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Contexts of Interpretation: Assessing Immigrant Reception in Richmond, Canada

Article excerpt


Since the mid-1980s, two of the most noteworthy developments in the social geography of metropolitan Vancouver have been the rapid increase in the number of ethnic-Chinese residents and the emergence of new patterns of ethnic-Chinese residential settlement. Between 1981 and 1996, primarily as a result of international immigration, the number of ethnic-Chinese residents in the Vancouver census metropolitan area (CMA) trebled, rising from around 83,800 to 264,225 people (Davis and Hutton 1989; British Columbia Department of Statistics 1998). (1) During this period a considerable number of those arriving to the Vancouver CMA from China, Taiwan, and especially Hong Kong entered Canada as business-class immigrants possessing substantial human and financial capital. Many moved directly into upper-class and upper middle-class neighbourhoods in Vancouver and its surrounding suburbs where ethnic-Chinese residents had not previously settled in large numbers (Mitchell 1993; Ley 1995, 1998; Hiebert 1999). Indeed, by 1996 residents of Chinese ethnic origin were well-represented in all but a few neighbourhoods within the City of Vancouver, while the proportion of metropolitan Vancouver's ethnic-Chinese population living in suburban locations had increased from 29.3 percent in 1986 to 49.3 percent in 1996 (Hiebert 1999).

Although the contemporary immigration-driven growth and redistribution of metropolitan Vancouver's ethnic-Chinese community have been relatively easy to map, academic and media commentators have had a much more difficult time assessing the significance of these developments. Given the long-standing intellectual and popular interest in examining the characteristics, movements, and settlement patterns of ethnic and racial groups -- especially non-white, non-European groups -- it is not surprising that much analysis and debate has focused on the actions and impact of recent ethnic-Chinese immigrants themselves (Driver 1992; Livingstone 1994). The extent to which these immigrants are rewriting abiding narratives of immigrant social assimilation, for example, continues to be the source of considerable speculation (Collins 1994; Dolphin 1994; North 1996; Hiebert 1999). Similarly, assessments of the consequences of transnational ties and co-ethnic affiliations for the economic success of ethnic-Chinese immigrants in Greater Vancouver have produced mixed interpretations. Juxtaposed against widespread accounts of economic prosperity among contemporary ethnic-Chinese migrants entering Canada (and Vancouver) under business immigration programmes, recent research has presented evidence of considerable economic inactivity among this cohort, with attendant negative socal and psychological impacts (Mitchell 1993; Dolphin 1995; Ley 1995, 1999).

The characteristics and settlement outcomes of recent ethnic-Chinese immigrants are likely to sustain academic interest for some time in the future, and new issues will surely emerge. This paper, however, examines a no less contentious, yet comparatively understudied, aspect of the growth and redistribution of metropolitan Vancouver's ethnic-Chinese community: the reception of ethnic-Chinese immigrants, and attendant social and physical changes, by long-term established residents. Surprisingly, in light of the increased attention paid over the past twenty years to representations of racial and ethnic difference -- exemplified by the social constructionist perspective in racial and ethnic studies (see, for example, Said 1978; Jackson 1985; Anderson 1991; Jackson and Penrose 1993) -- there has been little sustained research into how established residents have responded to recent ethnic-Chinese immigration in the metropolitan Vancouver context, and the ways in which race and ethnicity figure in their reactions. This is not to say, though, that commentators have been completely silent on this issue, and the first section of this article critically assesses the body of work on immigrant reception in metropolitan Vancouver, one that has focused on the critical reactions of `white', European-origin residents in upper-middle class and upper class neighbourhoods to ethnic-Chinese immigration and local housing stock transformations. …