City of Vancouver, Canada, at sunrise. Courtesy: City of Vancouver.
City of Vancouver, Canada, at sunrise. Courtesy: City of Vancouver.

Student Rose Wu has written a poignant commentary about how the decade-long challenges with housing affordability in Vancouver has turned into a racial discourse. Her 678-word piece in online publication The Tyee should be compulsory reading for the handful of influential politicians, academics and journalists whose campaign against the city’s high home prices has cast a pall on “Asian-looking people” while playing down the role of other major factors.

So, how did the Canadian housing story become linked to race? Specifically, what has led to the framing of this narrative as the “Vancouver housing crisis with Chinese characteristics”?

Wu doesn’t need to look far for an explanation. In separate commentaries preceding her July 4 piece, three media professionals and an academic laid out some of the themes of the “Blame the Chinese ” storyline.

Part 1 of this series looks at the comments put forth by Vancouver journalists Mitchell Anderson and Lynda Steele, while Part 2 will examine the “unimpeachable” arguments offered by Josh Gordon, an assistant professor at the Simon Fraser University (SFU), and Ian Young, the Vancouver correspondent for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Front page of Vancouver newspaper The Province. Photo: The Greater Fool

The view from the ground

In a July 3 commentary in The Tyee, freelance writer Mitchell Anderson summarized the popular opinions that collectively blame China, Chinese immigrants and their money for Vancouver’s housing problems. His summary is noteworthy for not mentioning the domestic factors that have contributed to the region’s housing boom or crisis. This would include a decade of low interest rates, the surge in bank lending for home buying, the rise of alternative mortgage lenders, the region’s strong economy and jobs market, restrictive anti-supply policies and practices by the various levels of governments, the shortage of rental-only developments, the inter-generational transfer of wealth, population growth, and record tourism arrivals.

According to Anderson’s one-dimensional explanation, China’s wealthy together with its criminal elements and corrupt officials have spirited a huge amount of money out of their country into Canada’s housing market. He cites a Bloomberg story about US$800 billion leaving China since 2014 without asking if a large part of that is foreign-direct-investment projects undertaken by the country’s many large companies in various parts of the world. His suggestion that the bulk of that US$800 billion has gone into buying Metro Vancouver’s C$50 billion-per-year (US$38 billion) housing market is absurd: imagine a garter snake trying to swallow a horse.

Anderson also repeats a widely circulated story that wealthy Chinese migrants evade paying taxes after arriving in planeloads through Canada’s Business Immigration Program that ran from 1980 to 2014. The “satellite family” phenomenon is often portrayed as widespread among Chinese immigrants, where the man returns to China to work and pays no taxes to Canada while his wife and children live off welfare in their new homeland. The Canadian media’s obsession with Chinese satellite families pales in comparison with their surprising lack of interest in the far bigger tax-evasion problems posed by the country’s corporations and powerful elite.

Anderson, a frequent contributor to The Tyee, completes his negative stereotype of today’s Chinese immigrant with the inevitable reference to money-laundering. These days, “money-laundering” and “Chinese” have become mutually associated words. Credit goes largely to British Columbia’s attorney general, David Eby, who has alleged – and is yet to substantiate – that Asian immigrant gangs are laundering billions of dollars through Vancouver’s housing market, casinos, luxury-goods business, and expensive-cars trade.

The impression that Chinese gangs have swamped Vancouver with “mind-blowing” amounts of money has been largely sold to the public through regular sensational news reporting in the Canadian media, often with helpful government leaks and secret police studies. The high point of this campaign is Eby’s recent series of studies on money-laundering undertaken by supposed experts that is looking more like political theater built on dubious data and speculative assumptions. Just as troubling is that Eby and his chief investigator Peter German seem overly focused on targeting Chinese money, immigrants and criminals as the main villains. As noted in The Georgia Straight, the Eby-commissioned studies fail to address established money-laundering activities in other major sectors of the economy where the Chinese factor is far less pronounced.

Plight of the DINK couple

When you and your partner are a high-powered Double-Income-No-Kid (DINK) couple who cannot afford one of those C$20 million waterfront mansions, whom do you blame for your “housing crisis”?

Unlike Anderson’s attempt at “macro analysis,” Global News Radio CKNW host Lynda Steele offers a more personal perspective into how the Vancouver housing discussion has become so twisted.

“I should be living in a mansion in Shaughnessy, right? Champagne dreams and caviar wishes?” Steele asks half-mockingly. Instead of the high life befitting her celebrity status, she and her partner have to settle for a condo. She blames wealthy Chinese migrants and money-launderers working with greedy developers and incompetent politicians for having priced them out of the mansion.

The most telling but unstated point in her comment is that the “Vancouver housing crisis” story means different things to different people. The homeless and the poor now have to share that narrative with those who feel they should be owning multimillion-dollar single-family houses in the city.

To support her argument, Steele cites SFU urban planner Andy Yan’s 2015 “study” of 172 expensive homes in an affluent section of Vancouver’s west side. Yan was given a set of  selected data by Eby, the New Democratic Party’s housing critic when it was in opposition. Suspiciously, 66% of those homes were bought by people with “non-Anglicized Chinese names.”

The study’s apparently predetermined conclusion had the desired effect of igniting national outrage for the “evidence” it provided that new Chinese immigrants and their capital had taken over Vancouver’s housing market. Over time, reporters were citing that 66% figure with no reference to the tiny sample size of 172 houses.

When Vancouver’s mayor at the time, Gregor Robertson, criticized the study’s focus on race, he was rebuffed by influential journalists Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun and Ian Young of the SCMP. Todd cited experts who said it was not racist to discuss the impact of global capital, regardless of their origin, on local housing cost. But he and the experts neglected to mention that the study’s flawed methodology, data selection, and small sample size had predetermined the conclusion of home ownership by race. If they had wanted to prove the impact of global capital on Vancouver’s housing prices, the Eby-Yan study was not the smoking-gun document.

In a bizarre twist, it was Young who underscored the study’s racial tone while trying to defend it from racism charges. In an interview with Maclean’s magazine, he said the study accomplished two things:

“It proves that those buyers are ethnically Chinese. I don’t think that’s disputable. If someone’s got a purely Chinese name, they’re ethnically Chinese.

“Secondly, I think to an almost irrefutable degree, it proves they have some form of Chinese as a language mother tongue.”

Yan won over the popular opinion, and his study remains as influential as ever. In a mushy piece for Maclean’s that included the usual allegations of Chinese complicity and stereotypes, author Terry Glavin hailed Yan as “the analyst who exposed Vancouver’s real-estate disaster.” City planning expert Sandy James recently praised the Eby-Yan study for proving that the arrival of “a significant group of people” had led to the “commodification of housing as a holding, not a place to live in.”

Judging from Glavin’s coverage and James’ comment, it still has not occurred to Canada’s talking heads that a survey sample of 172 houses taken from more than 42,000 Greater Vancouver homes sold in 2015 is statistically meaningless. The survey should never have seen the light of day, much less become an authoritative study of reference.

Few have noted that Eby had focused his data-collection effort on a small section of Vancouver’s west side noted for its high representation of ethnic Chinese residents. This methodology could also be applied to, say, parts of Surrey and Oak Street to show that people with “non-Anglicized Indian” and “non-Anglicized Jewish” names dominate certain neighborhoods. What does it prove? Nothing, except that the methodology was likely racially motivated and its “finding” of a high rate of Chinese home ownership was rigged from the start.

With the mainstream media and academia failing to ask critical questions, it was left to a former politician living in eastern Canada to warn about the “Yellow Peril” racist nature of the inquiry.

“Eby’s guy (Andy Yan) looked at the names of the 172 buyers, screening them for ‘non-anglicized’ Chinese names, which is … racist,” Garth Turner said in a November 2, 2015, blog piece.

“Of course just looking at names does not reveal if the buyers are Canadian citizens, landed immigrants, permanent residents or the children and spouses of people working abroad but investing here.”

If Rose Wu wants to know why, how or when the housing discussion turned racial, the Eby-Yan study of the 172 houses would be a key moment.

This is the first article of a two-part series. To read Part 2, click here.

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