Eventually we triumph – sort of, either by channelling our remaining energies into cooperation (see Wallace Stegner’s magnificent 1962 prairie memoir Wolf Willow), or a kind of raw-boned optimism that suggests pluck might work for you eventually (see Allerdale Grainger’s 1908 classic Woodsmen of the West).
If you want a literary guide to this historic process, read Margaret Atwood’s 1972 ground-breaking Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Central to these works is arguably the image of the pioneer as victim, albeit one who struggles towards some form of release, of non-victimhood. Maybe even a kind of success.
Canadians who share three or more decades of immigration history can probably identify with grandparents who came “from away” to find a glimmer of opportunity that the old country denied. In many cases it was the second generation, the first born in Canada, that experienced the opportunity their parents missed. Access to affordable and decent education, hard work and persistence, and the kind of luck you earn, worked for many.
The first Chinese, Japanese, Sikh, Hawaiian, and Filipino immigrants to Canada, came through the Pacific portal of Vancouver. We celebrate Eurocentric immigration at Halifax’s Pier 21 Canadian Museum of Immigration, a facility similar to the U.S.’s Ellis Island in New York City. Yet the West Coast lacks an immigration museum, although the narrative of struggle and success in the face of systemic and overt racism is worn and owned by those who entered via Canada’s western door.
Their stories of struggle have been supplanted by strong acts of citizenship, like running for public office.
So why is there growing angst about the fuerdai, the offspring of wealthy Chinese parents who represent the most recent Chinese immigrants to the West Coast? The Feb. 22 New Yorker article by Jiayang Fan (The Golden Generation: Why China’s super-rich send their children abroad) contains many clues.
“The city has become a hotel,” says Vancouver architect Bing Thom, and “selling citizenships” does not guarantee that the country buys “the best people. They don’t invest in their country. There’s no belonging.”
The fuerdai and their monied parents who are behind the crazy spiral of Vancouver house prices let many of their recently purchased homes sit vacant like safe deposit boxes in a foreign bank. Andy Yan, an urban planner who studies the Vancouver real estate market, has found that about 70 per cent of the single family homes recently sold in three west-side neighbourhoods were bought by Chinese.
In a recent Financial Post article, Diane Francis argues that the recent influx of mainland Chinese-sourced U.S. dollars is creating a destabilizing real estate bubble. She notes that US$1.3 trillion left China between 2004 and 2013, much of it questionably. Some of this money has flooded the Vancouver real estate market, fueling a housing affordability crisis that is creating social, taxation, policing and economic burdens.
When viewed through the lens of Canada’s immigration history, the new fuerdai phenomenon has turned the struggle, adversity and survival immigrant experience on its head. Jiayang Fan’s research describes how shopping for Fendi totes at Holt Renfrew, hosting karaoke parties in $4 million condos in Coal Harbour, and Maserati Gran Turismos for 20-somethings have become the new reality.
In Bing Thom’s opinion, consumption has effectively replaced production as Vancouver’s growth industry. One could add that what is being consumed in large measure is also produced elsewhere.
From the perspective of Canadian citizens who came from away with little, and stayed to build their own and their community’s success over several generations, and especially the first generations of Chinese Canadians, the fuerdai are products of an alien culture. Grafting their reality onto the historic Canadian immigrant paradigm will take time. And the graft may not take.
In the meantime, the juxtaposition of foolish wealth and middle class housing angst in Vancouver will continue to rankle. How ironic that the very disparity in wealth and opportunity that drove so many to Canada’s shores as immigrants should now be created by Canadian immigration policy here in our home and native land.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.