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– Japanese man, aged forties I would have to say that in the last ten to twelve years Richmond has tended to grow at all costs. Even though in areas such as Terra Nova people voted, and residents expressed opinions and had petitions (stating) that they didn’t want that to become a residential area, city council moreor-less ignored everybody’s wishes and developed it anyway. I think in a lot of cases they became masters of what they thought was their own way of doing things rather than listening to the general public. Supposedly there was an Agricultural Land Reserve in place [to restrict redevelopment of farmland], but that didn’t seem to make any difference. I think what council did was to react too quickly to removing land from the Agricultural Land Reserve, and taking farmland and strictly developing it. A lot of the land was developed first, and then they built houses on it and people moved in, so it was the opposite way around. People weren’t coming out here and begging to build houses. The developers were developing the land and then finding contractors to build the lots and build homes.
– Caucasian man, aged fifties Perhaps there is nothing particularly unusual in these contemporary concerns about growth and development and the attribution of responsibility to government. Given that anti-growth sentiments, while relatively muted among the participants in the pre-1986 period, were nevertheless present, one can see a continuity between development-focused anxieties both during and before the significant movement of Chinese immigrants into Richmond. In the present context, however, other elements enter into the equation to make problematic a simple reading of current resident reactions to neighbourhood-level change as a continuing narrative of anti-development and anti-government feelings.
The first intervening factor is rather simple to apprehend: in addition to criticisms of development and government, a considerable number of residents interviewed identified these same forces as producing a variety of positive changes in their community over the past twelve years. A recurrent theme, mentioned by thirty-two out of thirty-four Caucasian residents, eight out of nine Chinese residents, and all the Japanese residents interviewed, was praise for the improvement of local amenities (be they public or private) since 1986, and the role of population growth and civic government in producing these
I think Richmond is a very people-oriented community, and in the midst of all this development they make a point of ensuring there is park land, there is green space, community centres, sports complexes. I can tell you from all the referendums we have—every time we have a civic election they want to borrow money for another aquatic centre or another hockey rink or whatever, so all of that is definitely a plus. There’s been a great increase in facilities for seniors, the library complex has expanded: all these sorts of things are great. The increase in the business and industrial sector is wonderful because, of course, it helps keep the tax rates down. So all these things, I think, are positive.
– Caucasian woman, aged thirties I think that the complex that has gone-in down at Number Six Road and Triangle is an excellent amenity. My younger boy was in hockey at the time and sort of went through the transition where there were only two sheets of ice in Richmond to now where there’s ten, maybe. We sort of went through that... and really needed it. That’s really good. That’s just one development. Generally speaking, I don’t think the industrial parks are bad for Richmond; it has generated a huge tax base which has allowed us to do these things. Property taxes in Richmond aren’t particularly high.
– Chinese man, aged forties Furthermore, while they were admittedly in the minority, a few Caucasian participants praised the changes that population growth was making to Richmond’s social atmosphere, generating a cosmopolitan energy and vitality that they saw as being absent before the
My husband and I are thrilled to be living in the big city. We would never move out to the boonies. We appreciate every bit of cosmopolitan growth that is here, and wouldn’t leave it for the world. We go out and look at other parts, but we’re happy to be here where everything is available and it’s clean—there’s no wild. We don’t mind the crowds. One of the most wonderful things to do when you’ve got nothing to do is watch people.
You can do that at any street corner now because they have restaurants which have people... instead of being hidden at the back of the restaurant, they’re lining people up on benches, like Starbuck’s [coffee houses]. You sit at the window and watch people pass. Hey, we’ve been dreaming about that opportunity for years—it’s here now.
– Caucasian woman, aged fifties Additionally, while the idiom of the monster house was generally despised, it was not universally scorned, as a handful of residents—such as the following Caucasian long-term resident in his fifties—expressed an appreciation of the emergent housing style as an
improvement over what had been there before:
On my street they had all these little houses and now they’ve got all these big houses and they look nice. People say, “oh, look at all these big houses.” Well I say if they want to build a big house, let them build a big house, so long as they don’t put it in front of my house. But I don’t mind at all because it’s definitely an improvement... [they used to have] a little house and a lot of land, farmland if you like, but now it looks a lot more..
The second factor interrupting a simple story of resident anti-growth criticism renders the process of interpretation more complex. As noted at the outset of this paper, since the mid-1980s Richmond has emerged as a preferred destination for immigrants arriving to the Lower Mainland, particularly those from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.
This pattern of settlement was not lost on residents complaining about population growth and development, who attributed many of the negatively perceived changes in their community —including the construction of the reviled monster houses—to Asian
My guess is that a lot of the people who live in those houses come from densely developed areas: Hong Kong, Taiwan, wherever. Their living space is quite small, your private yards are quite small, you don’t have a lot of living area, so when they come here, in relative terms it’s cheap, so why not build as big as you can? The best way to maximize floor-space ratio on a given size lot is to build a box, so that gives you the maximum amount of space. They want to do things like make an impression, so they create the two-storey entry with the big columns and the large windows because it gives a very grand impression. I think the thing is that they come from an area where half-a-million dollars didn’t buy you very much, but here about half of that will buy you a very grand home, and that’s what they want. I think a lot of that is the expression where, “we can have it, so let’s get it.” – Japanese man, aged thirties A similar, though more judgmental theory on the monster house’s origins was expressed by this Caucasian woman in her forties who emphasized the class position of those immigrants she considered responsible for housing-style change detrimental to the
... because it’s the wealthiest coming out of Hong Kong, they don’t care about building the mega-houses, cutting down the trees, changing the neighbourhoods. They didn’t come caring about Canada because it’s a temporary “wait and see” home. It’s not their new home. They didn’t come with a—some of them—with a really healthy attitude, either...
because it’s the wealthy that have come over they’ve not cared what they’ve done to neighbourhoods.
When asked whether, in light of their association of Asian immigrants with unwelcome changes, such complaints over housing style were merely fronts covering an underlying disdain of having Chinese neighbours, the residents interviewed vehemently denied that this was the case.
In rebuttal, participants cited the ‘reality’ of immigration-related material changes to their neighbourhoods, and claimed that they would be just as upset if they perceived that non-Chinese were responsible for building the construction of ‘monster’ homes:
It [whether such concerns should be considered ‘racist’ or not] depends on how I’m objecting to it. If I’m objecting to the neighbours being there because they’re Chinese, I would say it’s racism. If you’re objecting to the style of the house it’s a preference; I wouldn’t say it’s racism. It depends on the reasons you’re objecting. I mean, we drive around Terra Nova and we don’t like the feel of that area because when you’re driving all you see are pavement and houses. Now we have family and friends who are not Chinese [but who live in Terra Nova] so... I can’t say it’s racism. I don’t like the neighbourhood because you’re driving and you don’t get that sense of neighbourhood where there are yards and trees.
– Caucasian woman, aged forties This difficulty of trying to disentangle, or conceptually separate, issues of housing style from the perceived owners of the property was one acknowledged by the following Caucasian resident in her twenties who, after I questioned her on this point, reflected on whether her expressed opposition to ‘monster’ housing styles was motivated by the
ethnicity of the owners she identified:
You know, it’s hard to say and it’s something I question myself. It’s tough because you don’t want to think you’re against the fact that it’s Chinese living there. I suppose it’s tough to say because really it seems as though it is only the Chinese that are living there. I don’t know, and it’s something I question myself and wonder if a white person were to decide to build a monster house if... yes, I think a part of me would still object to it, you know, if all of a sudden there was this huge house going up that’s sort of ugly and out of place, the cutting down of trees... Yes, I would still object to it. Whether or not it is more so because of the Chinese people, I cannot say.
A remarkably forthright response, and one that illustrates how difficult it is to tease out implicit meanings that may or may not reside behind apparently non-racial comments on material, neighbourhood-level change, even for those expressing such feelings.
Yet perhaps the disclaimers made by residents about their motives in resisting housing-style changes and development trends in their community have some substance, if only because so many of the participants were willing to explicitly cite Richmond’s changing ethno-cultural composition as one of the major transformations over the last twelve years. Indeed, when summarizing the changes they perceived in Richmond since 1986, some twenty-one of the thirty-four Caucasian participants commented on Asian immigration and Richmond’s increasing ethno-cultural diversity, as did every single Asian long-term resident. Although all the Caucasian participants would offer criticisms when encouraged by me to express their opinions on immigration into Richmond, fourteen members of this group offered unsolicited remarks that identified ‘Asian immigration’ (as it was most frequently expressed) and associated changes as negative developments of the last twelve years. A significant component of these concerns, especially for parents with children attending school, was the issue of language, and in particular, the demands of providing English as a Second Language programs for immigrant children in the
My only concern with ESL is that it is putting a lot of pressure on the education system, which is maybe another downside to the way in which Richmond has been setting itself up with the immigrant population because ESL places huge pressures, money-wise, on our educational system. I just find it odd that the Canadian government, to get into federal politics again, is paying for these kids to learn the language in our own country when if you went to any other country... I would never expect anyone to pay for me to learn their language. I think it should be up to you. It should be your role, or your part of the bargain, when you become an immigrant, to learn the language. I don’t know if that is exactly right, that we should be paying for them to learn our language.
– Caucasian woman, aged twenties Other language issues were related to the emergence of Chinese-language only signs in Richmond over the last twelve years, the perceived insularity of the Chinese immigrant community, and their ‘failure’ to integrate into the existing social fabric. Commenting on these themes, this Caucasian man in his fifties expressed a familiar refrain among many
Caucasian long-term residents interviewed:
... in general I feel peoples’ feelings is that the Chinese, or the Asian population that came here, simply came here as a means of getting away from what they were afraid of someplace else and that they didn’t come here to be Canadians, but to continue on with their way of life exactly the same as they were before. We have Asian malls; all the store signs are in Chinese... the majority of our people in Richmond are not Asian and can’t read the signs.
Judging from the frequency of comments offered in the course of the interviews, this sense of being denied full participation in Richmond’s social life on account of linguistic barriers was especially pronounced at these so-called ‘Asian-theme malls,’ where a number of Caucasian residents additionally described an unfriendly climate that, in conjunction with
language differences, made them feel like unwelcome outsiders: