Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

How Boring

Nov 19, 2015

Back in May The Economist magazine got up our noses here in Vancouver by declaring our city "mind-numbingly boring." How could they say such a thing, we fumed? What about the mountains? the bike lanes? the sushi? Weren't we Paris by the Pacific?

However, The Economist had a point. If the city  itself is not boring, its obsession with real estate is. Vancouver was created as the result of a huge real estate deal -- the grant of land to the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s -- and land speculation has been in the city's DNA ever since.

Most recently the rapid rise of house values has been the incessant topic of newspaper headlines and dinner party conversation, definitely to the point of tedium. Who or what to "blame" for this property bubble has been much-debated but most commentators seem to be convinced that it has something to do with "offshore" -- i.e. Chinese -- money. Chinese tycoons supposedly are parking their money in the Vancouver housing market, forcing up prices and in the process creating the dual problems of heritage home demolition (we are told they don't like old houses) and empty neighbourhoods (we are told they do not actually live in the houses and condos they are buying as investments).

Whether any of this is true I will leave to the experts to debate. (The always informed Frances Bula recently linked to this series of articles which takes a revisionist look at the conventional narrative.) What strikes me as an historian is a strange irony. Back in the 1900s the city was an unfriendly place for Asian immigrants. They were unwelcome, people said, not only because of their race but because they were willing to work for peanuts and were believed to be stealing jobs from the white majority. Employers loved to give the newcomers work because they could underpay them, but the unions and the xenophobes wanted to keep them out. So we had the head tax, and the 1907 race riots, and then, in 1923 a total ban on Chinese immigration.

Today once again some people view the Chinese as a threat to the city, not because of their race, but because they are distorting the housing market. A century ago we scapegoated them because they were poor. Now we scapegoat them because they are rich.

Isn't this getting a little boring?