” or the right-wing polemics of Mark Hasiuk, tirading against the “balkanization” of Vancouver. At best, and often with real effects, universal assimilation widens the imagined field of what is deemed “Vancouver.” At its worst, however, assimilation transforms exclusion into a form of precarious inclusion, investing multiculturalism with a power to define the lives and identities of those few who are “tolerated” or given the conditional “right” to stay in the city.

What is produced at this intersection of exclusion and inclusion is a superficial form of recognition that leaves segregation intact. This critique of multiculturalism – raised by voices like Roy Miki or Himani Bannerji – states that rather than opening itself towards others, multiculturalism reproduces exclusion and consolidates differences.[33] These differences are not the differences of human subjectivity so much as reified differences, easily assimilated by an unchanged and inherited field of culture and politics.

In Kay Anderson’s Vancouver’s Chinatown, contemporary multiculturalism was criticized for reproducing the compartmentalization of “visible minorities” as essentialized and one-dimensional. This form of diversity erases history in place of heritage, creating an inclusion that incorporates others only if they can be absorbed into the established narratives of history and tailored to the new fabric of the city. Simultaneously, this very fabric is found all the more repellent, impossible to penetrate by the people it claims to welcome. Ironically, multiculturalism extends its increasing generosity in direct proportion to the degree to which it becomes more difficult for working immigrants to settle within the boundaries of the city. By combining exclusion and inclusion, multiculturalism refashions exclusion into a form of precarious assimilation, producing minorities who must adapt to the agendas of triumphant neoliberalism or perish.

In his novel In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje depicted the historic law used in the city of Toronto to ban public meetings between communities of foreign labourers.[34] Skin of a Lion is a novel about the migrant labourers who built Toronto and its infrastructure. Paradoxically, Toronto’s anti-congregation laws targeting immigrants was a forcible dispersal by the same State that, with its other hand, pushed communities into a segregated existence. Skin of a Lion shows vividly that when the sovereign body of the city overtakes the bodies of those who have no part in its wealth, the result is a state of exception: an irrational threshold by means of which the State simultaneously includes and excludes its subjects.

Aboard the Komagata Maru

Under this “rule of the city” a paradoxical inclusive exclusion is reserved for the special classes of the city who rent and produce it; who are simultaneously held close and pushed away. Is today’s Vancouver a territory that absorbs everything into its rhythms without changing its own path, like a “great sprawling organism which absorbs foreignness into its own body,” as Helen Petrebenko said of Vancouver in her novel Taxi? As Jean-Paul Sartre once asked of Shanghai: Have the poor taken the city, or will the city overtake them?[35]

One hint of an answer to this question is given by the fact that the very notion that there are poor people in Chinatown has today been ruled out by dominant images of the neighborhood. Like the new Mount Pleasant, the image of Chinatown is ever-prepared for a new round of investment capital, cleansed by BIA elites the endless blogs of booster culture, if not planners and tourist pamphlets. The objective of the creative city is always to propel the city into the compulsive design of prosperity, a fantasy that Slavoj Zizek calls a “a gentrified-domesticated reality of representations.”[36]

The Gentrification of Representation: Cultural Adventures of Orientalism

As Asian places and spaces within the city are handed over the machinery of generic yuppie culture and creative-class identity, the emerging culture keeps the names, buildings, icons and images of former places and their heritage. New condos, such as Ginger, are designed and marketed within the vernacular of the Orient, now inhabited by middle-class professionals from Kitsilano. Whether through Yoga, New Age Buddhism, or simply by living in a loft in close proximity to the spirit of Chinatown, residents hanging from recessed Cantonese balconies can merge Eastern values with Western lifestyle.

The marketing of condos has increasingly played on this merging of worlds, often invoking an explicitly colonial sense of adventure as condo-owners plunge into the “lion’s den” of Chinatown. In a lucid critique, architecture historian Rhodri Windsor Liscombe recently commented on the Shangri-La, whose marketing by Rennie plays on colonial imperialist nostalgia:

The name Shangri-La deliberately invokes…the era of imperial privilege and ethnic hierarchy. Even more ironically for Vancouver as a reformed racist community (city officials excluded or relocated Asian immigrants wherever possible until the 1950s), it ascribes positive meaning to the heritage of exploitation disclosed in Orientalist and postcolonial criticism.[37]

Further east, beyond the Shangri-La development, is Woodward’s. In advertising for the new development, Bob Rennie marketed the entire Downtown Eastside as a brave new territory, urging prospective condo purchasers to “Be Bold or Move to Suburbia.” In this slogan and others, Rennie invites condo buyers to follow the lead of his own Conrad-esque journey into the Chinatown frontier, eschewing the comforts of settling within the boundaries of known territory. In 2009 Rennie himself appropriated the Wing Sang building on Pender Street. While the building was purposed as a central office and corporate headquarters for Rennie Marketing Systems, Rennie sought to deflect attention from crude business interests by re-framing his Chinatown move as a dispatch to the colonial frontier. “I was so sensitive to the fact that it not be read as a real estate venture,” he states, “but that it is read as a cultural adventure.”[38]

Without much effort for Rennie, the “Orient” is found doing what it has always done for the West: giving it a platform for the ambitions of its master builders. Is there a difference between Lord Curzon, who said that the world is his chessboard, and Rennie, who refers to the city as his own “personal sandbox“? For Vancouver, Chinatown has long played this role of “orientation,” giving to the city its overall topography. In contrast to the spaces of the “original” city, Chinatown has served as a placeless background: the empty and formless topos that gives form to the colonial architecture of the city. In his recent essay on Chinatown, Geoffrey Carr aptly refers to modern Vancouver as a “place-building” project, in relation to which Chinatown has always stood as the exemplary “non-place.”[39]

This “exchange” of place and non-place today occurs at the frontier of the city. This frontier, however, is not an outer limit in a city bounded by sea and mountains. The city we inhabit does not expand outwards, but instead folds over onto itself, constantly dividing and subdividing according to the turbulence of capital. In a process of internal re-conquest, or what Neil Smith refers to as the new urban frontier, rulers of the city have set in motion the machine of capital, invested with the power to determine the threshold of who and who does no belong . A city enclosed by sea and mountains is often said to give a shared belonging to the people who inhabit it, as in H. D. F. Kitto’s famous description of Athens, “with the same ring of mountains or of sea visibly enclosing the life of every member of the state.”[40] This Greek harmony, authorized by nature itself, is unfortunately as false for Vancouver as it was for Athens, concealing a city founded on division and exclusion.


[1] Karyn Mesa Calvez and Eerik Ilves, Cultural Divide: A neighbourhood study of immigrant rental housing in Vancouver (Vancouver: PIVOT/Mosaic, 2008)

[2] “We have to move beyond triage of housing and homelessness,” Editorial, Street Roots, July 5, 2011

[3] Mesa Calvez and Ilves, Cultural Divide

[4]Gregor Robertson, “Robertson vows to house the homeless,” Op Ed, The Vancouver Sun, November 12, 2008; Gregor Robertson, “Letter to the Editor: Gregor Robertson gives ‘homeless’ two cents,” Vancouver Courier, March 7, 2008

[5] “The 2007 Annual Homeless Assessment Report,” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Community Planning and Development, July 2008

[6] Steve Law, “Oregon leads nation in homeless count,” Portland Tribune, Jul 10, 2009

[7] Peter Korn, “Report: More homeless people on Portland’s streets,” Portland Tribune, Apr 14, 2009

[8] “We have to move beyond triage of housing and homelessness,” Editorial, Street Roots, July 5, 2011

[9] Clark Williams-Derry, “Portland vs. Vancouver Smackdown,” Sightline Institute, August 24, 2009

[10] “Poverty Profile: A Snapshot of Racialized Poverty in Canada,” National Council of Welfare Reports, January 2012. Racialized Vancouverites are defined as those who check “visible minority” on census forms, although the percentage of racialized poor people in Vancouver – already at 58% – would be greater if urban aboriginal populations were included in this statistic.

[11] Richard Marquez, Speech at the Vancouver Community March Against Racism, March 18, 2012

[12] “Poverty Profile: A Snapshot of Racialized Poverty in Canada,” National Council of Welfare Reports

[13] Neil Smith and Jeff Derksen, “Urban Regeneration: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy” in Stan Douglas: Every Building on 100 West Hastings, (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2002)

[14] “Lush Life,” Canadian Architect, Vol. 55 No. 9, September 2010

[15] Note that during the Chinatown height review, the city was in the middle of conducting a social impacts study to determine the effects of neighborhood gentrification, similar to the Mount Pleasant PIVOT report. The study was abandoned when Chinatown’s business elites and planners argued against any further delays. Joe Wai in particular used progressive channels like The Tyee to build consensus for revitalization, declaring that he was “fed up” with delays like the social impacts study, stating confidently, “Those who oppose [revitalization] are concerned that higher density and taller buildings will displace the low-income residents. I don’t believe that has to be the case.” See Joe Wai, “Why Chinatown Needs to Grow Taller,” The Tyee, 16 March 2011

[16] The importance of this demographic trend is confirmed by Bob Rennie and his researchers, conveyed in each of Rennie’s annual speeches to the Urban Development Institute, beginning in 2008.

[17] see Abdurrahman and Robinson, “Return and outward migration among working age men,” Analytical Studies Research Paper Series (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2006)

[18] Shibao Guo and Don J. DeVoretz, “Chinese Immigrants in Vancouver: Quo Vadis?” Journal of International Migration and Integration / Revue de l’integration et de la migration internationale, Vol. 7 no. 4 (Fall 2006): 425-447

[19] Ibid, p. 426, p. 444

[20] John Barker, “Cheap Chinese” (2005) in Josephine Berry Slater and Pauline van Mourik Broekman, eds, Proud to be Flesh: A Mute Magazine Anthology of Cultural Politics After the Net (London, 2009)

[21] If immigrant renters increasingly play the role of “the help” for the local economy, we should equally recognize mortgage holders as aspiring landlords who, once the mortgage is paid, can afford to hire servants, likely through Canada’s recently expanded Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP). In the cycles of home-ownership, rent-extraction and migrant labour, Vancouver is best characterized as a modern feudal economy of servants and lords. The Live-in Caregiver Program alone makes this clear. Read a statement on the LCP by the Congress of Progressive Filipino Canadians here.

[22] Sin Yih Teo, Vancouver’s newest Chinese diaspora: settlers or ‘‘immigrant prisoners’’? GeoJournal 68 (2007) pp. 211–222

[23] See: “Myths and meanings of immigration and the Metropolis” (1999); “Seeking Homo Economicus” (2003); and more recently with Nicholas Lynch, “Divisions and Disparities: Socio-Spatial Income Polarization in Greater Vancouver, 1970-2005” (2012)

[24] The number increases to 54% for Chinese-speaking Vancouverites. “Poverty Profile: A Snapshot of Racialized Poverty in Canada,” National Council of Welfare Reports

[25] “In Western politics…inclusive exclusion founds the city of men.” Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life transl. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 7

[26] Naava Smolash and Myka Tucker-Abramson, “Migrants and Citizens: The Shifting Ground of Struggle in Canadian Literary Representation,” SCL/ÉCL, Vol. 36 No. 2 (2011/12), p. 178

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

[28] Larry Wong, Dim Sum Stories: A Chinatown Childhood (Vancouver: Chinese Canadian Historical Society of BC/INSTRCC, 2011) p. xv

[29] Wong, Dim Sum Stories, p. 105

[30] Wong, Dim Sum Stories, p. 73

[31] Geoffrey Carr, “Stitching Vancouver’s New Clothes: The World Building, Confederation, and the Making of Place,” in Architecture and the Canadian Fabric, ed. Rhodri Windsor Liscombe (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011), p. 209

[32] The current reality of Mount Pleasant and Chinatown shows that in practice things are fundamentally different, given that the laws of capital prevent residents from moving anywhere but the suburbs.

[33] Miki defines Canada as a country in which “the ideology of assimilation, despite the so-called ‘multiculturalist’ lip service, still pervades dominant social values.” Roy Miki, “Asiancy” in Broken Entries: Race Subjectivity Writing (Toronto: The Mercury Press, 1998), p. 106

[34] Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion (Vintage Canada, 1996), pp. 133

[35] Jean-Paul Sartre, “From One China to Another,” in Sartre: Colonialism and Neocolonialism (London/New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 35

[36] Slavoj Zizek, Indivisible Remainder, (London/New York: Verso, 1996) p. 75. I thank Clint Burnham for the presentation of his unpublished paper, “Slavoj Zizek: a theory of gentrification and the gentrification of theory,” delivered at SFU Vancouver, February 2012

[37] Rhodri Windsor Liscombe,“Archi-tizing: Architecture, Advertising, and the Commodification of Urban Community,” in Architecture and the Canadian Fabric, ed. Rhodri Windsor Liscombe (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011) p. 419

[38] Cheryl Ross, “Mega-marketer wins notice for Chinatown heritage,” Vancouver Courier, Friday, June 11, 2010. Neil Gray writes accurately that in the context of the global real-estate economy, the tyranny of rent and commodification only “transforms the cultural commons into fixed capital.” Indeed it is difficult to imagine how the decision to move the headquarters of Vancouver’s largest condo markerter to Chinatown could not be seen as anything other than a shrewd real estate venture employed to grab hold of the rent gap.

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

[40] H. D. F. Kitto, “The Polis” from The Greeks (1951) in The City Reader, Fifth Edition ed. Richard T. LeGates and Frederic Stout (London/New York: Routledge, 2011) p. 45


Photo Credits:

“View of 100 Block East Pender” – Planning Department’s slide file photographs –;rad

“View of East Pender Street” – Planning Department’s slide file photographs –;rad

“Officials Aboard Komagata Maru” – James Luke Quiney fonds –;rad

“Men Reading Newspapers in Chinatown” – James Crookall fonds –;search?query=chinatown+newspaper