The Canadian West Coast is a fusion of high mountain low seas. Just above the calm Pacific waters, lies a city modern and sleek. The tranquil landscape is in stark contrast to the bustling streets housing the hustle of some 5 million people. It is in this urban layout that over 400,000 ethnic Chinese have decided to establish their home.
Out of a handful of coastal cities, Vancouver has become synonym with metropolitan living. Neon signs light up the downtown core, Skytrains speed past picturesque urban decays and skyscrapers tower over busy streets. Yet, Vancity’s seeming frenzy is balanced by the serenity offered only minutes away. To escape the constraint of everyday life, a walk in Stanley Park can do great wonders.
Of course, the Chinese migration story was not triggered by the beauty of the West Coast. Like most minorities, the Chinese flew west seeking better opportunities. When BC joined the Confederation in 1871, the Dominion government agreed to construct a railway connecting East and West Canada. To minimize cost, Chinese laborers were employed to build the structure. Around the same time, the Gold Rush attracted tens of thousands of Chinese people, establishing a permanent base for Chinese residency in Western Canada.
Yet, racial segregation remains prominent. The federal government began collecting head tax from minorities and passed anti-Chinese bills as with their Australian counterpart. When the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed in 1947, the already established Chinese-Canadian population began receiving their families from abroad. In the 1990s, another wave of the Chinese population moved to Vancouver prior to the Hong Kong handover.
These stages of mass migration led Vancouver to become the “most Asian city” outside of Asia.
In the past decade or so, Toronto and Vancouver have been the go-to cities for new immigrants. With Van’s history and modernity, countless ‘fuerdai’-children of the nouveau riche in China have been enrolled in BC’s education system. Sending their children abroad serve a number of purposes. Aside from the obvious education and healthcare benefits Canada provides, some left to avoid sociopolitical scandals (yes corruption, I see you), some to land a citizenship or attain property, and others to flaunt their wealth without needing to hide it from the Chinese public.
As such, recent years saw to investors from mainland China blamed for skyrocketing real estate prices and housing unaffordability. Coincidentally, I came across Ultra Rich Asian Girls, a Vancouver-based reality web series showcasing the affluent lifestyles of the (daughters of the) rich and famous.
With these claims in mind, I arrived in Vancouver looking for Chinese-dominated casinos and streets, bars and restaurants.
My stay in Vancouver was quite different from usual. Located in the Joyce-Collingwood neighborhood, the house is a traveler’s haven. With 7 roommates and lots more coming and going, ‘Neverland’ was always full of energy. Aside from students and travelers, street musicians and office professionals lived in the home. The one place I could relate such a venture to was my brief stay in Berlin.
Obviously, it wasn’t here that I stumbled upon the noted Canadian Chinatown.
The day after my arrival, one of the housemates- Thibaud, a civil engineer from France, took me around Vancouver. As it was early December, I was lucky enough to witness a city without the thickness of winter fog that crept in days after. Following a walk around downtown, we stumbled upon the taping of The Flash. Being ‘Hollywood North’, the Vancouver area serves as the filming location for a large film and television production industry. So it’s no surprise for the city to act as a star-spotting getaway for Canadians and the like.
Afterwards, we headed to Stanley Park- possibly the most noteworthy attraction in the area. The park itself was vast. Due to the near-zero weather, there were little people walking around as would during summer days. We decided to walk along the coast towards Third Beach for the best sunset view.
There is the option to drive the ring road, walk, or rent a bicycle in Stanley Park. No matter the mode of transport, it’s worth touring the entire ring road which will lead you to Third Beach. With the best water in the Lower Mainland beaches, it is a treat to relax against the many logs, people-watch or simply enjoy the view of the North Shore. My luck goes that just moments before sunset, a blanket of fog washed ashore. The entirety of the Vancouver skyline disappeared within minutes’ time.
That evening, I contacted one of my friends who lived downtown and crashed his place for the night. While talking about rental prices, we again came across the topic of Chinese investors.
It was true, he said- Chinese buyers have contributed heavily to the rise in housing cost. However, lots of domestic and foreign non-Chinese investors have been discounted from such blames. Moreover, Chinese investment in Van’s housing market has dropped drastically after the city introduced the foreign buyer tax. Nonetheless, the Chinese population in the city remains potent.
The next day, I decided to embark on a venture as I do in all cities- googling a cheap eatery downtown and walking over no matter the distance. I’ve always been anti-public transportation when traveling. In addition to the added pennies, it forgoes a large part of the city often ousted by locals and tourists alike. Yet, for me, it is the most standard neighborhoods that may best represent the feel of a city. As such, I often find myself dragging my feet along highways and deserted streets many claim unsafe. It is with dumb luck that I often walk unscathed and stumble upon the most interesting of situations/ scenery.
I found Viet Sub Vietnamese Cuisine, a little-hidden spot on Robson Street with Viet subs to die for. The meal took about 5 minutes to come out- the baguette toasted to a crisp yet maintain a fluffy center. A combination of juicy flavors topped with cilantro served on a fitting amount of ingredients made the first bite taste like heaven. Maybe it was because I’ve yet a meal in 12 hours, but as a budget traveler, I’d be lying if I didn’t say this was one of my better experimental foodie ventures. After snatching a seat at its crowded bar stool, I gulped down a $5 special sub and began my urban exploration for the day.
However, my luck had run out after a couple days in BC. The city was incredibly foggy, with the top half of most skyscrapers out of sight. The only lively place that night was Gastown, a popular area with loads of hip eateries and indie galleries.
Gastown was Vancouver’s first downtown core. Over time, it became a social hub integrating contemporary culture, boutiques, and other small businesses. With the number of bars and restaurants, the district carries on a vivid nightlife no matter the weather.
That night, a friend invited me to a female architects’ party in the area. Filled with wine and cheese, the women spoke of public space in the Vancouver context. It was such an interesting sight, thinking that a year ago, I was in India exploring the question of women’s access to public space in Delhi.
Despite the number of things to do in the city, the Harbour Front remains my favorite spot. During the couple days of my stay, I spent numerous hours walking along the waters. The beauty of Vancouver’s harbor not only reside in its photographic nature but also in its assertion of Van’s diverse cityscape. Like Istanbul’s cross-strait contrast in East and West or Shanghai’s cross-river contrast in old and new, one side of Van’s harbor exhibits its futuristic skyline while the other captures the grandiose designs of mother nature.
It’s the beauty of contradiction that truly captives me.
For Aisha, there are a ton of budget activities in addition to the selected few during my brief introduction to Vancity.
One of my first destinations was the Pacific Spirit Regional Park which offers a network of trails contained in nearly 4 miles of forest. I was mesmerized by the old growth trees and the smell of cedar that filled the air. I didn’t mind getting lost because I eventually stumbled upon Spanish Bank beach. That is what I call a rewarding hike.
The Capilano Suspension Bridge Park is one of Vancouver’s most popular tourist attractions and with good reason. The suspension bridge itself is 450 feet across and 230 feet high, which made for a thrilling walk over the Capilano River and a fabulous view of the surrounding rainforest. I also got to explore a network of footbridges, stairs, and platforms. I’d stop occasionally to read nature-inspired quotes that were left at different places in this labyrinth in the trees. One that stood out to me was: “Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth…” – Herman Hesse.
Located on Vancouver’s waterfront, Canada Place is a well-known national landmark where a number of community events are hosted. Although nothing was happening the day I went, I was still treated to a spectacle. You can take a walk on the Canadian Trail which is divided into 13 equal sections to represent the 10 provinces and three territories of Canada or stare at the Sails of Light that are illuminated every night with a variety of vibrant colors and displays. The glimmering reflection of the sails on the water was pretty magical.
There aren’t too many places where a mountain with an elevation of 1,231m can easily be reached from downtown. Known as “The Peak of Vancouver”, it is one of the city’s premier attractions. During the winter, Grouse Mountain attracts skiers, snowboarders and sledders galore, but in the summertime, it’s a popular hiking destination. I decided to try ziplining for the first time and I screamed so loud, I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone on that mountain heard me. If you take the lift up the mountain, you can see most of the city below – it’s a truly breathtaking view.
As for Aisha, dense forests, stunning beaches, majestic mountains and friendly faces are some of the many reasons to visit this Canadian hot-spot. And one of the biggest perks of taking a trip to Vancity is that you can have a great time without spending an arm and a leg. As the third-largest Canadian city with a population of 2.5 million, she amazed at how laid-back the locals are. But after just a week of spending time outdoors and enjoying nature, she was feeling pretty relaxed herself. You can find Aisha, a creative entrepreneur, marketing strategist and singer-songwriter who lives in Toronto, Canada, on intunemarketing.ca.
After half a week in Vancouver, I can’t say for certain that I felt like I’ve lived in Chinatown. Aside from Chinese as obviously the third (sometimes only) official language on billboards and advertisements, I didn’t encounter as many of my people as I thought I would. Maybe the cold has pushed the majority of wealthy Chinese abroad and kept others indoors. Or maybe, my area of tactical observance is poorly selected.
Personally, I think it’s my upbringing in Toronto, a city so diverse in its sociocultural background that my unconsciously trained mind has adapted to the many faces of Canada.