Henry Yu is a professor in the History Department at UBC, where he researches and lectures on the history of migration, racism, and early colonial relations on the West Coast. The following is a version of a speech delivered by Henry at The Mainlander’s Myth of Foreign Investment panel in 2013.
One thing that I find helpful in these conversations is to think about the question, “Who belongs here?” – “here” meaning where we are in Vancouver, but also in Canada in general. Many of you have probably heard that Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States are settler colonies that were built around white supremacy as a way determining who does and does not belong.
When I say white supremacy a lot of people think I’m calling people Nazis, but white supremacy is a lot more complicated than that. In its most basic form, it is an overt structuring of society that gives privileged access to resources to those who could be considered white, starting with European migrants. In reality the process was very uneven, so for a long time if you were from Italy, you weren’t actually white. If you were Catholic, you weren’t white; if you were Jewish, you weren’t white; and, if you were Armenian, you weren’t white.
This phenomenon touched all aspects of society, including the labour movement. If you go back to 1907, the people who were forming unions used white supremacy as one of their key rallying cries. One of the most popular bar songs in 1907 for example – the year of a big anti-Asian riot in Vancouver, organized around anti-Chinese, anti-Punjabi, and anti-Japanese agitation – was called “White Canada Forever.”
Apologists for the past
Today there are a lot of people attempting to apologize for the past, and there are also apologists for the past – but those are two different things. It’s one thing to say we had a racist past and to ask how we can work through the legacies of the history of white supremacy. It’s another thing to say that racism didn’t really exist.
As a historian I have no time for the apologists, because the people who were organizing white supremacy didn’t try to hide it. There was a Ku Klux Klan in Shaughnessy, they didn’t try to hide it. There were also anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-Chinese groups and groups against people who were “Oriental or Asiatic.” There were a lot of things they didn’t like: they didn’t like Native or Aboriginal peoples, and they didn’t like Blacks. It’s very hard today to swallow the position that white supremacist racism didn’t exist then.
We have to always remember that this land is unceded. While violent tactics were certainly used, there was no Battle of Vancouver, Battle of Burnaby or Battle of Chilliwack where the British definitively defeated the Coast Salish peoples and then took their land. And secondly, there were no treaties (except for a few signed on Vancouver Island by the first Governor James Douglas – about 2% of BC), which is the other approach that was bypassed. There was no process where a deal was made: “You give us this and we’ll give you something in return.” So neither of those things happened. By our own laws, by anyone else’s laws, by any moral or legal accountability, this land remains unceded. This land is indigenous land. That’s why 98% of BC is unceded territory and there’s no way around that.
One of the things I think is crucial to consider is, in light of this history, what is the norm here in Vancouver today? One of my friends from university grew up in the Interior of BC and then moved to the Lower Mainland. He looked around at different communities in the region and picked North Vancouver. I said “Why North Vancouver? It’s a heck of a commute downtown over the bridge and all that,” and he said, “Oh, because it’s like how British Columbia used to be.” We’ve been friends for a long time, so I didn’t say, “What the fuck do you mean by that?” But the little guy in the back of my head was going, “What the fuck do you mean by that?” I didn’t press him, but if I had the question would be, “Do you mean it’s overwhelmingly white?”
Building the colonial myth
I’ll throw in another anecdote that I think is important. My kids went to Carnarvon School, it’s an elementary school on 16th and Blenheim. One of the things that they taught my third grader, my eight year old, was about how Canada initially had “free land.” All the kids made posters with, “Canada, free land, free axes, free horses, come to Canada!” This exercise was supposed to be their history lesson about who populated Canada.
I tried to explain to my 8 year old, “Well, it’s free for some people, because at the same time you’re taking it away from the people already here, so it’s kind of stolen land given away as a free gift. I’m not sure I would celebrate this ‘free land’ in this way since it was someone else’s, and especially given that so many other people weren’t allowed to come because of anti-Asian exclusion. So it was only free for some people.” Even though she was 8 at the time, my kid understood the concept of why it was easy to give something away for free if it has been dispossessed from someone else. The idea we still have of Canadian land as “free land” – that’s an example of the legacy of white supremacy.
Remember that 98% of British Columbia has neither been ceded by treaty by the Indigenous peoples who have lived here for over 10,000 years. The unilateral declaration that all of British Columbia is “Crown Land,” as if it was all owned by the King of Britain just because he said so, is a myth which recent Supreme Court cases have fortunately no longer been able to fully uphold. We are beginning to see the legal system consider the legal flimsiness of the colonial dispossession of Indigenous peoples, and that all of this land was taken from someone else. Yet myths about “free” land still remain dominant.
The reason I bring these stories up is to point to the ways in which white supremacy has become so normalized in the mythic history of Canada. It is this process of myth-making that has made it so hard for people to even think about what white supremacy is and what it means.
Anti-Asian racism and the rewriting of history
For another example, why did the Chinese build the railroad? The answer that is usually given is because they were “cheap.” But what does that mean? On the one hand, Chinese workers were cheaper because of racism – because they were seen as more expendable. But there is another factor that often gets overlooked. Chinese labour was cheaper because they were already here, and because it cost less to get to the West coast by water by crossing the Pacific Ocean.
The irony is that from California, to Oregon, to Washington State, to British Columbia, the Chinese built the railroads. In both Canada and the US, the western ends of the railroads were built with Chinese labour. It was only after the railroads were finished that it became cheaper and easier to get to the West coast by land, by riding the same railroads that the Chinese helped build. It’s ironic because as soon as settlers started to come en masse along the cheap transportation that the Chinese had just built, people getting off the trains looked around and said, “What are all these Chinese and Natives doing here? Let’s get rid of them.” And they did, or at least they tried to.
Every time you think of the railroad, remember that the Chinese built it because they were already here to build it. Why that’s important is because it takes a massive amount of narrative violence to change the whole story of British Columbia and Canada. Right from the early years the narrative was changed to, “the Chinese are latecomers who are trying to undercut us and take our jobs away.”
The truth is the exact opposite. Unionization in San Francisco and Vancouver was based on taking jobs away from Chinese and Japanese workers who had arrived from across the Pacific. That’s crucial to understand because it’s one of the ways that we still accept the normalcy of the world that white supremacy built.
What’s wrong with Kitsilano?
I wrote an op-ed piece once asking what’s wrong with Kitsilano? What’s wrong with North Vancouver? What’s wrong with any neighbourhood that is “overwhelmingly white” in a census? People attacked me, asking “What do you have against Kits?” I said, “Nothing, my kids go to school in Kits, my best friends are from Kits.” What’s wrong with Kits is that there is nothing wrong with Kits. If you have a century and a half of white supremacy, you get Kits.
And then when the neighborhood shifts residents go, “Oh shit, there’s non-white people coming in.” When you’ve built a place around white supremacy, anything that destabilizes the status quo becomes abnormal and threatening. What’s wrong with Kitsilano? Nothing, it’s normal. That’s what is wrong. That’s the work that white supremacy did, and continues to do.
In the 1990s, after a wave of immigration from Hong Kong anticipating the transfer of its sovereignty from the UK to China, Vancouver was called “Hongcouver.” People in East Van weren’t saying “Hongcouver,” because East Van was already a diverse place with lots of Chinese. The places that were really resistant to this new diversity were West side communities such as Kerrisdale and Shaughnessy – areas that you could say had been living on the fumes of white supremacy for decades.
Yes, people were coming from Hong Kong. In making the decision between a one-bedroom condo in Hong Kong or a six bedroom mock Tudor mansion in Shaughnessy, many decided to go for the latter (the price at the time was about the same). The discovery that Vancouver’s real estate was relatively inexpensive in comparison to places such as Hong Kong may have been a shock. That some of the discoverers had Chinese faces was probably more shocking. I will talk more about the economic aspect later, but it is important to understand that one of the mainstays of displaying shock throughout Vancouver’s history has been racialized scapegoating.
We should look closely at dynamics that unfold when non-whites move into neighbourhoods that were built around white supremacy, like Shaughnessy or the British Properties. Properties in these areas historically had legal covenants stating, “Do not sell to a non-white person.” As in California and throughout the West Coast, property came with covenants stating, “don’t sell to Jews, don’t sell to Blacks, don’t sell to Natives, don’t sell to Chinese.” Of course, we don’t enforce these covenants legally anymore, but they were there. Particularly in those neighbourhoods that reacted the most emotionally to immigration in the 1990s.
A couple years ago, there was a controversy about whether places like UBC and U of T were “too Asian.” Maclean’s Magazine put “Too Asian?” on the front cover of one of their issues. The question only makes sense in the context of a society built around white supremacy. Questions like this can only go unquestioned if the assumption is that white society is the norm against which everything else is measured. They can only come unquestioned in a settler colonial province, like British Columbia, settled on 98% unceded territory.
Speculative real estate market is the problem
I put these ideas together about who and where we are as a way to understanding our past, but also our present, and to argue that if we want to move forward in solving any of these issues we have to think through the complexities of what it means to live in a settler colonial society. Racialized immigrants have since the beginning been scapegoats, but we also have to understand settlers as experiencing different degrees of class and privilege.
Today a lot of people are undeniably coming to Vancouver with a lot of money, and they are investing in speculative housing, because there is a speculative housing market here. They’re not the problem, speculative capital in real estate is a problem. It is the structure of our city right now. Indeed, from the moment of colonial dispossession of Indigenous land this has been a speculative real estate market. New immigrants didn’t cause this. If we don’t like it, then we need to change it. We have to ask what kind of structure we want to create in its place.
One of the last ironies in this history is the Downtown Eastside. It’s not the Downtown Eastside that people from mainland China want to move into. That’s not where the capital from the People’s Republic of China is flowing into right now. Yet the housing crisis there continues to worsen.
If we’re looking neighbourhood by neighbourhood, Chinatown is incredibly low rent too, and also facing a threat from development. We have so many Chinese seniors that need affordable housing, and yet we continue to build luxury homes for the private market. While wealthy immigrants are often blamed for lack of affordable housing, it is the speculative real estate market that those wealthy enough – Chinese or not – are capitalizing on.
One of the great ironies of the freeway fight in Strathcona and Chinatown was the way that it saved a number of areas. Those areas that were bulldozed, and where public housing was built like at Maclean Park, are still there and still low-income housing. But other places like houses in Strathcona that were saved by a broad-based, multi-racial progressive coalition are now a million-and-a-half dollars each.
This question of private versus public housing is an important one, and I’d throw it in as a last kind of caution as we think about real-estate economics and housing markets. The city that we most often associate with hyper-capitalism and neoliberalism is Hong Kong. Hong Kong was a colonial city, like Vancouver, built upon real estate speculation. And yet compared to Vancouver it is night and day.
Hong Kong has the highest percentage of its residents of any city in the world living in public housing. As much as money has been made in real estate speculation and development in Hong Kong, they managed to also house ¾ of the city’s residents in publicly subsidized housing using profits from that speculation and development. Why can’t we even house 5% of our population in public housing? I just want to throw that out going forward.
I’m a historian, and what I’ve said here builds on the past, because we need to learn from the past as we move into the future. If we’re going to live together here, we have to face our past, including the foundations of white supremacy, and how common it has been to blame Asians for all our ills; but we also need to imagine a future together where we can live together in a just peace, not the wary watchfulness between those who have and those who have not. Blaming Mainland Chinese for the affordability problems of an unaffordable speculative housing market is a red herring that misses the point. History shows, whether through out labour movements or the building of our neighborhoods, that this is a point that has been missed before.