Commentary by Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver
The ongoing story of phony absentee ballots, and vote-buying swirling around Surrey’s current municipal election is cast with a perfect mix of characters—vulnerable immigrants, greedy developers, partisan journalists, and amoral politicians—to seem like a plot suited for an Indian soap opera, the nightly programming favoured by many of the city’s 160,000 South Asian residents.
This drama is just too tantalizing to pass up. Across Surrey-based South Asian social media threads, Whatsapp chat groups, and Punjabi-language radio talk shows, gossiping over this latest scandal—or appearance of a scandal—has become the latest guilty pleasure.
This issue, which for the past two weeks has overshadowed actual policy matters relevant to the Surrey election, has tarnished the image of the city’s politics-mad South Asian community. But in an election when the leading candidate is someone vying to become the city’s first mayor of South Asian descent, perhaps that was the point. Smearing an opponent is a common tactic in wild anything-goes democracies like India, but its a sort of "dirty politics" most South Asians living in Canada would prefer remain overseas.
But as of the latest police investigation update, it seems this entire affair may turn out to be much ado about nothing. Surrey RCMP reported it had examined 73 applications to vote by mail, and that 67 were fraudulent because they were not completed or signed by the voter listed on the application.
The Mounties added that no ballots were sent out to individuals based on these fraudulent applications.
And lastly—and most importantly here—the RCMP said it had not found any evidence to link any mayoral candidate to these phony applications.
As the RCMP investigation continues, and given all the commentary on social media are unsubstantiated allegations, most mainstream media outlets in the Lower Mainland have wisely remained circumspect in their coverage of the issue.
CBC, StarMetro, the Vancouver Sun, and the Globe and Mail have all avoided implicating any particular mayoral candidate in this alleged scandal. There is plenty of rumour-mongering online, but it won’t be found in the coverage provided by these outlets.
But there has been one notable exception: Global News. The media outlet has aggressively pursued this story and it recently stepped assertively into a no-man’s land of difficult-to-corroborate allegations via its story, “Two men say they were pressured to participate in alleged Surrey voter fraud scheme”, and published comments from two anonymous South Asian sources—Mr. X and Mr. Y—the type of material other outlets have ostensibly balked at using.
What made the Global News story stand out against all the coverage on this issue, was that it seemed to implicate one of three leading mayoral candidates. The video version of the story can be viewed here.
The piece seemed like uncharacteristically thin reporting by the staid broadcaster that still reigns as the most popular evening newscast in the Lower Mainland and that (arguably) still possesses the reporting credibility to bring down governments in the province—it was Global’s (BCTV) cameras that were first on the spot when the police came knocking on then-premier Glen Clark’s door back in 1999.
By airing its story, Global News seemed to signal that its reporters had corroborating information others outlets lacked. I did make contact with Global’s news director but I did not receive answers in how the outlet verified the statements of these anonymous sources.
But if the statements were accepted with minimal direct corroboration, then it would seem Global—at least when it comes to coverage featuring issues from diverse communities—is willing to relax its standards of reporting and use difficult-to-verify information that otherwise wouldn’t make the grade.
But before diving into that, first some background.
Let’s start with the alleged victims—these are an unknown number of Surrey residents of South Asian descent who by most accounts seem to be recent immigrants with little to no English skills, senior citizens, foreign students with "permanent residency" (though this seems like an oxymoron), and others from this community who typically do not vote. They have either been solicited (made a Godfather-like offer they can’t refuse) by various "poll captains" or their volunteer staff to cast an absentee ballot for their candidate (or made to sign over these ballots which are filled out and submitted on their behalf later).
Pulling the strings behind the scenes are apparently deep-pocketed developers who are watching over the proceedings like fat cats perched on stacks of $100 bills—apparently the going rate per vote.
A grassroots anticrime activist organization, Wake Up Surrey, formed earlier this year to combat gang violence and what it views as the city’s institutional complacency in halting gun crime, blew the whistle on this alleged scandal in September. It has taken on the capes of heroes.
And lastly, a three-term Surrey councillor of South Asian descent, Tom Gill, who is a front runner and has all the coveted endorsements, including one from former Surrey mayor Diane Watts, is seeing his campaign put on the backfoot and his aspiration to become the city’s first nonwhite mayor pulled down into the mud.
That is because it was Gill who was fingered in the Global piece that featured the two anonymous South Asian men, Mr. X and Mr. Y, both of whom work in the Lower Mainland construction trades. According to Global’s story, both men said they were approached by people from Gill’s Surrey First campaign, the difference being Mr. Y got the carrot, while Mr. X, the stick.
In Mr. X’s case, he was asked to fill out a phony mail-in ballot in support of Gill and informed if he didn’t provide assistance that money owed to him from a trades job would be in jeopardy.
Mr. Y said he was asked for the names of South Asian residents in Surrey who typically did not vote. He was promised preferential treatment in a future Gill administration from city planners in terms of his development submissions.
Neither man said they went to the Surrey RCMP with their troubles.
Global kept the identities of both men anonymous out of their fear of reprisal.
Where vote-buying with either money or liquor is a common, almost comically traditional practice in Punjabi villages (where many of Surrey’s South Asian population hails from), voter fraud in Canada is nonexistent. In 2017, the Economist’s Democracy Index ranked Canada sixth in terms of the health of its democracy. (The U.S. came 21st.)
The serious nature of these unprecedented allegations merits an aggressive approach by journalists in digging up the facts. And based on the latest RCMP update, it seems remote that the Surrey First campaign has been guilty (or the most guilty) of this illegal activity.
It seems more likely, however, that the affair has been a smear-and-distraction campaign machinated to perfection to damage one candidate’s credibility.
So while getting this story right and being first on the spot may earn your outlet some extra click-thrus and attention, getting it wrong would not only risk damaging Global’s credibility and more critically, it could unduly influence the outcome of the Surrey mayoral race, in the same way that deliberately fake news bent the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
So in coming back to Global’s recent story, it may be the case that Global took added confidence in the credibility of Mr. X and Mr. Y based on similar muddy claims being made on Punjabi language radio and on social media threads. Wake Up Surrey’s spokesperson, Sukhi Sandhu, has also been quoted for directly fingering Gill’s supportersas being behind the voting fraud.
But as someone who edited a South Asian publication for many years, I hold little value in these parallel opinions of Wake Up Surrey and various Punjabi radio talk shows. And I particularly find zero value in this content when it comes to corroborating Mr. X and Mr. Y’s statements.
As much as Wake Up Surrey has done to bring critical issues of community safety and gun crime to the surface of Surrey politics, the South Asian grassroots organization has been somewhat of a wild card in this controversy. When the group first went public with this voter fraud allegation, it claimed as many as 15,000 of Surrey’s ballots were compromised.
As recently reported, the Surrey RCMP had received only 73 mail ballot registration applications from Surrey’s chief elections officer—a barely audible whimper compared to the howls of protest originally from the group.
Punjabi-language media outlets, meanwhile, which are rarely impartial and have a tendency to play loose with the facts as best meets their agendas, have been giving air time to everyone from victims shocked to learn their signatures were forged to angry talk-back callers spewing all sorts of conspiracy theories.
For months many of these outlets have dogged Gill with negative coverage, fanning these headwinds to slow down his mayoral campaign. This has included devoting undue coverage and talk-back time earlier this spring to an anonymous flyer slandering Gill that was distributed through the city’s Indian shopping areas and neighbourhoods.
Mainstream outlets like the Vancouver Sun chose not to publish the contents of that flyer given "the unsubstantiated, vague and anonymous allegations".
Meanwhile back to Global’s story—after airing the anonymous allegations of Mr. X and Mr. Y, the story concludes by stating that “Surrey's South Asian community is now a pivotal voting group” and that as Western Canada’s second largest city, Surrey politics matter more than ever.
There seems to be an assumption here that there is one bloc of South Asian voters. Perhaps this assumption also contributed to the outlet gaining confidence in the allegations of two anonymous South Asian men that were outing the city election’s main South Asian candidate.
The problem here is that there is not one South Asian voting group—this is a multicultural myth used by xenophobes to rally the troops against the immigrants who are "taking over". In the world of South Asian politics, there are many fragmented groups, and extended families who are often at loggerheads with each other, jockeying for influence in one form or another.
Contrary to the ignorant opinions one typically finds in comment threads on news websites, the South Asian candidate in Surrey is not going to get all the South Asian votes. It is very possible Gill may only get support from one-third of these voters. More likely is that the South Asian vote will be split, possibly equally, between all three leading mayoral candidates. Bruce Hayne, Doug McCallum, and Tom Gill all have a significant South Asian following.
McCallum, in particular, is practically an honourary member of the South Asian community—he is affectionately referred to as ‘Doug Bhaaji’ or ‘Brother Doug’ because of his development-friendly policies that transformed Surrey from a smaller bedroom community in the '90s into a more sprawling bedroom community of larger strip malls and industrial parks that it is today. During McCallum’s three terms as a business-friendly mayor of Surrey from 1996 to 2005, many of Surrey’s South Asian now wealthy developers first started their rise to affluence and influence.
McCallum has been out of power long enough such that the have-nots among the South Asian voters have forgotten, or don’t know, that many of TransLink’s current woes, and hence the lack of public transit in Surrey and the Lower Mainland, began when McCallum was the chairperson of that troubled body.
But these performance issues from McCallum’s past have been glossed over in Punjabi media, which tends to be very development friendly. Both McCallum and Hayne have also generally received softer "nuanced" coverage, at least when compared to Gill.
In the nexus of Surrey’s Punjabi media outlets, activist groups, property developers, temple committees, socialites, singers, and political aspirants, there are numerous layers of family, business, ancestral, and professional alliances that obscure the intentions of anyone coming forward with an allegation. Sussing out who is connected to whom in this cat’s cradle of relationships is truly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Add to that the challenge of covering Canada’s diverse communities when there is a language barrier—it makes covering large minority groups like the South Asian, Chinese, and Filipino communities difficult work.
To be fair, mainstream outlets like Global seem to be devoting more resources to covering diverse communities and the outlet is producing solid work when there are equally solid facts upon which to build out the story.
But there are still instances when Global has over-reached and produced ham-fisted ethnic coverage, such as a piece earlier this year that attributed Surrey gangsterism and violence to gun glamour in Punjabi bhangra videos.
In this voter fraud story, there seem to be too many unknowns—at least from my perspective as someone who has worked in South Asian media—to responsibly press ahead with a story that relies on the allegations of two individuals who didn’t first go to the police and were unwilling to disclose their identities, reprisal or not.
So a question: would Global publish a follow-up story if two other men, in parallel circumstances, came forward with similar allegations as Mr. X and Mr. Y—let’s call them Mr. B and Mr. C—but that implicated one of the other non-South Asian mayoral candidates?
It would seem the evidence on such a story would appear to be equally thin.
By R. Paul Dhillon in Surrey
Last week turned out to be an unplanned Asian cinema watching binge, watching four Asian films – three Chinese and one Korean.
I love Asian films as some of them have action and special effects that are better than Hollywood even if they sometimes lack in the story-plot, but over all they are spectacular visual feasts.
First up was the Super hit special-effects laden Journey To The West - Demons Attack, an action packed road movie with four characters - a Monk, powerful monkey king, a pig man and a devilish looking beast. It had out of this world fights and action even if the story was a bit off.
Next up was Korean cop buddy picture Confidential Assignment with a terrific pairing of top Korean actors who play two very different North and South Korean cops, forcefully teamed to catch a rogue North Korean general who took off with valuable US currency printing plates. It was a fun ride of comedy and action and beautifully crafted with a tight story and characters easily identifiable and likeable.
Jackie Chan's Kung Fu Yoga, a silly action adventure with top of the line production design and chop-socky action which only Jackie can execute. Even at his 60 plus age, Jackie can kick ass like a young stud. Kung Fu Yoga also features Indian characters and storyline about lost treasures from the ancient civilisations of Indo-Chinese descents.
It features the beautiful Disha Patani playing an Indian Princess and Bollywood villain Sonu Sood as you guessed it as a villain seeking to inherit or steal the riches found by Jackie and his archaeological team. Not a lot of meaningful story-plot but a lot of fun and crazy action featuring car stunts, animals and of course the classic hand to hand Kung Fu speciality of the one and only Jackie Chan.
The fourth film in my Asian cinema foray was The Great Wall, which opened in North America recently after making more than $250 million in China and overseas. The film featuring Hollywood star Matt Damon and top Chinese stars is masterfully crafted by ace Chinese filmmaker Zhang Zimou. The alien sci-fi drama is an action film with good performances and dazzling special effects. For me it had the beautiful mix of western and Chinese big tent pole action film elements with a tight story and dramatic elements that lift it above average action sci-fi films.
The Great Wall was the best among the four Asian films I saw in my Asian Cinema Week and I'm glad it came at the end of my viewing odyssey as it will remain with me for a while.
R. Paul Dhillon is an award-winning journalist and editor of the South Asian LINK Newspaper and founder-publisher of Desibuzzbc. Dhillon is also a prominent filmmaker with feature film credits, including the latest The Fusion Generation.
Commentary by George Abraham in Surrey
Canadians from the Atlantic to the Pacific are suddenly aware that their world-famous model of multiculturalism is not working as well as it should.
People in the so-called “mainstream” want immigrants to do more to fit in – perhaps by abandoning customs and “back home” traditional mores that don’t jive with the rest of Canada.
While it is hard to pin down what exactly folks who belong to the “mainstream” would want us to do, this disconnect is evident in other ways. Take Canada’s media scene, for instance.
Mainstream media are losing ground, while ethnic media continue to thrive – with new outlets opening in new markets, adding new foreign languages to an already-saturated landscape.
Redefined by immigration
This disconnect was at the heart of a presentation I made in Surrey last week, organized as part of the Walrus Talks series, and titled “Cities of Migration”. Surrey was surely a great location to hold this event; a laboratory of sorts.
Like a handful of cities across Canada, Surrey is being redefined by immigration. Its demographics are startling: the latest census data shows that 41 per cent are immigrants, 14 per cent have arrived since 2001. There has been strong growth in recent years from India and the Philippines.
Markham, Richmond, Brampton and York are in the same league. This is where the Canada of tomorrow is being born.
While in Surrey, I ran into three folks who seem to understand that they are participants in a social experiment that may well determine if Canada will survive as a cohesive society. It is in places like this that we will know if multiculturalism is actually working in practice.
The first was a well-spoken cab driver, Amarinder Singh Dhillon, who's been at the wheel over three decades. But, his source of pride is being “the only Rotarian to drive a taxi”. “Only in Canada,” he exclaims. I agreed.
Stephen Dooley, executive director of Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus, also gets it. He saw that this city was going to be a haven for refugees from Syria – home to half of all B.C. arrivals from that war-torn Middle East nation – and hence led a study that will inform settlement strategies. However, what struck me was not the study itself, but the fact that Prof. Dooley hired seven recent refugees from Myanmar, Somalia, Iraq and El Salvador as research assistants.
That to me suggests empathy.
The last true believer I ran into was Michael Heeney, principal at Bing Thom Architects, who spoke of creating a “third space” while conceiving the edifice that houses SFU’s Surrey campus. The architects ended up redeveloping a declining shopping centre, opening up the roof to overlay the university and integrating an office tower on it.
The local Wal-Mart and university have a shared roof.
Dhillon, Dooley and Heeney are doing what Surrey needs to succeed: creating shared spaces, fostering conversations and melding the old with the new. I suspect they are not fans of “asymmetric” integration which holds that the onus is on immigrants to fit in.
My good friend and an authority on multiculturalism Andrew Griffith wrote this in Policy Options last month: "The integration process is asymmetric: it is more important for immigrants and new Canadians to adapt to Canadian laws, norms and values than it is for the host society to adjust to them. The meeting point is not ‘somewhere in the middle’ between the host society and the newcomers, but much closer to the host society (80/20 percent, in my view).”
My time in Canada (14 years) tells me that the meeting point is indeed in the middle. The host society must do all it can to make newcomers feel at home, while immigrants must make an equal effort to reach out.
The mainstream cannot adopt the sort of “benign neglect” that no less a Canadian than a former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson referred to in her book, Room for All of Us. [Video courtesy: Stephen Hui/Georgia Straight]
A New Conversation
My talk in Surrey dealt with creating a new Canadian conversation, beginning in the media. The two solitudes of “ethnic” and “mainstream” are as far apart as Gander and Coal Harbour.
We need to find common ground and ways to work together.
Paul Dhillon and Krystele Chavez are perhaps representative of a new breed of immigrant journalists who feel vested in Surrey’s future.
“Bringing innovative ideas and entrepreneurial spirit to the economy, it is because of immigrants that we have kept our city demographically young and culturally enriched, therefore enhancing our influence in the nation,” says Chavez, who comes from Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, and writes for Surrey604.
Dhillon has a longer horizon. “Surrey was largely an agricultural backwater until the Indo-Canadian builders and developers built it into subdivisions and strip malls. The impact of immigrants has been immense on the city's development and its current diversity is proof that its future will also be drastically shaped by a truly multicultural and metropolitan population,” says the editor-in-chief of the South Asian Link newspaper.
Theirs are new voices that need to be heard.
George Abraham is founder and publishing director of New Canadian Media
AT Thursday’s Surrey Board of Trade Innovation Awards Lunch, the winners were: Young Innovator Category Recognizes the entrepreneurial spirit of an individual less than 30 years of age who has demonstrated innovative thinking through the research and / or development of a technology-related product or service Winner: Shawn Davis – Compy Inc. Compy […]
Commentary by Steve Dooley in Surrey
A Surrey forum held earlier this year on helping Syrian refugees settle in our area started with an ice-breaker. Participants were asked to stand if they were born outside Canada.
About a third of the room stood.
They were next asked to stand if their parents were born outside the country. More stood.
Grandparents? More took to their feet.
And at great grandparents, nearly the whole room was standing.
In the multicultural dynamic that is Canada, we know that apart from our Aboriginal communities, all of us, at one point in our family lineage, came from somewhere else. And over the nearly 150 years of nation building, there have been many paths to becoming part of the Canadian fabric.
Some have been relatively easy, others, born of great tragedy – those fleeing war, trauma and abuse, not necessarily coming to Canada as a choice.
Eager to contribute
And with the picture of a lifeless child on a beach in Turkey, the world opened its eyes to the latest forced migration from Syria, with many Syrian refugees arriving in Canada over the past six months.
Many refer to the settlement of Syrian refugees as a crisis. There have been fears that federal government targets would overwhelm settlement services and host municipalities.
There have been many challenges in meeting immediate and short-term needs of refugees, who woke up after a long flight, finding themselves in this new place called Canada.
Long wait lists for English training, housing shortages, particularly for larger families, and lack of employment opportunities are very real problems being addressed in communities across Canada.
A recent experience I had with a small group of refugees in Surrey has led me to believe that far from a crisis, the settlement of new refugees in Canada is in fact a huge opportunity.
Being a good neighbour
As the lead researcher on a year-long, recently completed study involving Simon Fraser University and several community partners, I had the pleasure of working with seven recent refugees from Myanmar, Somalia, Iraq and El Salvador. They were recruited as project research assistants (RAs) to help set the study’s scope, recruit participants, lead focus groups, interpret findings and participate in community planning.
While each had a personal story of tragedy and survival, they were eager to contribute, brought a broad set of skills and capacity to the work, and become leaders within their own communities.
The study, Our Community Our Voice: The settlement and Integration Needs of Refugees in Surrey, B.C., was a joint effort between SFU, the Surrey Local Immigration Partnership (LIP) and the City of Surrey.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada provided funding through the Surrey LIP. SFU’s involvement exemplifies the University’s commitment to engaging our communities, being a good neighbour and helping to solve issues that affect our communities.
Our report, which will help the city draft its settlement plan, spoke to the many issues facing refugees, and lays out a series of recommendations, from additional resources for new or existing programs targeting health, language, employment and housing, to improving how we communicate with refugees at all levels of the settlement process, and helping the community to better understand and engage with refugees during their transition.
Talents and dreams
No one understands this better than the refugees themselves, who deeply informed our discussions. And our RAs were the bridge.
In community development we often refer to skills development as “capacity building”.
It was clear to me that these refugees brought a lot of capacity to the amazing work they did, and I was thrilled and humbled to have the opportunity to work with this stellar group of individuals.
There is still much work to be done, but these RAs showed us first-hand how the refugees coming to Canada bring far more than the label imposed on them. They have talents and dreams and hopes for their children.
And, while some will find their way back to their homelands, most will become part of the Canadian fabric, stay and make contributions to nation building.
Some will live quiet and simple lives, while others go on to become lawyers, doctors, nurses and teachers, or go into politics, start a new business venture, open a new media outlet.
They will build things, work in construction and on the factory floor. So will their children. But through the actions of daily living, all will contribute to the Canadian dynamic.
Based on Canadian history and my own experience from this study, I know, with time, there is space for opportunity to trump tragedy. It is not a crisis we have on our hands, but another in a long series of humanitarian support efforts that over time will lead to positive impacts on our neighborhoods, our cities and our nation.
Thirty years from now, in another community forum on how to support the latest wave of refugees, people will be asked to stand if they are born outside Canada. The Syrian refugees of today will stand thinking back on their own experiences of settlement.
And, they will lend a hand.
Steve Dooley has been the Executive Director of Simon Fraser University's Surrey campus for the past 3 years. Having developed his community based research interests over 20 years, he continues to address social and civic issues such as refugee settlement, poverty, and crime reduction. Steve co-chairs the City of Surrey's Poverty Reduction Coalition and sits on Surrey's Local Immigration Partnership (LIP).
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by Christopher Cheung in Vancouver
Queenie Lai’s parents often call her a “white girl,” because she likes eating western food.
But in fact, though born in Canada, 23-year-old Lai is more in tune with her Chinese heritage than many of her peers. Growing up she studied Cantonese with a private tutor. She watched Hong Kong soaps on TV. She’s even acted in a Chinese theatre group, performing in legends like Mulan and a play based on the life of Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
“When I visit Hong Kong, people ask me, ‘Why is your Cantonese so good?’” Lai said. “I tell them, well, I grew up speaking it at home.”
Lai also lives in a very Chinese community, but one very different from the ethnic Chinatowns or Little Italys of the last century. Then, immigrants from Asia, Europe, and elsewhere clustered in inner-city neighborhoods, often not the best, to be close to others who shared their history.
By contrast, Lai grew up in Richmond, British Columbia, a bustling modern suburb that, away from its wetland trails, fresh produce farms, and the quaintly historic fishing village of Steveston, can feel like a mirror of East Asia. If you speak Chinese here, you can see a doctor, get a haircut, attend a church, buy a house or car—all without uttering a word in English.
But Richmond isn’t the only suburb with strong overseas influence. It’s an example of a growing demographic trend that’s turning the patterns of the last century on their head. Geographers call it the “ethnoburb,” and others have appeared outside longtime immigrant cities like Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Melbourne in Australia, and Auckland, New Zealand.
Many ethnoburbs have more immigrants as a share of their total population than their associated urban cores, and often more than native-born residents. According to the 2011 National Household Survey, more than two-thirds of Richmond residents—69 per cent—are immigrants to Canada.
The same survey found that Surrey, a South Asian ethnoburb next door, has an immigrant population of 40 per cent. It’s also home to lavish sari shops and Indian wedding banquet halls on a scale beyond that found in Vancouver proper.
Markham, outside Toronto, has a 58 per cent immigrant population; Richmond Hill, 55 per cent. The Melbourne suburb of Glen Waverly is half immigrants.
But while cities and suburbs undergo new transformations, getting along with new neighbours brings the same tensions as around the ethnic enclaves of old.
Breaking a stereotype
The term “ethnoburb” dates to 1997. Chinese-born geographer Wei Li coined the phrase for a phenomenon she encountered when she moved to Los Angeles to study in 1991.
A professor suggested that rather than find a place to live in Los Angeles’ Chinatown area, she try the suburbs.
“You are Chinese, right?” Li recalls the professor asking. “Why don’t you live in Monterey Park, in the San Gabriel Valley? That’s a Chinese area, you would feel very comfortable.”
Li was puzzled. The stereotype she knew was that North American suburbs were populated with white working dads, stay-at-home moms, and their children. In contrast, the inner city was for immigrants.
But when she saw Monterey Park for herself, she was in for a surprise.
“Had it not been for the heavy automobile traffic and frequent gas stations, I could almost imagine that I was back walking in Beijing,” she wrote of the experience.
San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County is home to a shopping centre known as “the great mall of China,” where restaurants serve Mongolian hot pot and spicy chili-and-cumin Hunan. A suburb called Arcadia has been christened “Mistress City,” as they say it’s where Chinese tycoons hide their secret girlfriends and wealth. And in Monterey Park, where the professor directed Li, Taiwanese bubble-tea shops have been dubbed the “Starbucks of the valley.”
These were not the Chinatowns of old.
Old desires, new opportunities
Intrigued, Li began studying the phenomenon—eventually writing a book about it: Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America, published in 2009.
By then, she says, ethnoburbs had been around for decades after beginning to emerge as early as the 1960s.
The decade opened an era of widening ethnic tolerance. Newcomers were no longer limited by social attitude—and even laws—to enclaves.
Political tensions and the desire for a better quality of life, especially for families who wanted children to have a western education, drove people from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to emigrate. At the same time, immigration policies in many developed countries welcomed entrepreneurs. By the 1980s and ‘90s, many ethnoburbs had surpassed the inner-city enclaves where newcomers had been settling in for well over a hundred years. And their growth seems likely to continue, Li said in an interview.
Originally, it was China’s top-tier cities—Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen—that saw emigration to global ethnoburbs. “Now, even second-tier cities in China have heard of places like Richmond, Monterey Park, and Flushing in New York,” Li said.
Second-tier cities include provincial capitals and coastal cities like Chongqing, Chengdu, and Wuhan, recent growth engines of the Chinese economy. Those three alone had a population two-thirds the size of Canada’s—22.3 million people—as of 16 years ago, the last census published.
Asia’s global banks and large informal capital outflows are also helping Asian ethnoburbs flourish faster than counterparts centered on Latino and Afro-American immigration, Li said.
Emigrating to the familiar
One thing hasn’t changed: immigrants still like to settle where immigrants have already settled. Geographers call this chain migration. Once word of the new ethnoburbs got around, they grew fast. Letters, phone calls, and then emails back to the old country, enticed others.
That’s how Queenie Lai ended up in Richmond in 1992. Friends already living there told her parents and grandparents that life was better there than in Hong Kong.
Lai’s mother has no regrets about their choice. Vien Suen is a hairdresser at the Yaohan East Asian mall; her husband does lawn work. In Richmond, Suen says, “The weather is better, and the education and environment for the kids is better. The change in our lifestyle was small.”
The cultural familiarity of ethnoburbs can help ease other transnationals’ yearnings for some of Asia’s hyper-stimulating density and constant action.
Edward Zhao came to Canada in 2002, settling from Beijing with his mother at the age of seven. His father, who worked for a chemical company, remained in China.
Now 21, he’s been back to China on holiday a few times, and finds Vancouver “much more quiet and comfortable compared to Asian cities.” On the other hand, Zhao adds, “There’s not much to do.”
That’s why Richmond is Zhao and his friends’ definitive place for entertainment that mimics Asia’s energy: lots of late-night restaurants, arcades, and Zhao’s favourite, karaoke parlours. He’s a big fan of Korean pop songs.
“I always hog the mic,” he confessed.
Here, but still apart
But if there’s comfort for immigrants in ethnoburbs, there is also segregation.
Ethnoburbs may be different from the confined enclaves of the past, but the choice to live life entirely in one’s own ethnic community can come at the expense of a newcomer’s integration into their new country.
One key aspect: language. In 2011, Statistics Canada revealed that 10 per cent of Richmond residents don’t speak English or French, compared to 5.6 per cent in the region.
“My parents’ English still isn’t the best,” laments Lai. “I was like, ‘You’ve been here for 20 years!’”
And the same qualities that make an ethnoburb feel so familiar to newcomers can have the opposite effect on longer-standing residents.
In Richmond, one group held an extended debate with city hall over there being ‘too much’ Chinese writing on business signs. Residents of a condo building complained when the strata council held its meetings only in Mandarin.
And just as in other parts of gateway cities, as wealthy Chinese buy properties in ethnoburbs, they have been blamed for driving prices out of local reach. One Los Angeles suburb has been advertised to overseas buyers as the “Chinese Beverley Hills.”
In the wake of fears about foreign influence, Li says intergroup harmony is one of the top challenges of ethnoburbs today. “There can be surges of nativism, and even racism.”
A playful response
Australia and New Zealand are among the places where Asian immigration has populated ethnoburbs. In New Zealand, 48-year-old Richard Leung has watched them emerge around Auckland in places like Mount Albert and Avondale.
Leung is the chair of the deep-rooted New Zealand Chinese Association’s Auckland branch, historically formed by Cantonese-speaking labour and service immigrants from south China. Most new arrivals hail from the booming cities of Mandarin-speaking China.
“The elephant in the room for our organization is how we do we accept these new Mandarin speakers,” said Leung. Longtime Chinese New Zealanders, he says, feel “colonized” by the newcomers, who outnumber native-born Asian Kiwis in Auckland by roughly four to one, according to a survey by the Asia New Zealand Foundation last year.
Leung has responded playfully: organizing family sports days to bring newcomers and residents of longer standing together in activities that don’t depend on language.
“We couldn’t speak to many of them, because we didn’t have the Mandarin,” said Leung. “But we decided that we’d just keep doing what we’re doing. Our idea is that the new migrants will have children, and their children will become Chinese New Zealanders like us.”
New nations on the block
Nelson Ou knows how wonderful a taste of home can be in a new place. When he came to Canada from Taiwan at age 20, he was overwhelmed with culture shock.
“I was really lonely and I really missed home,” said Ou, now 32. “But the first time I had Taiwanese food, I was happy. There’s something so familiar to people when they eat their own culture’s food.”
Ou was so happy, in fact, that he took a job at the restaurant. A few years later, he opened his own Taiwanese restaurant, Strike, in Richmond, to serve the same beef noodle soup and peppery fried chicken that gave him comfort.
Limiting himself to a cultural enclave could’ve made things easier, said Ou, but he didn’t want to avoid living in a new, multicultural society.
It wasn’t easy adjusting. He had to “start from scratch and work hard to have an ordinary life,” taking ESL classes, working at Starbucks and restaurants, and eventually earned a financial broker certificate.
“New immigrants these days don’t seem to want to join the community,” said Ou. “They want to change the community to be like the ones they used to live in.”
“When you decide to live here, even for three or five years, that’s quite a long time. I think people should be more open-minded to new ways.”
And he means that both for immigrants and people who’ve been here all their lives.
“Look at bubble tea. It’s for sure not for immigrants only,” said Ou. “In Richmond, some Caucasians have had bubble tea since they were 10 years old. Even 7-Eleven here sells fake bubble tea in their sandwich refrigerators. It’s part of the mainstream now. It’s fun to live here because diversity is part of the culture here.”
Ethnoburbs are dynamic places, after all, said Wei Li.
“Any multiracial, multicultural community can go either way,” she said. “It can become more concentrated, or eventually dissipate.”
It’s up to immigrants like Ou and locals alike to define their home.
Published in partnership with The Tyee, where this reporting first appeared.
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I write this columnas a family man who has raised my children in Surrey, and as a small business owner who employs several Surrey residents. I like to think that I balance both perspectives when I consider the kind of government I want to see in charge of BC.
Because of my training [...]
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