The incidents are troubling: anti-Asian racial slurs hurled from passing cars, whispered in obscene phone calls and scrawled in anonymous graffiti on walls and transit shelters. As Vancouver’s superheated real estate market has pushed up the price of Vancouver homes by 54 per cent over the past year, an increasing number of Vancouverites are blaming an influx of outsiders, specifically Asian investors and immigrants, many of them from Hong Kong, who since 1985 have spent more than $2 billion to buy Vancouver real estate. The new racial tensions have raised concerns that Vancouver may be witnessing a resurrection of the anti-Asian racism that has scarred the city’s—and British Columbia’s— history. And for city and provincial officials, the new trend is particularly worrisome in light of the fact that over the past five years the province has been actively courting foreign capital—especially from the Pacific Rim countries. Said Vancouver Mayor Gordon Campbell: “It is critical that we act now before a concern becomes a real problem.”
To that end, Campbell last week chaired the first of three scheduled “city dialogues” intended, he said, to replace “anecdotal information about immigration and investment” with facts. More than 200 people, the majority of Asian descent, attended the first forum to hear Donald Devoretz, a professor of economics at Simon Fraser University in nearby Burnaby, talk about the impact of immigration. Devoretz told the gathering that his 15 years of research on immigration to Canada shows that, contrary to popular myth, immigrants do not take jobs
away from Canadians, do not become a drain on social programs and do not take more capital out of the country than they contribute. Besides, city officials and real estate spokesmen say that most of the people arriving in British Columbia are coming from within Canada— primarily Alberta and Ontario. But so far, such reassurances have not taken the edge off racist incidents—or eased the fears of some Asian immigrants.
Late last month, radio station CjVB’s Chinese phone-in program, Overseas Chinese Radio, ran two hours overtime to accommodate callers’ complaints about racial slurs and what they perceived as local media coverage of foreign investment that showed Chinese and Hong Kong immigrants in a negative light. The reasons for that concern have not been hard to find. In February, a public forum with provincial byelection candidates in Vancouver’s affluent Kerrisdale residential neighborhood turned into a raucous denunciation of Hong Kong investors. And, only a week before that incident, complaints by Vancouver Alderman Sandra Wilking, head of the city’s race relations committee, led merchants to quit selling Tshirts that she claimed were racist. Emblazoned on the shirts: “Hongcouver, B.C. ’89.”
Officials acknowledge that the changes in Vancouver’s real estate market have been dramatic. In the first quarter of last year, the midrange price for a single-family home in Vancouver was $272,000, with prices ranging from $93,000 to $1.5 million. Now, the median price is $420,000, with houses selling in a range of $102,000 to $2.88 million. More
homes sold in January of this year—
2,490, including 78 for more than $500,000—than in any previous January. Then, in February, the 3,954 houses sold amounted to an all-time one-month record and the 3,789 that changed hands in March amounted to the second-highest monthly total ever. Said Brian Calder, president of the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board: “What we have driving the market is a net in-migration, dropping unemployment and relatively stable interest rates.”
Housing starts across British Columbia are also up dramatically: 6,854 in the first quarter of this year in the province’s urban areas, a 48-per-cent increase over the same period in 1988. And for his part, Campbell said that, in attempting to cope with the rapid shifts, some people are seeking scapegoats. Said the mayor: “A lot of what we are dealing with is really a ‘rate of change’ issue. And one of the easiest things to do is find the visible reason for that change taking place.”
Fears about Asian investment also have been raised by the sale to Asian investors of major commercial properties, including some Vancouver landmark buildings. Last year, the B.C. government sold the site of Expo 86, Vancouver’s world fair, to Hong Kong developer Li Ka-shing for $320 million. Then,
Li’s Vancouver-based company, Concorde Pacific Developments, attracted more attention and prompted a public outcry last December when it marketed its Vancouver Regatta condominium development to Hong Kong inter-
ests, without offering any units for sale in British Columbia. In November, 1988, Macaobased billionaire Stanley Ho bought the city’s plush 397-room Hotel Méridien for $47.5 million and the neighboring 162-suite La Grande Residence apartment hotel for $17.5 million. And last week, Paul Sun, chairman of Sun’s Enterprises Ltd. of Tokyo, purchased the Hongkong Bank of Canada building in downtown Vancouver for $130 million through his B.C. subsidiary.
For his part, Calder pointed out that the majority of new arrivals in British Columbia are not from Asian countries. Indeed, last year a total of 14,977 people who moved to the province were from Asia, compared with 32,000 from Alberta and 23,000 from Ontario. And because 80 per cent of the new arrivals settled in Vancouver—a city that encompasses only 44 square miles—city officials say that pressure on housing space and prices was inevitable. Said Campbell: “I don’t think anyone in the spring of 1987—when we had the highest unemployment rate of all Canadian Ï metropolitan areas—would have thought that | in the spring of 1989 what we would be worrying about was an overactive economy. We are having to deal with a lot of problems at once.” The province’s ardent desire to be the nation’s window to the Pacific Rim is being fulfilled—but it may take some British Columbians time to adjust to that role.
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