Rising rhetoric of a new “yellow peril”

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1921's Yellow Peril
The 1921 “Ethnic Outreach” Campaign
(Courtesy Past Tense Vancouver)

The complaints are familiar – “Asian immigrants are taking our jobs,” “Asian immigrants are buying our property and keeping us out.”

Instead of being complaints found in the Richmond Review’s letters-to-the-editor section, however, these are the complaints that were found in a Liberal Party advertisement in 1921 that was posted on a Vancouver history site.

Our history – the history of Vancouver, BC, and Canada – especially that of Asian immigration is one fraught with historical wrongs. The Chinese head tax, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese internment, the Komagata Maru, all are racially-based historical wrongs that we continue to live with today.

While we don’t quite have an Asiatic Exclusion League actively campaigning today against Asian immigration today, the complaints that prompted the Liberal Party of 1921 to pledge to keep British Columbia “white” are still around, and they seem to keep rising in strength. Indeed, it appears that there is a rise of a new rhetoric of “yellow peril.”

Property speculation: They’re taking our land!

The new yellow peril rhetoric is immediately observable in Vancouver’s perennial hot-topic debate: the housing crisis and property speculation. It has almost become vogue to enter the debate on the housing crisis with the argument that one of the primary reasons that people cannot afford to live in the Lower Mainland is because our market has been distorted by foreign buyersproperty speculators from places like Hong Kong, from China, from places that are Asian and have Asian people living in them.

It’s so prevalent a myth that Vancouver condo marketing firm MAC Marketing Solutions was recently busted using its own employees to pose as Asian students whose rich parents were going to buy property for them. Apparently, MAC thought that the way to tell their story best was to play into the prevalent myth. Sadly, even ‘progressive’ politicos and commentators get sucked into this myth, tweeting and campaigning about the dangers of “foreign” buyers purchasing up all of Vancouver’s real estate.

The truth, of course, is somewhat different from the rumoured “yellow peril” snapping up all of Vancouver’s over-priced, under-sized, and completely unaffordable housing. While property speculation as a function of an overheated property market is truly one of the root-est causes of Vancouver’s constant housing crisis, it’s hardly because of Asians buying our homes.

UBC professor Andy Yan wrote an excellent report using BC Assessment Data that showed that only 1% of property assessments were sent to addresses in Asia – 0.6% to China, 0.3% to Japan, and 0.2% to Hong Kong. This is a rather reliable indicator of “foreign” ownership – if the tax assessments are being sent to people who live, well, elsewhere. 93.8% of the BC Assessment slips reported on were mailed in Canada.

Instead of blaming Asians, perhaps we should be blaming Burnaby residents. Or those Missioners. Or the Saskatchewanians. Certainly not the Chinese. But don’t tell faux-progressive Geoff Meggs – who is concerned about foreign investment. All 1% of it.

One truth of this matter is that it isn’t foreign buyers that are causing this issue. Unless you count rich Canadians, who have enough disposable income to property speculate, who might be Asian. But then, that’s a twisted definition of foreign, isn’t it? Not that that’s stopping anyone.

Labour: They’re taking our jobs!

The scene is a rocky mountain face. Chinese workers, speaking Mandarin, Cantonese, and Taishanese, who have travelled to Canada for work, are toiling away, digging and blasting tunnels, carting away piles of rubble.

Is this the HD Mining coal mine in northern BC? Nope. It’s the construction of the railway to Vancouver, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of the first times that Canada wholesale imported temporary foreign workers – without regard for their lives – was for the construction of the CPR. Yet another historical wrong in BC, where the Chinese workers were seen as essentially disposable, doing work that no white person was apparently willing to do. Or at least that was probably the justification.

And it’s the justification again today, as multinational resource extraction firms set up shop in northern BC and bring in more temporary foreign workers. Neoliberal globalization and free-range free-trade has allowed companies to cross borders easier than diplomats on trade missions, and they are after natural resources. They are also after the most profit they can get, so the mining companies in northern BC have glommed onto the idea of temporary foreign workers again – because they can be paid lower wages, don’t get the same benefits as Canadian workers, and are often un-unionized and unprotected.

The union angle might have allowed the labour movement in Canada to step up and organize the temporary foreign workers, if they had argued that everyone who risks life and limb in Canada deserves the same rights, the same union wage, the same union fee, and the same lunch break.

Well, might have.


Sadly, BC labour has rushed to a predictably quasi-xenophobic position arguing that jobs should go to “Canadians first,” pointing at the fact that temporary foreign workers speak Mandarin and that the multinational corporations (and their capital) that come from China do too.

Radio ads sponsored by the BC Federation of Labour trot out “Canadians first!” rhetoric that hides xenophobic and racist stereotypes that are the same as the Liberal campaign ad from 1921.

One of the truths of this matter is that part of the issue is that neoliberalism has removed borders for capital, and multinational corporations now float freely across national divisions. Whenever they encounter wages that are too high – like in BC – they do what they can to bring them down. In the case of northern BC mines like HD Mining’s site, the temporary foreign worker program allows companies to import labour cheaply – which is sadly similar to the past history of work in BC that involved drilling and digging through rock.

Richmond’s Signs: Speak white!

Perhaps you’ve heard of the campaign in Richmond to ban require Chinese-language signs to display English translations. Couched in language about ensuring that retail shops and business in Richmond are “accesible to all” (read: in English), the campaign has garnered the support of at least 1,000 people who have apparently signed a petition calling on the Richmond City Council to pass a bylaw to require business to display signs in English, vis Québec’s Loi 101.

There is a certain easy logic that appears on the face of the issue, that of the sensibility of English-language signs, but it is flawed logic – there is no legal requirement in Richmond, Vancouver, or anywhere in BC for signs to be posted in specific languages. And indeed, while commentator Alise Mills fretted on CKNW on Friday, March 22, about violations of the Official Languages Act (which applies only to the federal government), and was outraged that Richmond’s bylaw officers did not enforce it (the officers’ job title, Bylaw Enforcement Officers, would tend to preclude their enforcing federal statute), businesses are free to post signs in whichever language they might like.

Richmond’s “speak English” movement pretends to fight for equality and harmony.  It does this by using noble language and appealing to falsities about “official languages.”  The movement, however, hides an ugly assertion that English is the only acceptable language for business.  It hides an assertion that white people are so terrified and insulted by Chinese-language signs that they flee No. 3 road in terror.  It hides an assertion that only English is appropriate in Canada.

Intriguingly, and as an aside, the same people who decry Richmond’s so-called inaction on the apparent overflow of 中国文 Chinese-language signs would very likely also decry the imposition of French language laws in Montréal. But I digress.

The “speak English” movement hides, behind its noble language of ensuring accessibility to the declining percentage of the population that speaks only English, a fantastic amount of xenophobia and Anglo-supremacism. Couched in terms of “protecting Canadian culture” is a fear of Asian culture overtaking the settler culture that has colonized Turtle Island. Hidden in the argument that we need to promote “racial harmony” is a fear that races other than white may dare assert their own identities.

Couched in Richmond’s rising “speak white” movement is a rhetoric of racism and yellow peril.

Education: They’re taking over our schools!

If taking our houses and our jobs, and not allowing us to speak English in stores in Richmond wasn’t enough, Maclean’s Magazine bravely showed us that our universities might even be – gasp – too Asian.

Playing up such stereotypes as model immigrants and the “Asian ethic” of playing piano, the violin, and getting straight-As, Maclean’s ran an article that told us that Asians were taking over our universities.

Included in this fascinating analysis of racial harmony and the post-racial marvel that is Canada were assertions that some universities were just too Asian. After all, all the white kids apparently go to Queen’s – why would you go to UBC if you weren’t Chinese?  The concern over Asians taking over our institutions of higher learning was palpable in the article in question. There seemed to be simply too many Asians in our universities.

While Maclean’s has fully retreated, ex post facto changing the title of the article to “The Enrolment Controversy,” the piece certainly exposed one leading edge of the new yellow peril – one that even Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, has highlighted, when, along with hinting that some BC politicians could be under “Asian influence,” CSIS head Richard Fadden warned that Asian students at Canadian universities might be, well, learning things and taking knowledge back to Asia.

Quick Wins: Appealing to both sides?

While the BC Liberals of 1921 might have pledged to keep British Columbia “white,” “Today’s BC Liberals” (their campaign name, apparently) are campaigning in a different direction. Embracing diversity, Premier Christy Clark has declared herself Filipina à coeur, danced Bhangra, and adopted a Chinese name.

While attending multicultural events certainly makes electoral sense – and provides considerable access to good food – it turns out that the BC Liberals were going even further. In their “ethnic outreach” plans the BC Liberals pledged, in a leaked campaign document, to apologize for the historical wrongs and bring large ethnic events to Vancouver as a way to score “quick wins” amongst ethnic voters – and apparently win an election.

While it seems the Head Tax apology has been derailed, the Liberals are not apologizing for the ethnic outreach plan that gave rise to it, saying instead that ethnic outreach “just makes sense” in a diverse province. This argument is interesting, as it both recognizes the diverse population that inhabits our unceded Coast Salish Territories, but immediately tokenizes the very groups it claims to be embracing.

The media reporting of the “ethnic outreach” scandal, also known as “Quick Wins,” has focused on the public money spent for partisan purposes. Indeed, this is a big thing, as it means that the Liberal government used public funds to conduct campaign work.

But missing in this analysis is the tokenistic approach the Liberals have taken to the migrant communities. The reasoning appears to be thus: if a politician (predominantly white, male, and old) dons “ethnic garb” and attends “ethnic events,” the “ethnics” will vote for him.

This is an insultingly simplistic analysis that appeals to effectively tribal urges. Do I, as a person of predominantly Scottish and English heritage, vote for the politician who wears a kilt the best and makes the most impressive bangers-and-mash? Absolutely not. So why do we expect Asians to vote en masse for the politician who mangles Mandarin the best and smiles at a (hopefully imitation) shark fin dinner?

While this is perhaps the flip-side of the rising tide of “yellow peril” rhetoric, it gives rise to low-key complaints about “communities of influence” in politics, with the vaunted ‘Indo-Canadian’ community being so often seen as the kingmaker in candidate nominations, complete with complaints about buses of people of Indian heritage allegedly flooding nomination battles. There is where the yellow peril hides, both in its tokenistic pandering and its fear.

The real problems

The real problems that face all of us that have settled in Vancouver are not ones of the Asians versus the rest of us.

The housing crisis is real, and not because 1% of the properties are owned by people in Asia, but because housing is seen as a commodity to buy and flip for profit. While 93.8% of those who are purchasing property for investment live in Canada, we are blaming the miniscule less-than-one-percent who live across an ocean. This yellow peril is a way to distract from the fact that made-in-Canada policies have created a housing market that is too expensive and inaccessible. Our governments have created situations where a 600 square foot apartment can be sold for more than a million dollars, and no one from Hong Kong has forced this upon us. Why are we not looking for ways to solve the housing problem? Sadly, it’s at least partially because we’re too busy blaming the Asians that we are not thinking about, for example, co-operative approaches to housing, where we could build housing that can be seen as co-operative and commonly held.

Instead of fighting for better employment conditions for everyone who works in BC, fair wages, better representation, and more jobs for all, we’re busy blaming Asian workers who are imported under extremely exploitative temporary foreign worker programs. Instead of examining neoliberalism’s hate-on for good working conditions, we’re blaming the Chinese because our governments have allowed multinational corporations to skirt labour laws and hire guest workers at rock-bottom wages.

Instead of understanding the complex push and pull factors that lead families to migrate across the world in search of a better life and their arrival in communities where they are isolated, historically discriminated against, and not welcomed, we’re busy fighting against communities that post signs in their own languages.

Instead of wondering why universities and colleges are forced to seek international students as cash cows who pay tens of thousands of dollars more in tuition (because our government has defunded education to the point where universities are begging for money), we’re blaming Chinese students for taking our spots. Instead of asking why our public education system does not properly prepare students for university or the labour market (because our government has defunded the education system to the point where teachers are forced to buy books and supplies), we’re blaming the Asian students who seek out education here (the very one our government does not sufficiently support).

Never mind the fact that so many Asians are also born-and-raised Canadians.

And at the same time that our politicians woo and flirt with overly simplistic and bordering-on-racist tokenistic approaches to the “ethnic vote,” our rhetoric reflects a rejection and a fear of the other that has been so historically created. A yellow peril that our politics both actively seeks out but also creates a pressing fear of, in a terrifying back-and-forth.

The real problems are not the Asians, or the immigrants. So often, the problem is rooted in capitalism, in neoliberalism, and oppression. The socially constructed characteristic of race changes how these historical tensions are experienced, but does not substitute for the very real problems of capital’s domination over every aspect of our lives.

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Kevin is a cooperator, an always-student, and passionate about the arts. As a principal of the Incipe Cooperative, Kevin works with colleagues in a workers' co-op offering services for advocacy and nonprofit organizations. He's passionate about education policy, having been through twenty some-odd years of schooling and still thinking it changes the world. He also thinks that art changes the world, and he works with Art for Impact to celebrate art's power for social change. A Vancouver born and raised resident who is exiled from Toronto, he constantly loses umbrellas and probably rants too much.

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16 thoughts on “Rising rhetoric of a new “yellow peril””

  1. I’m broadly a Vancouverite myself, and I have to take issue with one thing here. On the Richmond thing, you give the impression fairly strongly that there is a movement to ban Chinese on signs rather than to include English on them. That’s kind of misleading and inflammatory. In fact the issue is the proliferation of Chinese-only signs. I’m sure you’re aware that nobody has actually called for the removal of Chinese, just the inclusion of English. Let’s not forget that the big controversy about the French sign laws was that they called for French only and banned all other languages (of which English was only the most common). Nobody’s given much of a damn since they toned that down after court challenges and ended up with “There has to be French and it has to be the most prominent”. In Richmond, as far as I know there hasn’t even been a call for English to be the most prominent language, just that it be there at all.

    This doesn’t in itself say anything about the merits of the case. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to call for some English on the signs. But it’s a very different thing from what you’re suggesting. You can’t make accurate claims about a phenomenon if you are defining it wrong.

      1. You may edit but it is ohhhhhhhhh so typical of this site, you should be ashamed but I doubt very much you have ever felt that before.

  2. The lack of concern about condo flipping by local buyers is very telling. It’s not surprising that politicians would take the safe bet of race-baiting rather than draw our attention to the devil among us that is likely fuelling a great deal of the housing bubble: rich folks are using boxes in the sky as an investment strategy.

    If you do the math you realize you’d be stupid not to. First off, sitting on a house without a mortgage is just losing money; since interest rates are at record lows, mortgage payments are tax deductible, and you can invest the 3% mortgage in stocks for a 6% return or presale condos for a 10%+ return, well, every half-smart greedy landowner should be riding that easy money. And sure enough, a full 45% of DT condos Yan surveyed were having their bills delivered to the West Side. Fully 75% to elsewhere in Metro Van.

    Let’s not kid ourselves – these things aren’t for people to live in. That is secondary at best: yes, renters can further increase the profitability of condos as an investment strategy…if you can be bothered to find some neat and tidy ones that don’t wreck the place in the 6mos-year between flips. But that’s hardly a priority.

    Of course, the party can’t last.

  3. I don’t think your reasons for people taking offence to the signs in Richmond and asking for change is correct – You make it sound like they (specifically the ‘white people’) are repeating the past (like you were quoting the newspapers from 1921) but what proof do you have that their motive is anglo supremacy? How do you know what their motives are?

    Did you ever read of when teenagers were tagging Richmond Centre with anti-chinese graffiti? That is anglo-supremacy (not to mention stupid…).

    While I understand that private property owners are free to display signage in any language they choose, it is is very true and worth mentioning that some recent immigrants to Canada make no effort to integrate in the society and learn the language. This is frustrating for existing Canadians, some who may feel like they are losing their identity in their own hometown and some who’s families had immigrated from Europe back when they HAD to learn English or French to be here. Think of it this way… If you were to immigrate to China, for example, or even USA, you would HAVE to integrate into the culture somehow (by learning the language, at the least) or you would not be able to function properly. Integration does not mean losing your culture in favour of another, it means blending them both.

    I just really don’t appreciate the negative racist impression you give to existing Canadians as there is no justification or rationalization except for things that happened 90 years ago. If Canadians really thought this way, we would have stricter immigration laws.

    Remember that we are all immigrants and you really do a disservice to all making the ‘us versus them’ argument in regards to the ‘whites’ and ‘asians’… We are all in Canada and need to work together.

    1. But what you’re saying is that we need to “work together” by doing it your way.

      Not asking you to find some middle ground, like not fainting at the sight of Chinese-language signs on No. 3 Road.

      The Anglo-supremacy comes in when there is no acknowledgement of the hidden assumption that “working together” means doing it precisely the way that one side prescribes.

      1. Seems to me you’re still talking as if people were pushing a “No Chinese on signs” policy rather than a “Some English on signs” policy. I must say that if I’d lived in a neighbourhood all my life and suddenly found that I couldn’t tell what the shops were because none of them had anything in my language it would be a tad disconcerting. Would that discomfort be enough of a reason to push for a bylaw? Maybe not, but it’s a valid problem which wouldn’t necessarily stem from dislike of Asians or indeed fear of the other in any form.

        There are cultural enclaves all over greater Vancouver, with concentrations of a whole lot of different groups. All the ones I’ve seen have signage in their own language and English, whether it’s Koreans, Sikhs, or whatever. And really, it’s not just the whites that are going to be inconvenienced by unilingual signs, it’s all the other ethnicities–almost all of them speak and read some English, but few of the Hindus read Korean or Chinese. A fair number of the Koreans may read Chinese, but they probably don’t read Arabic or Hindi. And so on and so forth.

        1. I’m not. The petition drive was to force businesses to include English on their signs. Plain and simple.

          The truth of the matter is that stores on No. 3 Road often do have at least some English on their signs, or at least have windows so that you can see what’s in them. The best part is that the storekeepers often speak English as well, so that I have no major challenges with wandering in and picking up tea-cups if that’s what I’m after.

          I spend quite a bit of time in Richmond and while I may not entirely understand what the signs say (when they’re not using some sort of internet-translated ‘Super Furniture Store’ label), I do look in the windows of the stores I pass in case I want to go in.

          My apartment building has signs that are in Chinese. I don’t get upset because of this. I lived in Chinatown in Toronto, and had no clue what a lot of the signs said. I then learned a bit of Manadarin and understood some of the signs. But just because some stores have signs that are predominantly or entirely in Chinese – would that make me feel as if my neighbourhood had entirely changed and I couldn’t understand what was going on?

          Not unless it happened magically overnight and I didn’t know what happened to bakery, the insurance place, the little cafe, and so forth. And then I might look in their windows.

          I end up in neighbourhoods across Vancouver where I have no idea what the signs say, or even when they’re in English, where I have no idea what the store does.

          In south Burnaby near where I live are a set of storefronts that say things like “Hinchman” or “JTS Enterprises” or “EasyWay.” Do any of those signs describe what the building is or what it does?


          You know, maybe we need to start a petition drive that mandates that business signs include an inventory in English that describe what the business is, what it does, and what it sells. Because even when the signs are in English, there’s a lot that I don’t know about businesses.

          1. “The Anglo-supremacy comes in when there is no acknowledgement of the hidden assumption that “working together” means doing it precisely the way that one side prescribes.”

            This assumption is in the eye of the beholder. You are clearly taking this out of context and have no basis to make this ‘assumption’ except for things that happened 80 years ago, and as I have previously asked for your reasons why you assume this, you have provided me with no information or facts.

            My definition of ‘Working together’ means having a society that is inclusive of all cultures and languages. Here in Canada, English is spoken, or at least understood in part, by most new immigratns, as well as the ones who settled here generations ago from Europe, Asia, etc… I feel like it’s being respectful of the existing Canadian culture to have some English (or French) on the signs to cater to the majority of the demographic in Canada, who understand and speak English (or French). Just like you respect your elders as a rule of thumb, you should respect the culture of the country you are settling in.

            You do not seem to understand that some immigrants come here and live just like they did in their old countries – Without trying to adapt. If this happens in Canada, our country will be no better off than the ones that those immigrants left. This includes people from everywhere in the world who come to Canada. I am not hating on the asians.

            You are entitled to your opinion, but at the same time you need to understand this type of issue from all perspectives without taking it out of context or jumping to conclusions of your own.

            It’s way too easy to just call everything that the ‘white’ people do ‘RACIST’ and ‘ANGLO-SUPREMESIST’.

          2. Ah, well, fair enough then. I had no idea there was no point whatsoever to having the signs in the first place. Clearly no difference would actually be made to anyone whether they were in Chinese, English only, not there at all, or mandated by law to all advertise Burger King.

  4. Great article Kevin. My one quibble is on BC Fed of labour opposition to TFW program.

    Why do you assume definition of ‘Canadian’ is attached to specific racial identity? Is your argument– precluding the idea of racial diversity in BC labourers–inherently racist?

    As for your solution–to get those TFWs to unionize, is it reasonable or feasible to ask BC fed of labour to represent interests of temporary foreign workers? Though I appreciate the global justice argument here, not sure I agree with details, the practicalities of it alone seem too difficult … How would it work? Seems naive to imagine that the Chinese company hiring will not just increase the common fee that such workers pay to get work in a place like Canada? [Ie the benefits the unions bring to those people will simply get passed along to the company bringing them over?]

    Moreover, I wonder what I would think as an unemployed member of BC fed of labour–regardless of what my race is–would I say it’s naive to ask BC fed of labour not to represent the interests of their paying members? That’s I suppose the beauty and downside of unions. As that member, would I argue for national solidarity, social commitment to provide decent jobs to those invested in Canadian communities–regardless of race? As the effects on TFW’s lives, the more temporary economic migrants I meet the less I am convinced of its benefit to them …

    As for how to address language issue, where management speaks mostly Mandarin points to other questions … though I don’t see any immediate problems with Mandarin speakers being favoured for those jobs.

    Some degree of national solidarity/loyalty is inevitable, suppose the devil is in the details in terms of how far we extend that logic.

    1. Well, my first thought is that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

      Migrant workers are amongst the most exploited workers in the world today because they have no rights, they are shipped across countries to work for low wages, and they are despised by the residents of the countries in which they work.

      Migrant workers are used by employers as diversionary tactics and scapegoats, to direct the anger and activism of the workers against other workers instead of against the employer. When labour plays into this stupid move, and then attacks workers instead of the companies sponsoring the migrant workers, we support the exploitation going on.

      Solidarity should cross borders, should cross races, should cross languages.

      It’s illegal for companies to charge workers recruitment fees to migrant workers. If the company were to have to pay workers more, it’s possible the migrant worker system would become too expensive for the multinational companies to handle, and we might score two victories – stopping exploitative systems of labour, and building cross-cultural solidarity.

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