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Why the recent spike in anti-Asian hate in Metro Vancouver?

Originally Published May 16, 2021 in the Vancouver Sun 

There is a Chinese saying about the month of May, when we celebrate Asian Heritage Month. It is that the coming of spring brings sunshine and warmth but is also a time for sudden reversals of weather, such as a cold snap. Such is the climate for this year’s AHM celebrations, which have been tinged by the recent rise in racist acts against Canadians of Asian descent.

There is now widespread recognition of the spike in physical violence, verbal abuse and online hate against Asian Canadians. The response from the powers that be, from cabinet ministers to law enforcement, has been unequivocal in denouncing such acts, and in some cases matched by fresh support for anti-racism initiatives. But there has been a deafening silence on the key question: What explains the recent rise in anti-Asian racism?

Systemic discrimination against Asian Canadians is at least 150 years old and is in many respects less of a problem today than just a few decades ago. So why the spike in racist acts?

This question is particularly urgent in the case of anti-Asian racism in Vancouver, which was recently branded in a Bloomberg article as the “Anti-Asian Hate Crime Capital of North America.” You may not agree with the tagline, but it is telling that a foreign publication is asking hard questions that many locals are studiously avoiding.

I believe the answer has to do with a cascade of false narratives that emerged in the popular consciousness over the last few years. Racism always starts with a falsehood and racists will latch onto any convenient distortion as an excuse for hate and exclusion. In our time, anti-Asian racism was fed by exaggerated accounts of foreigners (code for “Chinese”) buying up real estate in such numbers that they single-handedly made Vancouver unaffordable for locals.

Layered on top of this was the idea that most of this foreign (again “Chinese”) money was dirty to start with, and that Vancouver had become the (Chinese) money-laundering capital of the world. Throw in the insinuation that the dirty money came from trafficking of fentanyl and the slander was complete.

This concatenation of half-truths nurtured a racist demon in our community that was unleashed when COVID-19 struck.

That Chinese buyers of Vancouver real estate are not the reason for housing unaffordability should be evident by now. Is anyone still suggesting that the giddy rise in Vancouver house prices over the last year is due to foreign buyers, let alone Chinese purchasers?

Even if the facts point to a different conclusion, false narratives die hard. Which is why we cannot simply say that anti-Asian hate is wrong and pledge to do something about it without addressing the false narratives that fuelled this hate in the first place. In this respect, I salute Attorney-General David Eby for his courageous renunciation of a deeply flawed 2015 study that he had previously championed. This study identified owners of a handful of properties as “foreign” because their names were spelled in the manner adopted by the People’s Republic of China. It was, in a sense, the index case in our current wave of anti-Asian racist contagion.

None of the above is to suggest that we do not call out covert, unsavoury or criminal activities in our real estate market, casinos and alleyways. But we call them out because they are covert, unsavoury and criminal, not because they involve Asian Canadians. And if Asian Canadians are, in fact, implicated in some of these activities, as they inevitably will be, let’s also make sure that they are not singled out. As just one example, money laundering in B.C. is often associated with former nationals of the People’s Republic of China. But how many people are aware that the B.C. government’s 2019 report on money laundering points to European and North American tax avoiders as the main source of “dirty money?”

We are halfway through Asian Heritage Month but only a fraction into our understanding of anti-Asian hate and how to deal with it. Even as we celebrate Asian heritage through May, let’s combat the falsehoods that foster Asian hate all year round.