“Racism, real estate, and the lessons of history”

May, 18, 2016 – Vancouver Magazine

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As Prime Minister Trudeau apologizes for a horrendous act of racism in the past, are we creating the conditions for more of them in the future?

On Saturday, September 7, 1907, my great-grandfather Kumazo Nagata was visiting Vancouver from the family homestead on Mayne Island. It was a hot night. He never told his daughter-in-law, my grandmother, why he was in Chinatown that evening, though she speculates it had to do with his fondness for games of chance. Kumazo didn’t know he’d be gambling with his life by night’s end.

A warning came rippling through the neighbourhood. Organizers from the Asiatic Exclusion League had travelled up from San Francisco and Seattle for the Labour Day weekend, and a Trump-style rally was now in full swing outside Vancouver’s city hall. Like all committed racists, their ire extended to non-white workers of every description (‘Hindoo,’ ‘Jap,’ ‘Chinaman’), who were blamed for taking jobs from white men.

After burning an effigy and singing “The Maple Leaf Forever,” the mob ripped through Chinatown with surprising precision. “On Columbia Avenue, for example, all the Chinese windows were broken and those of two white real estate brokers were left whole,” the Vancouver Daily World reported. Kumazo ran ahead of the riot to Powell Street, where Japanese storeowners had gathered behind barricades, armed with knives and bottles. With police on the scene “utterly unable to cope,” according to The Province, “hundreds of little brown men rushed the attacking force.” A street battle worthy of a Canucks playoff loss raged under the arc lamps.

Racism is just as real as any other part of Vancouver’s history. The head tax, the Komagata Maru (which the Prime Minister formally apologized for today), the Internment. Even anti-Asian riots. But with the housing debate now spiralling out of control, are we doomed to repeat history? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I used to be a journalist; now I work for a nonprofit. One thing the two jobs have in common is random phone calls from members of the public. When I was at the CBC, we got warnings about lizard people creating earthquakes. But the call I got last week was less amusing. “I’d love to make a donation,” the woman told me, “but I’m struggling.” She told me she was renovicted from her previous home and was now couch surfing with a friend. “I get it,” I told her. “My basement suite is $1,400 a month, and even that’s a great deal.”

She wasn’t having it, though. “It’s the Chinese,” she said. “They’re buying up all the houses!” What do you say to someone desperate for a scapegoat? I tried to explain that nationality is less relevant than capital. Yes, I said, it’s true the global rich are plowing money into Vancouver, but they’re just using the loopholes our government created. I didn’t get far before I had to hang up. Humans seem hard-wired to fear a few basic things—like being engulfed, or being left behind. Vancouver’s housing crisis seems to tap into both fears, as owners and renters alike are beset by mysterious market forces outside their control.

I graduated from Templeton high school in 2003. Of all the people I grew up with in East Vancouver, I know of only two that have managed to buy houses in the neighbourhood. One was hit by a car and used the insurance settlement to make a down payment. The other is a professional sports player. The rest of us have given up. Our parents, meanwhile, have all become rich, at least on paper, but many realize that equity means moving away from kids and grandkids or competing with them for condos. These boomers have grown to fear anything that might hurt their land values: halfway houses, transit hubs, condo towers. Or, god forbid, if the bubble pops.

Politicians appear to be similarly reluctant to admit that the province has become dangerously dependent on real-estate valuations. From the high rhetoric reserved for fracking, forestry, and the exploitation of other natural resources, you’d think they were the mighty engine driving the economy. On the contrary: natural resources now provide just two per cent of jobs and eight per cent of B.C.’s GDP, according to Statistics Canada. On the other hand, real estate and construction together make up 11 per cent of jobs and 26 per cent of GDP: more than triple the size of the resource sector.

The provincial government has gambled that if enough people see their home value climb, they’ll be too grateful to ask where the money’s coming from—hence the refusal to regulate foreign investment, or take any steps that might cool the market. Worse, white politicians are now playing the race card to shut down debate. “I do worry about the heightened anxiety about foreigners versus locals that we particularly feel in Vancouver. I don’t think it’s healthy,” Premier Christy Clark told the Vancouver Sun last week. “This is a country of immigrants and last year we apologized for the treatment of Chinese immigrants.”

Ironically, one Chinese-Canadian researcher whose own family paid the head tax found himself charged with “racist tones” by another politician, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson. Andy Yan’s crime was to publish a study that found two thirds of West Side homebuyers had non-Anglicized Chinese names. Is that relevant? Who knows—but until then, no level of government had been tracking who bought what. What we do know, I think, is that this head-in-the-sand approach by policymakers is only making the problem worse. In the absence of data, people are left to form half-baked theories based on prejudice and innuendo. Driving the debate underground only ensures that its eruption will be all the uglier. How long until a victim of this deregulated torrent of capital decides to take out their frustration on a neighbour?

Do we expect the least-educated, most economically precarious people in this city—like the workers who rioted in 1907—to stop, apply a Marxist class analysis, and then link arms with their non-Anglicized Chinese neighbours to defeat the neoliberal agenda? Unlikely. If history is any indication, people will just start punching each other. And like my great-grandfather, anyone Asian-looking will feel the same pang of dread. But when that pot finally boils over, don’t blame the water. Blame the politicians who left the stove on.

Kai Nagata is a fourth-generation Vancouverite. He works at Dogwood Initiative, where he daydreams about building a cabin far, far away.

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