Award entry: In search of ‘cultural harmony’ in Richmond, B.C. — North America’s most Asian city

Doug Quan is nominated for a National Newspaper Award in the category of Explanatory Work for this piece about how the municipal government in Richmond, B.C., was dealing with cultural challenges it faces as the “most Asian” city in North America. Winners will be announced May 3. The piece was originally published on Oct. 19, 2018.

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RICHMOND, B.C. — Mayor Malcolm Brodie likes to boast that his city — home to Canada’s largest immigrant population — is a “model for cultural diversity and harmony.”

At the annual Richmond World Festival this summer, there seemed to be ample evidence to support the claim: colourful Bhangra dancers charmed the crowds as onlookers sampled Syrian sweets, Indigenous bannock burgers and Brazilian cheese rolls. The music ranged from Celtic folk-rock to Cantonese opera.

But behind the veneer, this Vancouver suburb of 200,000 is locked in a perpetual state of intercultural disharmony, some say. Among the flashpoints: What to do about businesses that advertise mostly, or — in exceptional cases — entirely in Chinese characters? How to clamp down on a thriving underground ride-hailing industry that caters only to Chinese speakers? And how to respond to birth tourists — non-resident expectant mothers who come here to secure Canadian citizenship for their babies?

The tension has been manifest in the municipal election campaign that concludes Saturday, with

accusations that certain activist groups are lobbying residents to vote only for Chinese candidates. And it can be seen in the dozens of vitriolic emails received by the city clerk’s office over the past year, some decrying the “invasion” of the city by Asians.

One racially charged letter was so hateful the city’s intercultural advisory committee questioned whether the clerk’s office’s practice of not responding “may be seen as legitimizing these perspectives,” committee minutes show.

In an effort to bring the community together, Richmond is developing a strategy for what it calls “cultural harmony.” It’s a still-vague concept that seems to aspire to the elusive sweet spot between cultural accommodation and American-style assimilation.

But there isn’t a lot of consensus about how to get there, and whoever voters elect to city council Saturday will be pressed to figure it out. Ideas so far include everything from throwing more neighbourhood block parties and intercultural festivals to giving more money to immigrant settlement agencies to providing more diversity training at city hall. Some incumbent city councillors have been accused of not helping matters by fomenting an us-versus-them mentality.

What is clear is that as Canada’s visible minority population grows, handwringing over what municipalities can do to ensure residents of all backgrounds not only get along but engage meaningfully with one another, will only intensify.

“This is a challenge for our communities,” said Andy Yan, director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University. “Are they going to dissolve into tribal villages or are they going to unite into a transcultural metropolis?”

Though Chinese, Japanese and South Asian settlers have been part of this community’s storied agricultural, fishing and canning past since the mid-1800s, its reputation as an Asia-Pacific gateway really began to take off in the 1990s when the British handover of Hong Kong to China fuelled a surge in migration.

While Vancouver and several surrounding suburbs have achieved “majority minority” status, nowhere has the demographic shift been more pronounced than here.  According to an analysis by Yan, Richmond has the distinction of being the “most Asian” city in North America; 71 per cent of the population is of Asian descent. Census figures show Richmond also boasts the highest proportion of immigrants in Canada — at 60 per cent. The largest minority group — at 53 per cent — is Chinese, also the highest in Canada, followed by South Asian and Filipino.

Richmond’s city centre now teems with Asian-themed shopping centres, strip malls and karaoke bars and some 400 Asian eateries catering to every palate.

But Asian-American scholar Wei Li, who teaches at Arizona State University, says we should resist the temptation to think of Richmond as a “suburban Chinatown.”

Unlike ghettos or enclaves of the past, which were the result of forced segregation and in which Chinese wielded little economic power, today’s “ethnoburbs,” Li writes, are linked to the globalization of capital and set up voluntarily to maximize personal and social networks, as well as business connections.

And like ethnoburbs outside Los Angeles and Toronto, Richmond has seen its share of clashes between long-term and newer residents.

Last September, amid persistent complaints about Chinese-language business signs, city council put into writing a policy of encouraging businesses to have at least 50 per cent English on signs.

That didn’t satisfy residents who favoured a stricter approach.

“My wife and I understand that the world is changing. However, when our ancestors came over and took on Canadian citizenship, they took on the customs, languages and day-to-day Canadian practices,” one person wrote to Brodie. “We are losing what Canada was — and longstanding mayors such as yourself are letting it happen.”

Another person, who identified himself as a 50-year resident, wrote: “The last time I looked, Richmond is in Canada, not China. Why do you not stand up for the rights of the White minority.”

The language debate isn’t limited to signs. This week the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal had been set to hear the case of a Richmond townhouse complex strata council (condo board) that started to carry out its official business exclusively in Mandarin. But the parties reached a last-minute confidential settlement.

The man behind the complaint, Andreas Kargut, who has since moved out of the city, had written on a GoFundMe page that the council “destroyed our ability to live together respectfully in a multicultural environment.”

Ray Arnold. (Ben Nelms for National Post)

Ray Arnold, who attended high school in Richmond in the 1950s and came back in the mid-1990s to retire, compares the state of community relations to tiles in a mosaic: combined, they create a nice picture, but individually they merely co-exist.

“They don’t meld together,” says Arnold, whose name appears often in the letters section of the local paper. “One of the things about multiculturalism … is it gives people who are not particularly eager to assimilate to a new culture too many excuses not to do that.”

Arnold’s biggest beef is the rise in “affluent ghost towns” — offshore investors building “pseudo-mansions” and leaving them deserted much of the year.

“When you have a community that is unoccupied or mostly deserted, it no longer qualifies as what we traditionally have called a neighbourhood.”

The food court at Richmond Public Market. (Mark Yuen for National Post) Mark Yuen/Postmedia

Some of Richmond’s longtime Chinese-Canadian residents don’t disagree.

Hong Kong native Amelia Ho, owner of the busy Bridgeport Sports Club tennis table centre and a Richmond resident for nearly four decades, says she sees too many newcomers who constantly fly in and out of Canada  and who don’t really engage with the rest of the community.

“If you want to be a citizen you should have loyalty to your country,” she said.

Henry Beh, a retired accountant who recently stepped down as executive director of the Richmond Chinese Community Society, moved to the city from Malaysia in the mid-1970s. In his opinion, recent immigrants, who hail mostly from mainland China, have been slower to integrate than previous generations from Hong Kong or Taiwan.

Because many stores and banks are staffed by Mandarin speakers, a lot of newcomers don’t think they need to learn English, he says. “I think they should learn to speak. … You won’t get the local people here upset.”

Some of Richmond’s newer immigrants told the National Post they just need time.

Jennie Chen. (Ben Nelms for National Post)

Sitting in a boardroom at Richmond Multicultural Community Services, an immigrant settlement agency, Jennie Chen, who moved to Richmond from Wuhan two years ago, says new residents “want to integrate, become a part of Canada” but just don’t know how.

“I think the government should provide more information,” she said.

Flora Jiao, who came to Richmond from Beijing a decade ago, acknowledges the city is “very convenient for those who don’t speak English fluently.” Speaking in Mandarin, Jiao told the Post she was surprised when the local hospital provided a translator during a check-up.

That’s not to say she isn’t trying. “I have recently been reading stories and some simple newspaper articles,” she said.

Jiao added she would like to see more cultural exchanges and “more people — people from here — learning Chinese too.”

If you want to be a citizen you should have loyalty to your country

When it comes to the sign debate, Jessie Wang, manager of Venus Furniture — a high-end retail store whose windows are covered with posters describing, in Chinese characters, brands and deals inside — takes a pragmatic view. The decision to advertise primarily in Chinese is to give customers — especially those with limited English — a sense of familiarity.

“When they feel familiar, they come to your store. It’s that simple,” she said in Mandarin.

Justin Tse, a long-time Richmond resident and researcher specializing in Asian-American studies, wonders if outrage over Chinese-language signs isn’t just a “manufactured crisis” that stems from frustration over the lack of affordable housing.

“As an observer it seems to me the real flashpoint is the housing crisis and that the real scapegoats are ‘Chinese money,’” he says, referring to the purported link between the flood of capital from China and skyrocketing house prices.

A walking club in Richmond. (Courtesy of City of Richmond) City of Richmond

Whatever the reason, some city councillors have been candid about the state of intercultural relations.

At a January council meeting, Councillor Chak Au said immigrants need to know what’s expected of them, “how do we expect them to integrate … and do their part, such as acquiring the language, knowing the culture and become part of us.”

Asked what he meant by “us,” Au told the Post someone who has put down roots in the community, as opposed to someone who is always “looking back, as if (they) have another alternative.”

Councillor Carol Day told the same meeting too many newcomers were “imposing self-segregation.”

Asked what proof she had, Day told the Post she could tell by the people who “hold their head down and only perk up when they see someone from their own ethnic background.”

“We want to open the door to possibilities. Yes, you can just play table tennis with only Chinese people or you can come to the seniors’ centre to learn wood-carving, come to a social media class and learn to do videos.”

But there are fears some of the rhetoric could be sowing greater discord.

I think it’s blatantly identifying one group as a cause for concern when really the whole issue isn’t that simple

Derek Dang

“Dark undertones” are pervading discourse at city hall, said Councillor Derek Dang. He pointed to a meeting of the city’s community safety committee during which Day wondered whether a spike in property crimes in a neighbourhood might be because wealthy Chinese residents with expensive cars were attracting thieves.

“I think it’s blatantly identifying one group as a cause for concern when really the whole issue isn’t that simple. … She’s ignoring all the people who have contributed to this community and brushing over everybody with one thoughtless comment,” Dang said.

Day insists she saw nothing wrong with the question and was simply expressing concern for residents in that area. Enough with the political correctness, she said.

Councillor Harold Steves was also scolded earlier this year for something he tweeted during debates over whether to build a temporary modular housing project for homeless people and whether to limit the size of homes that can be built on agricultural land.

“500 Asian people go to a Public Information meeting. The librarian gets Karate Kicked by an opponent to housing for homeless people. South Asian landowners are campaigning for 10,764 sq ft houses … Is this multiculturalism?” he wrote.

Records showed the person who kicked the librarian was not part of the meeting. Steves initially stood by his remarks, telling the Richmond News he was merely pointing out that “we have certain culture groups with different beliefs than others.”

He later apologized.

Kerry Starchuk in 2013. (Richard Lam / Postmedia News file)


That heated rhetoric is of a piece with what motivated Kerry Starchuk’s decision to run for a council seat. She is one of the loudest agitators on the issue of Chinese-language signs and is behind a petition to end birth tourism, saying it has “debased the value of Canadian citizenship.”

In an interview, Starchuk recounted how her activism started years ago.

“I went to the Sears shoe department. A whole bunch of people were speaking Mandarin, I guess, they were just yelling. I asked them to speak quietly and if they could speak English. They got mad at me.”

What gets her now, she said, are “the noveau-riche that have come with a ton of money.”

“When I was growing up, all the corner stores were run by the Chinese families. They were humble, grateful, nice. My best friend is fourth-generation Chinese. I couldn’t ask for a nicer friend. … But the ones that have come from mainland China have been very difficult to carry on conversations with them from a neighbourly point of view. It’s been very hard. I’ve tried. I’ve brought flowers, cookies.”

Speaking to a women’s church group recently on the theme of “loss of community,” Starchuk said she is sometimes accused of being racist but insisted she is not anti-immigrant.

“I love Richmond, but I don’t like what’s happened to Richmond,” she said.

It’s not just white residents who have been accused of stirring up division. In June, the Richmond News reported that mayoral candidate and lawyer Hong Guo held a campaign launch that was entirely in Mandarin and outside the view of mainstream media.

I love Richmond, but I don’t like what’s happened to Richmond

Kerry Starchuk

A narrated video shown at the event stated that the voice of Chinese residents had been “ignored” and their rights “obliterated,” the newspaper reported.

“Only Chinese people can understand what Chinese people want. …Today, Richmond politics has finally heard a Chinese voice, Hong Guo.”

An editorial in the Richmond News said Guo had engaged in dangerous race-based politics.

In an email, Guo told the Post that like many residents, she is a native Chinese speaker, and she has to “choose the best means of communicating my message to as many voters as possible.” Guo, whose campaign literature calls for an end to the “politics of division,” noted many of her campaign videos are delivered in English.

The argument the Chinese community’s voice has been ignored isn’t without merit, says Ivan Pak, who is running for school trustee. Earlier this year, he was part of a vocal group opposed to the temporary modular housing project, which was ultimately approved by council.

“People from China or Hong Kong, they have less sympathies for people who become homeless and addicted to drugs,” Pak said. “In the Chinese culture, we think this is your personal responsibility to take care of yourself, to be less burden to society.”

Pak says parents were also not adequately consulted when the Richmond school board voted to support a Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity program aimed at bullying prevention.

Of most Chinese parents, he says: “They want traditional values.”

Richmond, B.C. (Mark Yuen for National Post) Mark Yuen/Postmedia

City staff face a daunting challenge to find a path to “cultural harmony.”

A report setting out the strategy’s guiding principles contains a lot of feel-good phrases like “intercultural interaction,” “cultural inclusion” and “community engagement,” but details are scant.

The Post filed an FOI request for some of the initial findings, but they were withheld entirely.

Internal emails and interviews suggest the city’s goal is two-fold: enhance the way the city welcomes new immigrants and their perspectives, while also educating new immigrants about their community and integrating them to civic life.

“Definitely we’re not looking at assimilation as a goal, but I do think inclusiveness is a two-way street,” Ted Townsend, the city’s spokesman, said. “One way is making sure people don’t feel isolated in their community but also making sure that people are part of the community and not isolating themselves.”

Brodie, the mayor, whose campaign ads in the ethnic press adopt the first part of a Chinese folk saying (“A long road tests the strength of a horse; a long time tests the nature of a person’s heart”), stressed the city is not looking to force immigrants into doing anything they don’t want. “I wouldn’t say it’s a push to get involved but certainly making it apparent to them there is every opportunity for them to be involved.”

He added: “I don’t want a series of small communities in Richmond. I want one community.”

Mayor Malcolm Brodie. (Ben Nelms for National Post)

But the strategy, which was supposed to be done by now, is not expected until next year. That’s because a Winnipeg consulting firm the city contracted for $44,000 was dropped in February.

The firm had been asked to examine best practices in other Canadian cities, review Richmond’s policies and programs, interview community leaders, and deliver recommendations.

“Our needs weren’t being met,” said Kim Somerville, the city’s manager of community social development.

Some wonder why the city chose a firm based in Manitoba. It would’ve made more sense to choose consultants “who live here and have a stake in the community,” said Tse, a visiting professor at Northwestern University.

The city has now hired Connie Baxter, former director of Richmond’s museum, to complete the project.

One of the things under review is the extent to which the city should accommodate newcomers who are not fluent in English. The city produces a newcomers’ guide in multiple languages, but decisions about translating other city documents are made on a case-by-case basis.

When the city notified residents in February about an information session concerning the proposed temporary modular housing project, it was written in English — except for a message at the top in Chinese that read: “THIS IS AN IMPORTANT NOTICE. PLEASE HAVE SOMEONE TRANSLATE IT FOR YOU.”

If Richmond is 55 per cent Chinese, there’s something called hiring people who can read and write Chinese — it should not be difficult

Justin Tse

Tse says such translations should be automatic because it fosters inclusivity.

In California, state law requires public agencies serving a substantial number of non-English speakers must ensure they have access to government information and services through the use of bilingual speakers, interpreters and translated materials.

Tse says it’s noteworthy the city doesn’t use its own staff to assist with translation or interpretation work. Instead, records show, the city often turns to a downtown Vancouver firm, Chinese Informedia.

“If Richmond is 55 per cent Chinese, there’s something called hiring people who can read and write Chinese — it should not be difficult,” he said.

Maybe, he quipped, it’s city hall that needs to integrate into Richmond.

In 2014, Eliana Chia, then a master’s candidate at UBC’s school of community and regional planning, wrote a report on civic engagement in Richmond. Among her conclusions: city hall, for some immigrants, can be an  unwelcoming and intimidating place due to a perceived lack of staff from their racial background; staff struggle to provide translations due to a lack of resources and clear corporate guidelines; and when engaging immigrants in planning decisions, staff lack facilitation skills to carry out meaningful discussions.

While claiming a “large increase” in staff diversity over the last decade, the city could not provide the Post with a breakdown of ethnicities or languages spoken. Townsend said the city hires based on merit and, besides, setting diversity goals can be tricky.

“We’ve got Filipino staff who are of Chinese descent who might identify themselves as Filipino, as Chinese, as Canadian or all of the above. So if you’re going to set a goal of hiring based on culture, who’s going to define who fits those goals?” he said.

Townsend noted some community members are adamant that city business be carried out only in English or French. “Even some leaders in the Chinese community say the more you do (to accommodate other languages), the more you promote isolation. What we’re trying to determine is: what is the happy medium?”

A meat and poultry store at Richmond Public Market. (Mark Yuen for National Post) Mark Yuen/Postmedia

Music composer Chris Ludwig, who’s lived in the city 15 years and moderates community roundtables, doesn’t get what the fuss is about.

On the proliferation of Chinese–language signs? Let the free market sort it out, he says. On lack of integration by newcomers? The government can’t force it; let it evolve organically.

“When I’m in the playground, say there’s another mom there and my son is playing with them, and let’s say they’re from Beijing or wherever. (I might say), ‘What’s your husband doing over there? Oh, he’s doing that.’ You hear about why they’re here, why they love Canada. You really get to understand that people are just people, right? I think that’s the way we connect is person to person.”

The notion of community building through one-on-one engagement seemed to hold promise during a community roundtable this spring at the Richmond library.

Among the participants was Diann McGrath, 78, a longtime resident who admits she is frustrated by all the foreign languages spoken in the city.

“I found that when the people come here from other countries, they don’t speak to us. They speak in their own language … and we have no communication. They seem to be very unfriendly,” she said.

I feel like I don’t really belong here anymore because I’m outnumbered by all these Asian people

Diann McGrath

“I feel like I don’t really belong here anymore because I’m outnumbered by all these Asian people.”

Sitting next to her was Vivian, a recent immigrant from China. She wondered if there were any informal meet-ups in the community so she could practice her English.

It seemed like Vivian and Diann had hit it off and they exchanged phone numbers.

Months later, the Post asked McGrath if they stayed in contact. They hadn’t.

“To pal around with somebody you don’t know is difficult,” she confessed. “What am I going to talk to them about?”

This story was based on internal city records obtained through Freedom of Information requests, minutes from city meetings, and interviews with residents, academics, non-profit groups, elected officials and current and former city staffers, and reported. With files from Niko Bell




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