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The Elite Yellow Peril Illustration by Gracia Lam.

The Elite Yellow Peril

A childhood sense that Chinese ethnicity hardly mattered didn’t last long.

WHEN I WAS SEVENTEEN, my friend Kevin and I went exploring in the West Vancouver storm drains. It was a popular activity among local teens; trespassing on city property, you were trapped in narrow, pitch-black underground tunnels that flooded after a strong rainfall.

Kevin was the kind of kid who would rewire the house without telling his parents—coldly logical, low on empathy and self-awareness. As a result, he was the only person I’d ever met, then or since, who seemed truly blind to colour and gender. He was white and male, the default, the blank slate, and could not comprehend any other experience.

That night was my first time, and his umpteenth, in the drains. Kevin walked quickly ahead, vanishing around corners. At each crossroad, he chose the tunnel that sloped down toward where the drains emptied into the ocean. Near the end, he made a sudden detour, to bring us to the entrance underneath one of the two area high schools. 

Despite all the teenaged foot traffic, the tunnels were largely untagged. But here Kevin turned his flashlight to an astonishing, twenty-foot length of wall that was completely covered in graffiti. The paint was several layers thick, each new message or drawing layered on a chaotic background of the preceding scrawl. The newest additions looked wet and vibrant, like they’d been done that afternoon, and the oldest appeared to date back to the seventies.

“It’s the chink hate wall,” he said.

Kevin did not consider my Chinese ethnicity when he said this. He just thought the wall was an interesting detail, a highlight on the storm-drain tour. I ran my hand over the curses, slurs and buck-toothed caricatures. I had encountered the word “chink” exactly twice: in an anti-racism video and in The Jade Peony. If I had been asked to write a description of myself, “Asian” or “Chinese” might have appeared on the third page, if at all.

The following summer, at camp, I had a crush on a boy who, after he tried to brush me off the usual ways—ignoring me, ordinary meanness—finally said, “Look, I don’t do Asian girls.” I was a teenager, obsessed with what people thought of me. I had thought of a million reasons for a boy to reject me, as slight as a stray hair or a pimple, but somehow this had never occurred to me.

If you asked me to describe myself now, as an adult, “Asian” would be in the first paragraph. Maybe the first sentence.

IN 1933, the Guinness family—the enormous aristocratic clan that had ruled nineteenth-century industry in the UK—began developing 4,700 acres in the recently incorporated district of West Vancouver, a neighbourhood my family would one day call home. It is an area of astonishing geographic riches: a majestic, south-facing mountainside that slopes down to the Burrard Inlet, an ocean corridor with views to rival anywhere on earth. Under the name British Pacific Properties, they set to work on a sprawling country club and a $6 million bridge that would con- nect the isolated area with the bustling metropolis of Vancouver. A silent film advertising the new estates shows a smoking field of stumps and felled Douglas fir trees, a golf course crudely cut into an otherwise pristine landscape. This image turns the stomach of a modern viewer, who requires little green lies, but the language used in the text interstitials is remarkably similar to how the area is marketed today: “a perfect residential development for discriminating clients.”

The British Properties, as they were eventually called, were an elite enclave conceived in the midst of the Great Depression. Local legend claims the name was meant to emphasize Anglo- exclusivity—no Irish, no Scots, no continentals.

British Pacific Properties tried to turn “West Van” into a white haven. By the time I lived there, this dream had been crushed with tremendous irony.

MY PARENTS MOVED HERE IN 1992. Since leaving Hong Kong, they had lived in Toronto, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary and Edmonton, moving west as they raised three kids on a civil servant’s salary. My father’s office was near one end of the bridge built by the Guinness family. Their realtor refused to show my parents houses in West Van, in spite of my father’s insistence. “You can’t afford anything there,” she kept saying. “There’s nothing even close to your price range.”

My dad eventually found a house on his own, a rickety, peach-coloured eyesore in the British Properties that was the bane of the neighborhood. It was separated from the highway by a thin wooden fence, and every few years someone would mistake the end of our street for an onramp and plow right through. My father spent the rest of his life fixing that house and that fence; he spent his last days there, and my mother lives there still. It has more than quadrupled in value.

Their story is typical: an ambitious, upwardly mobile immigrant family who saw their burgeoning wealth as more meaningful than whether or not they would be welcome in a traditionally white neighborhood. Caucasian homeowners still filled most of the houses, but the arrival of many young families like mine—from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Eastern and Southern Asia—spawned a remarkably diverse elementary and high-school population.

Growing up in West Van was the only time in my life when being Asian did not seem like the most salient fact of my existence. Leveled by class privilege, my classmates transcended stereotype. None of the cliques were racially homogenous; our quarterback was Iranian one year, white the next, Japanese the year after that. There were Korean potheads, Pakistani violinists, British-Ukrainian math champions. A Taiwanese girl played the mother of an ethnically Jewish boy in the school play, and nobody applauded the progressive choice because nobody noticed. Interracial couples of any combination went without comment (of more relevance: who was more popular?). For a few, brief years, I got to believe I succeeded and failed on my own merits, without wondering how things would be different had I been white.

THAT DREAM of colour-blind opportunity is not how the story of my neighbourhood is told these days. Vancouver, with its endless housing bubble and brutal inequality, cannot see West Van’s hill of mansions as anything other than a grotesque joke. And as we are for so much else, the Chinese are blamed. According to Canadian Business, West Van’s residents are “hyper-wealthy Asian émigrés, oil barons, Malaysian royals.”

Supposedly, white homeowners realized they were sitting on millions of dollars, sold their houses to Asian immigrants and were then shocked as the prices skyrocketed in a market flooded with money from mainland China. Tsur Sommerville, a professor in urban economics and real estate at the University of British Columbia, provided this narrative at a panel talk in March of this year. He warned against racism shortly before blasting the West Van homeowners who ceded the neighbourhood to “Mandarin-speakers.”

Yet Statistics Canada identifies Farsi as the most common mother tongue of the non-official languages in West Vancouver in 2011, at 8.1 percent of the population. Chinese (not otherwise specified) and Mandarin combined make up 6.6 percent, with German in third at 2.4 percent. These numbers are essentially unchanged from 2006 and 2001 (Chinese is down slightly from 7 percent in 2001). Region-by-region data on immigration ended with the long-form census, but the percentage of immigrants remained relatively constant between 1986 and 2006, fluctuating between 32 and 37 percent. Strictly speaking, “Mandarin- speakers” compose just 3.2 percent— but that’s not really who we’re talking about, is it?

IN A NOTORIOUS 2010 ARTICLE originally headlined “‘Too Asian’?", Maclean’s magazine suggested that Canada’s university campuses are being overrun by hyper-achieving Asian students. This piece struck such a nerve because it distilled a broad fear down to a specific, reasonable-sounding complaint. Discussion of Vancouver’s housing market goes one better: it uses the real problem of absentee foreign investors, responsible for the city’s increasingly inaccessible housing market, to legitimize the fake problem of a relatively high Asian population—even though these issues are diametrically opposed. The Asian people who are here cannot, logically, be the ones who are not here.

I can only imagine how frightening it was for the former generation of homeowners in West Van to look out their windows and see all those brown and yellow children playing outside. When their white kids were beaten out for awards or university admission, they saw themselves as losers of a cultural war, and the media agreed: West Van—and the rest of Vancouver, Toronto, university campuses, all of white, English-speaking Canada—is lost to the Chinese. Well-rounded white kids, with social lives, extracurriculars and the capacity for joy, don’t stand a chance against Tiger-Mom-reared wunderkinds.

IN A NEW YORK MAGAZINE ESSAY, Wesley Yang points out that any academic advantage from an Asian upbringing vanishes quickly with age. Even in in- dustries with disproportionately high numbers of Asian workers, we’re still vastly underrepresented in the higher rungs. We’re lawyers who never become partners, engineers who never become executives, scientists who never get tenure. A study found that hypothetical employees with Asian last names were consistently rated as lower for “leadership potential” than those with Caucasian last names. Statistically, the “bamboo ceiling” begins before you finish university. In every industry, Asians gravitate to positions with the highest workload and lowest reward, as we’re expected to. Yang concludes that there are two options for marginalized groups: work twice as hard, or “fuck all y’all."

Asians are known for choosing the former option, held up as the “model minority” for working within the system rather than overturning it. For never challenging white leadership. But now, though our compliance and kowtowing hasn’t changed, we’ve become a threat based on simple demographics: there are just too damn many of us.

ON MY FIRST DAY AT UNIVERSITY, a representative of the school’s pan-Asian club approached me outside of the cafeteria. They were having a party for prospective members. At the time, “Asian” didn’t seem like much of a unifying feature. I naively wondered what a third-generation Korean-American has in common with someone who just got off a plane from Cambodia. Turns out, to a lot of people, we’re all the same. We share experiences because those experiences are forced upon us.

On the night of the party, I split a few bottles of wine with a high-school friend, and we decided it might be fun to attend. We burst into the student-centre ballroom, grabbed some chow mein from a warming tray, and joined one of the circles of inward-facing chairs.

My friend specifically, intentionally, sat beside the only two Caucasian-looking people in the room. He threw his arm around one of them. “We white guys have to stick together,” he slurred.

My friend is, and looks, Chinese.

We told this story to each other again and again over the years. It became less funny to me over time. My friend wasn’t just being an asshole; when we were eighteen, he could get drunk and literally forget that he was Asian, because it had never been a major part of his identity. He was so many other things, and he was born and raised and schooled in West Van, in Canada. “Asian” was on his third page.

I doubt it stayed there.

AFTER THAT NIGHT, I would be confronted by my “Asianness” every day, by the casual racism of friends and coworkers and the aggressive racism of drive-by strangers. And, as a good Asian, I didn’t complain about it. Because of our perceived takeover and economic status, I’d risk dismissal in the same manner as modern feminists: as an uppity whiner of minor or imagined suffering. Being yellow is, after all, generally not as hard as being black or brown or red, just as being a woman in North America is not as hard as being a woman in Saudi Arabia, and arranging grievances hierarchically is a tried-and-true method of invalidating them.

Most people I’ve met arranged their lives in the opposite direction of mine—they grew up in restrictive, oppressive environments and escaped to the relative inclusivity of the big city—but I wonder if anyone reaches adulthood feeling like they have the power to decide how large a role their ethnic identity and pride will play in their lives. I can see how that’s asking too much; nobody has that kind of self-determination. Other people always decide the relative importance of your traits. Maybe your competency isn’t as important as your gender, or maybe your choice of hobbies isn’t as important as who you fuck. I lived for seventeen years before I saw the chink hate wall—buried underground, buried beneath concern for university life and the housing market and the English language. I lived with a heart-upending view of the mountains and the sea. I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t lucky.