Vancouver: liveable, but not affordable

by Terence MacNamee

People are being priced out of Vancouver. On the one hand, you read in the Canadian and European press that Vancouver is one of the most liveable cities in the world, and on the other hand, you read that Chinese millionaires looking for offshore investments are buying up all the houses and driving ordinary Vancouverites out of the housing market. Canadian government at all levels – federal, provincial, even municipal – has been keeping a remarkably low profile on this issue, not wanting to interfere with the workings of the market or appear to discriminate against the incoming Chinese buyers.

After Hong Kong was given back to China in 1999, Canadians started joking about Vancouver becoming “Hongcouver”, with panicked emigrants from the former British colony joining the already numerous contingent from Hong Kong and its Cantonese hinterland in the West Coast city. The idea was that Vancouver would become as ethnically and culturally Chinese as Hong Kong.

Vancouver may well be on the way to becoming another Hong Kong, but not in the way Canadians imagine. A more radical change is in the works. Far from being just an “immigration gateway” as it is currently considered, Vancouver seems destined to become what Hong Kong became in the nineteenth century: an entrepôt port, a colonial foothold, a “concession” even, like the European concessions in imperial China. Only now the boot is on the other foot.

Vancouver, like many big cities, is becoming a place of mobile international élites which have nothing to do with the immediate hinterland. It has been observed how multicultural and ethnically diverse Vancouver is in comparison with its vast hinterland, the Interior of B.C., where the towns consist of nothing but the old-style “white guys and a few Indians”. It’s a different world out there.

In The Revolt of the Elites the late American writer Christopher Lasch noted that the big city is being reshaped by moneyed elites associated with the new globalized economy. To them the big city – anywhere in the world – is a place to work and play, and they rank it in terms of its “liveability” and “world-class” amenities. They are the exact opposite to the ordinary Joe who is rooted in his own location and country.  But this is a contest the ordinary Joe is unlikely to win – for the wind is blowing the other way.