Solutions for Asians in the property market? Give me a break.

Solutions for Asians in the property market? Give me a break. June 12, 2013

View of downtown Vancouver from the Lookout Tower at Harbour Centre - MagnusL3D, 8 August 2011 (Downtown_Vancouver_Sunset.jpg) (CC BY-SA 3.0 []), via Wikimedia Commons/Flickr
View of downtown Vancouver from the Lookout Tower at Harbour Centre – MagnusL3D, 8 August 2011 (Downtown_Vancouver_Sunset.jpg) (CC BY-SA 3.0 []), via Wikimedia Commons/Flickr
Yesterday, the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) covered a panel at Metro Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University on 7 June (Monday) where Asian Canadian scholars completely busted open the idea that rich Asians were inflating Vancouver’s property prices. ‘For years, many have blamed Vancouver’s sky-high real estate market on the Asian buyer,’ CBC Vancouver Late Night anchor Renee Filippone began, ‘but tonight, a group of experts say that’s simply not true.’

CBC journalist Richard Zussman then took us to the panel at SFU’s Downtown Campus. The presenters were Jackie Wong, Henry Yu, and Pablo Mendez (a good friend and colleague of mine whose PhD work on basement suites unfortunately wasn’t featured in the story, but deserves its own write-up). Zussman covered Wong’s and Yu’s work.

Zussman first reported on Jackie Wong’s talk on the experiences of Chinatown residents in Vancouver, itself a grossly understudied and neglected topic in Vancouver (shout-out to my colleague Andréanne Doyon, arguably the person to talk to about global Chinatowns). Zussman picked up on interesting tidbits from Wong’s talk about how the 5% of empty condos in Vancouver tended to be owned by Americans and that the myth that all Chinese migrants are looking to buy property is busted by the reality of Chinese migrants without those financial means. In short, Wong said that talking about all Chinese people as rich property buyers means that the public is ignoring those Chinese migrants who struggle to make it in the most expensive city in the world.

Zussman then moved over to Henry Yu, an Asian Canadian historian (on my thesis committee, btw) who has been calling out racism like he sees it in Vancouver’s public sphere and earning himself a ton of street creds and enemies in the process (props, Henry; see here, here, and here). Contrasting the statements of conservative Chinese Canadian politicians like Chak Kwong Au that new Chinese investments were misguidedly concentrated solely on property, Yu argued that the ‘Asian’ story in the Vancouver property market was a bit of a red herring. For Yu, the real issue was whether Vancouver’s economy itself should be focused so heavily on property ownership. Criticizing Vancouver’s obsession with ‘market-based solutions,’ Yu said that ‘they are not solutions at all’ because economic policymakers were unable to see that it was the market itself that was disenfranchising the poor (Chinese and non-Chinese alike) in Vancouver.

In an effort at critique, Zussman thus told viewers that the panel was missing one crucial element: it was short on solutions. It was just the start of a broader conversation.

And that’s what we have to talk about.

This ‘short on solutions’ critique is a common complaint leveled at academics. It is often alleged that we academics tend to be irresponsible because we don’t live in the real world (apparently): You guys only point out the problem! You guys aren’t practical! You guys never give us a solution!

So listen: I have a rebuttal.

Give me a break. Pitching tidy solutions is not what academics do. I’m sorry if you think that’s what we do, but actually, the good academics whom I know do not sit in soft comfy chairs, drink coffee, smoke cigars, and pontificate about tight policy silver bullets to solve the world’s problems. To be sure, of course, academics hang out with policy makers, we’re good friends with some of them, and we even think that most are awesome people with good ideas. In Canada, we had this thing called the Metropolis Project, where academics got together with policymakers to talk about how migration to Canada was changing Canadian cities. In the United States, stuff like ChangeLab in Seattle and the National Asian American Survey run by Karthick Ramakrishnan, Taeku Lee, and Janelle Wong provide excellent social scientific data to policymakers who in turn can make informed, socially just policy choices based on good information. Yes, of course, academics and policymakers make great teams. Many are good friends. We like policymakers.

The thing is, though, academics are not policymakers. Providing tight policy prescriptions is not part of the academic job description. In fact, it’s the complete opposite of what publicly engaged academia should be about.

Here’s what academics do instead.

At least in a democratic public sphere, academics exist to start public conversations about how policies are framed. By saying that the panel was short on solutions, the CBC was basically saying: the panel said some nice things, but the effort was essentially useless.

No, it was not.

In fact, the panel addressed precisely what our stalled public sphere needed: it started the right kind of conversation. For the longest time, Vancouverites have been having a lot of trouble talking about race, particularly about new Asian Canadians coming to Vancouver, buying property, engaging in trans-Pacific family strategies, being part of the educational system, starting churches, etc. Vancouverites have had a lot of questions about these sorts of things. Here are some of the popular questions swirling around race and the economy in Vancouver’s public sphere:

  • Without Li Ka-shing buying up the Expo 86 lands on False Creek and other property tycoons in Hong Kong purchasing land in Vancouver, would Vancouver’s post-industrial economy have survived? Do we have to be grateful to the new ‘Chinese’ immigrants?
  • Is it racist to protest the building of new condos and housing styles in Kerrisdale and Shaughnessy? What if we don’t like how they’re changing up our neighbourhoods? Not in my backyard (oh yes, Vancouver is the global crown jewel of NIMBY politics.)
  • Why do people in ‘the Chinese community’ always buy up these properties, leave them empty or leave their kids in them, and shuttle back to Hong Kong for work? Who takes care of the property? Who takes care of the kids? Is this part of ‘Chinese culture’?
  • Is ‘race’ a good word to use in Canada, where we are ‘multicultural’ and like to talk about ‘ethnicity’? Why are you calling us nice, liberal people racist?

You can read all about the confusion in Kris Olds’s Globalization and Urban Change, Katharyne Mitchell’s Crossing the Neoliberal Line, Johanna Waters’s Education, Migration, and Culture Capital in the Chinese Diaspora, and David Ley’s Millionaire Migrants. (David actually has a fascinating new study of global housing bubbles in the works and should have been on this panel. But then again, I’m sure that Pablo did an awesome job holding down the fort.)

So what’s the solution is the wrong question. The question is: what’s the conversation that we need to have?

The panel answered this question. Indeed, the presentations split up the conversation into three parts. This was necessary because, as Henry Yu was saying, notions of race and the property market have been stuck together for so long that race has become a red herring for problems in the market economy itself. (Go re-read that. Make sure Henry’s critique sinks into your brain before you continue. We need to disaggregate race and economy in Vancouver’s public discourse.)

Here are the three conversations. The first should be about race. The second should be about the state’s role in regulating the market. The third should be about the connection between race and the market.

We need to talk about race. Since the advent of Canadian multicultural policy (it seems), Canadians appear to have developed an allergy to race. Race talk? you might hear some huff. No, that’s for our ignorant neighbours down south. We enlightened, progressive Canadians, us racist? Nah.

One gets the sense from this huffing and puffing that something big has changed in Canada. In Millionaire Migrants, David Ley actually talks about a ‘Weberian categorical shift’ from the older era of racist anti-Chinese exclusion exemplified in his student Kay Anderson’s Vancouver’s Chinatown, where Anderson said that it was usually Euro-Canadians at all three levels of Canadian government who defined who ‘Chinese’ people were and what ‘Chinatown’ was. Ley argues that that sort of exclusionary thing shifted in the 1980s with the passage of Canadian multicultural policy and the opening of Canada to newer markets in the Pacific Rim. In effect, Ley suggests that nowadays, Canadians try to have a tolerant attitude in order to be able to do global business. Racism, he suggests, has been eclipsed by the market.

I go back and forth with David on this quite a bit, as I can see where he’s coming from: it’s not as though most Canadians these days are willfully malicious toward their Chinese neighbours (whereas they were in the era that Kay Anderson was writing about). But with all due respect, I think he’s a tad optimistic. See, racism is not stuff that bad people do. It’s rather the banal belief that different races in the world have different cultures that exist in a sort of hierarchy with (generally) the lighter (and thus, more enlightened) skins on the top and the darker ones (and thus, more ignorant, tribal, and provincial) on the bottom. The question is: is that sort of thing still around?

Yes, it is. The major problem is that groups labeled as Chinese (and South Asians, for that matter) still get lumped together in one group and have certain economic characteristics attributed to them. In the past, they were labeled as poor, dirty, and a threat to the white man’s job: that’s why they had to be excluded, segregated into Chinatowns, and have a head tax placed on them when they entered the country. But now, because we’re doing business with them, they’re all rich and wanting to buy our property and jack up our city’s property prices.

On this score, Ley is bang-on correct: there has been a ‘Weberian categorical shift’ of perception. But the trouble is, it’s still race-based, and it causes all sorts of exclusions as well. As the panelists pointed out, the big problem is that this perception leaves out the Chinese people who are actually poor, which suggests that what passes for the ‘Chinese community’ is a very economically and culturally diverse group of people from the same area of the world that’s larger than the size of Europe. If we persist with this stereotype, we can never have a conversation about the need for social services and affordable housing at the same time that we’re pitching anti-racist education. If anything, this sort of discourse might fuel anti-Asian anger against what’s seen as a homogeneous Chinese Canadian upper middle class, a perception that had deadly consequences in anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia in 1998.

And so we need to talk about race, about how changes in perceptions about race in Canada don’t really erase race-talk from our discourse. In fact, those changes have intensified the conversation, and not talking about it isn’t helping anyone.

But as we talk about race, we also need to talk about the market. Here again, David Ley’s work is indispensable. Prior to his work on Hong Kong migrants and property, Ley was the international guru on gentrification, the process in which residents and mom-and-pop shops in older urban neighbourhoods get squeezed out of their spaces by upper-middle-class, mostly white buyers who jack up the property prices and beautify the neighbourhoods with boutiques, fancy restaurants, and condos. In fact, Ley’s epic battle with Marxist geographers Neil Smith and David Harvey on whether gentrification is supply-side (there’s a rent gap that needs to be filled between the actual value of a property and its potential value) or demand-side (artists move in first, make the neighbourhood look cool, and the doctors and lawyers come in, buy up the spaces, and price everyone out of the neighbourhood) is the stuff of legend in the discipline of human geography. (Apparently, it ended when someone took a photo of Smith mock-strangling Ley at an Association of American Geographers panel in the late 1980s. The picture has since been blown up and currently sits in a prominent place in Ley’s office.)

In any case, Ley’s The New Middle Class and the Remaking of Central City remains a brilliant exposé of how Vancouver’s property market has been working, even though the analysis is as old as 1995. Ley situates Vancouver as a post-industrial city, i.e. a city where the building and resource industries have moved out, which means that while you once could make a living working in those industries if you were working-class, it’s hard now. Those industrial sites, like Yaletown, have in turn been transformed into gentrified neighbourhoods, again pricing out the people who used to live and work there. This strategy, as Ley and others have revealed, was undertaken by city councils with neoliberal and neoconservative agendas, that is, their understanding of how to run a city was to put the emphasis on keeping the property market with as few regulations as possible, which means they basically let that market govern the way the city looks and is priced.

Note that in all of this discussion, there are no Chinese people. That’s exactly what Henry Yu was talking about. The Chinese thing is a red herring to the real politics of the property market that is governed by a neoliberal and neoconservative ideology fixated on property to the expense of other less lucrative sectors. This is why, by the way, it seems that apart from real estate and tourism service industries, with a few baristas on the side, Vancouver is like the city of no jobs. It’s because the economic policy frameworks in Vancouver have made the city’s economy fixated on a few sectors.

And the thing is, this has nothing to do with Chinese migrations. These were city council (and to some extent, on the neoliberal/neoconservative side of things, provincial legislature and federal parliamentary decisions) about economic policy. (I mean, sure, there were Chinese Canadians represented at all three of these levels, but they came in after these ideological frameworks were passed, some span the ideological spectrum, and you can count their number all off on two hands.)

In other words, while we’re having that conversation about ongoing racism in Vancouver, we actually need to have a separate conversation about what the market itself does in Vancouver and how that’s basically unconnected to the new Chinese migrations.

It’s only then that we can move to the third point: we need to talk about race and the market. Now that we’ve disaggregated race and the market, we need to put them back together. This too is absolutely essential in our public discourse. Over the last few months, journalists and commentators on the Vancouver Sun have been saying that new ethnic identity politics (particularly the ones inflamed by the BC Liberals’ ethnic vote scandal) are dividing our province and have to be quashed so that we can all refocus on the universal common good, not just our pet groups’ causes. In fact, some offer very interesting and deeply flawed revisionist analyses of Vancouver’s racial past. They say that because everything is about economics, we shouldn’t even view stuff like the Chinese head tax as racist policies because, according to the labour unions back then, they were economically necessary (see for yourself).

Um, no.

I recognize that this is a Godfather ‘nothing personal, strictly business’ message. The trouble is that race and the market are not mutually exclusive categories. For the historical piece, these conservative revisionists need to re-read the Patricia Roy trilogy on the political and economic scapegoating of Asian Canadians in British Columbia: A White Man’s Province, The Oriental Question, and The Triumph of Citizenship. In these books, Roy systematically analyzes the connection between racial discourse and economic policy in British Columbia up to 1967. While race and the economy certainly aren’t the same thing, Roy says that Chinese and Japanese Canadians were considered ‘oriental’ groups in British Columbia, which made them very convenient victims to blame for economic problems and very interesting political scapegoats in the province’s quest to influence federal politics. That is to say, people in British Columbia saw political and economic problems in the province. They also saw all Chinese and Japanese Canadians as all being of the same race, which happened to be a different one from their whiteness. And so, to take care of their political and economic problems, they scapegoated the Asian Canadians, constructing British Columbia’s distinctive identity as a ‘white man’s province’ (René Girard, anyone?)

While it’s very useful to disaggregate race and the market, then, we have to recognize that they were not mutually exclusive categories either historically or in the present. The real question is thus: what does the market make us do in terms of race? In other words, might the identity politics be born out of something else apart from malicious intent or personal animus?  Might they in fact be born from an obsession with the market?

After all, here’s a theory that no one has proposed yet. In classical political economic theory, the whole point of a market with a state that protects the freedom of the market is that people in that market are themselves sovereign property owners looking to expand their wealth. Because this theory had European origins, these people (for all intents and purposes) used to be white men. Of course, these people didn’t know that they were ‘white’ until they encountered people who didn’t look like them, that is, people of ‘colour.’ Those people of ‘colour’–for example, the Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian population in British Columbia–were threats to their sovereign acts of individual property and wealth accumulation, i.e. the Chinese are taking away our jobs! they work for lower wages! their stink in properties adjacent to us causes the value of our housing to go down! But you see what the cause of these racist comments is? It’s not a malicious intent to smear someone just because they look different. It’s because one has associated a different skin phenotype with cutthroat competition on the market. It’s nothing personal; it’s strictly business.

And that, friends, was the point of the panel. It was that this obsession with the property market in Vancouver continues the historical processes of scapegoating Asian Canadians even when the facts do not justify any of the scapegoating. It’s that the neoliberal and neoconservative ideologies with their market fundamentalism is not strictly business. In fact, it gets awfully personal.

So here’s the point: having these three conversations is the solution. The reason that no solution to this problem was pitched was that the panel was not interested in working within the existing policy frameworks that govern Vancouver’s political economy. It was instead interested in starting a conversation about how those very frameworks need to be challenged before more socially just policies can be passed.

Which brings me back to my original complaint: the idea that academics should have a ready-made solution for the masses is an undemocratic notion, and a media that works in the service of democracy should know better. We academics like to think that our civil society is better than one that simply trusts in the solutions that academics give. We like to think that people talk about things, think out loud about things, debate each other about things, and come together toward solutions by taking down bad existing frameworks and building new ones.

But that’s where today’s market fundamentalism continues to sucker punch us academics. On this blog, I’ve talked an awful lot about how this sort of obsession with the market economy has virtually colonized our public conversation about religion (see here and here).

Market fundamentalism has the same effect on academia.

Instead of imagining academics as people who contribute their knowledge to bring out more creative conversations in the public sphere, academics are also imagined to be private property owners interested in protecting their own sovereign space. Academics are thought to be interested only in protecting their own corner of interest on the market. And therefore, if academics are going to prove their worth in this market, they need to learn to give practical, relevant solutions, or else face irrelevance–and thus, extinction–on the market.

This is where everyone who actually believes in the public good of academia screams a resounding NO.

Unlike the prevailing market fundamentalism of our time, we academics believe that our job is to inform the public conversation. The knowledge that we have isn’t hoarded over at the university; it’s presented to the public as a gift. Here, we say. Make sure your discussion is actually informed so that you don’t sound ignorant and pass ignorant policies. That’s why we don’t give easy solutions. If we were to give quick, easy solutions, we would bypass the whole democratic process.  We would enthrone ourselves as the solution kings. We would be saying that the public is stupid, ignorant, and needs to be ruled over by us, the academic sovereigns, the knowledge dictatorship. No, thank you, we say. We believe in democracy. We think you’re better and smarter than that.

Perhaps, then, you might say that we are hopelessly naîve about the prospects of our public sphere, that people really are actually generally selfish and only talk about things as they relate to their own private interests. There is no such thing as a public interest, you might argue; it’s really just an overlapping consensus of self-centered people using each other to get ahead. I’ll grant that in the current state of many public spheres, your cynicism might actually be warranted.

So here’s my proposal: let’s talk more about that next time.

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