Vancouver as gateway

by Terence MacNamee

When I first lived in Vancouver in the 1970s, I was struck by an odd thing: the place was full of people from somewhere else in the world, but it was not cosmopolitan like a European city. In fact, it was a backwater. It was just that all these people people from somewhere else did not count. They might fill the buses and the cafés with their many languages, but they were just talking to each other. As far as public life was concerned, they did not have anything to say. This went especially for the numerous Chinese population. One of the most characteristic things about everyday life in Vancouver, I found, was hearing Cantonese on the street. Native-born Vancouverites of the English-speaking majority grew up hearing it, and it had to be embedding itself in their brains their whole life long, but they never learned to speak it. Why would they? There was nothing being said in this language that could possibly interest them.

In the interval, things have changed. Asia, and China in particular, have moved to the front of the world stage, and it has become important for Canada to look out to the Pacific, if only out of self-interest on the part of its traditional élites, in terms of trade and the economy.

Vancouver in particular has opened to Asia. A lot more Chinese immigrants have arrived, originally because of the handover of Hongkong in 1999; but later immigration has involved other parts of China too. Vancouver has become an “entrepôt port” or a “concession” for China – rather like Hongkong in reverse: China now has a bridgehead on the coast of Canada, rather than the Western powers having their bridgeheads on the coast of China.

Oddly enough, as I found on a recent visit, Vancouver remains the backwater of the West. There is no new thinking coming out of there. There are no ideas from the city that shape what Canada is. That prerogative still belongs to the traditional élites in the east of the country. The Vancouver minorities still have nothing to say, except to themselves, but since they are becoming more numerous and economically powerful, they are quietly beginning to reshape the city in their own image.

The conventional wisdom in Canada now calls Vancouver a gateway city: that means a city by which new people enter an immigrant-receiving country. But gateway for who – and to what? The immigration that counts now is Asian, especially Chinese, due to China’s dynamism. And the immigrants are coming, not to contribute to the wealth of the traditional Canadian élites, but to play their own game.

A new stage is beginning in the history of North America, the most important since the arrival of Columbus. The intrepid seaman landed on the shores of the New World not knowing where he was, thinking he was in Asia, and indeed bearing a letter from Queen Isabella to the Emperor of China. We know the rest of the story. In this new chapter, however, Asia is likely to shape North America – not  Europe.