Vancouver : the end of the line

by Terence MacNamee

Vancouver is “the end of the line” in several ways. It was the end of the line for the Canadian Pacific Railway. It was the metropolis at the end of Canada’s expansion westwards. It’s where Canadians look out to Asia (I mean that metaphorically, of course, because Vancouver Island is in the way). It is also where Asia comes to meet us. Could it be the end of the line for the hegemony of Western man?

In a famous poem Keats wrote about the Spanish conquistadors standing “silent upon a peak in Darien”, when, having made it across the Atlantic, they looked over the other side of Central America and saw a whole new ocean that they would have to cross if they wanted to get to Asia. It is the greatest shock for Empire-builders to discover that the world is just too big for them to conquer. Hadrian built his Wall in the North of England to keep out the barbarians he could not subdue, and there must have been a melancholy feeling to it: “ne plus ultra” – thus far, and no farther. The Roman Empire kept expanding till it could expand no more, till it met the stranger peoples who would eventually overrun it.

Remember the entrepôt ports in Asia, and the European Concessions in the 19th century? Vancouver seems to me now to be an entrepôt port in reverse, a concession in reverse. It has become a foothold of Asia in the Western world.

There was always a large Chinatown in Vancouver. Chinese workers built the Western section of the Canadian Pacific Railway. But long ago the Chinese-Canadians burst the bounds of their historic quarter of Vancouver and spread to the suburbs. Now new waves of Chinese-Canadians have come, the biggest one being after the return of Hong Kong to China in 1999, but there have been more every few years. The newcomers are remaking the city in their own image.

Vancouver seems to me to be the place where, already, even now, we can see the East overtaking the West. I sensed it when I arrived there as a young stranger nearly forty years ago – I got as used as any native-born Vancouverite to the sound of Cantonese being spoken on the street every day – but I did not realize what it meant. I realize now.