Canadian politics, Hong/couver, Vancouver

In search of nail houses in Lotus Land

Vancouver’s real estate market is pretty shitty, but until now there’s been some kind of safeguards against rampant gentrification. At the very least, the law used to require that in the event that a property developer wanted to by a strata property (aka condo building), there had to be unanimous consent of the owners to dissolve the corporation and sell the land. This prevented property developers from convincing a majority, though not all, owners to sell – which would likely otherwise leave owners who had bought and paid for title to property in the lurch. This is an excellent protection, especially in a city that seems hell-bent on tearing everything down every couple of years and constructing new stuff in its place.

Well, at least it was an excellent protection.

I was alerted today, by my colleague Zbigniew, that there’s a legislative amendment coming soon to the Strata Property Act in BC – the legislation that “controls” the rampant speculation market and governance of our shared condo buildings.

The amendment? Allowing dissolution (read: selling out, tearing down, and gentrifying) based on an 80% vote of the owners. The other 20%? Shit out of luck.

As Zbigniew says:

For developers, it’s a toe in the door, a beachhead, just enough to sell the riches of higher density rezones: “The option will likely result in a higher price being paid because the value is in the footprint that can accommodate a 20-storey building, rather than the existing three-storey building.”[1] just enough to seize the advantage of rezoning that allows for higher density, ie. most of Burnaby.

I foresee nail houses coming to Vancouver.

If you’re not familiar with nail houses (釘子戶), they’re the epic holdout homes of massive and rampant development in China. Often apocryphal, they’re the homes where stubborn owners have refused to sell, despite the 22-lane highway bearing down (and diverting immediately around) them.

It’ll just be hard to see how that will happen with a glass-and-concrete condo.

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Canadian politics, Hong/couver, Long Read, Racism

On capitalistic accumulation, the Vancouver housing market, and Asian Names

Talking about the housing market in Vancouver is about as much a pastime for us residents of Lotus Land as is yoga and running the Grouse Grind. In reality, it’s probably much, much more than that – it really, honestly seems like you can’t get out of even a casual conversation on an overcrowded Skytrain without someone grumbling about new record-high prices on the west side, or the new average cost of a Vancouver special.

“I so admire 95% of immigrants from China. I don’t admire the 5% or so who are just looking for a place to park their cash.” 

But there’s something else going on as well. You can’t often get through a paragraph of a news story about the housing market in Vancouver without a discussion of a spectre haunting the region and the market – Asian buyers. It seems that everyone has concluded that there’s a problem with the housing market – good job, everyone  but they’ve also decided that the most proximate cause of the problem is people who just aren’t us. It’s the Other, again. Yellow peril.

→ M→ C  / M → C → M’

I don’t think it’s the ethnicity of the people buying the housing in Vancouver that is the problem. Really, it’s the act of buying property in Vancouver that’s the problem, and what happens when homes are treated as commodities, or simply as means to an ends of increasing capital. I think it’s capitalism that’s at the heart of the issue in Vancouver housing. Not too sound too much like a rote Marxist, but it’s capitalism, dude.

I don’t think we need to go the route of centralized economic planning of housing, where everyone is assigned a housing allowance and the state provides. In fact, I really don’t think we should do that. But this no-holds-barred, free-market-capitalism approach to housing in Vancouver is ridiculous and absurd. And it’s creating these scenarios of obscene outcomes, like where the rental vacancy rate in Vancouver is nigh on to zero, or where rental rates are rising 4.6% in one year.

It’s getting to the point in Vancouver where credit unions are warning of impending labour market collapse in Vancouver because people can’t afford to live here anymore. I think many of us know this first-hand; a basement apartment in Vancouver is $1,200+; a nice 300-square foot apartment in downtown might be $1,750. Some city councillors seem to think this is just fine, suggesting that “affordable” means what you can afford.

But what causes this? I’m going to be bold and suggest that it’s not “The Chinese,” despite the commonality of that argument.

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Of viaducts and trams

In Vancouver and in Hong Kong, there are debates always ongoing about legacy infrastructure.1 Right now, there’s an ongoing debate in Vancouver about the viaducts that connect the eastern part of downtown with the downtown core. The debate is whether or not these highway bridges should be torn down.2 The viaducts are remnants of an older time period of planning when highways and byways were considered to be the ultimate in transportation solutions. When cars ruled.3

Interestingly, there’s a similar debate ongoing in Hong Kong, where there are suggestions that the city’s lovely double-decker trams, which have plied the streets for more than 100 years, should be removed from the Central district.4 These trams are remnants of an earlier time period of planning, when public transport was considered to be the ultimate in transportation solutions, and when buses, carts, and trams ruled5

The argument in both cities and in both cases is that these old, outmoded forms of transport should be done away with, and that they cause more problems than they solve. At least, that’s what the arguments seem to be at first.

The reality is likely something different. Vancouver’s desire to rid itself of the viaducts doesn’t stem from some deep-seated concern that elevated concrete byways separate neighbourhoods.6 Instead, it seems that the desire to tear the viaducts down comes instead from a desire on the part of the city’s mayor and council to instead capitalize on the land underneath, land that they seem to think would be better served as condo towers and super-expensive homes.

Hong Kong’s current crisis over the tramways isn’t seated in some kind of concern that the trams aren’t the best way of travelling, or that they may be duplicative of the subways under the streets. Instead, it seems that the real problem is that there’s a lot of traffic in Central7 and that the trams might contribute to this in some way. However, I think that the real truth of the matter is that the traffic in Central isn’t caused by the trams, but rather by the limousines and cars waiting, often illegally, in the streets for billionaires and C-suite executives to leave.

In the long run, both Hong Kong’s trams and Vancouver’s viaducts may well disappear. But if they do, the real reason isn’t what’s stated at first — and it isn’t service to the public. It’s service to capital, and the capital class instead.


  1. Creative Commons photo credits: “BC Place and Viaduct, foggy” by Colin Knowles, and “Hong Kong Tramways” by akwan.architect
  2. See here, for example.
  3. As if they don’t now.
  4. Central District is the central business district. Here’s an article on the suggested removals, again.
  5. Frankly, the trams still rule.
  6. This argument was tried when the viaducts were being built; it was only partially successful.
  7. Unsurprising, really
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Canadian politics, Hong/couver, Long Read

Voting. It’s easy, and it isn’t.

Voting in Canada is easy, even with everything the government has done to make it difficult.1 The simple mechanics are rather clear: you can take some time to observe the various candidates on offer and platforms up for debate, then you ruminate alone, or with your significant others, as to which candidate is the least offensive. Then, you gather up all the ID you can find that has either your photo or your address on it, preferably both,2 and you head on over to your local voting station.3 At the voting station, you queue in line and wait for a kindly elderly (or young) staff person to hand you a ballot. You then hide behind a piece of cardboard, scratch an X in the circle next to the name of the candidate you’ve decided is the least offensive, hand the ballot back to the staff person, and you’ve done your civic duty.

Writ large, millions of these kinds of actions take place during an election in Canada. Then, they’re aggregated together in 300-odd geographic groupings across the Canada, and the least offensively candidate in each area is declared the winner, and the party that has the most winners is handed the reigns of power.

It’s easy, but it isn’t.

It’s easy, because it’s easy to count the one candidate who received the most votes. It’s easy, because it’s easy to aggregate those individual winners across Canada and come up with a single winner. It’s easy, because we don’t have to think too hard about it. But it isn’t always so easy. This system benefits the people in power — the parties who have always had power, and who seem to always be in a position of having power. In Canada’s elections, the winners are decided by a solid minority of voters — the Conservative party, who won the last election, won 100% of the power with 38% of the popular vote. And not everyone voted, so the real percentage of support is likely much lower. This is easy to understand, but it’s not easy to understand why there isn’t an alternative — a more proportional system of voting, one that allocates power based on support.

Well, that’s actually easy to understand. There isn’t change because it doesn’t benefit those in power. And thus it ever was.

It might be easy to understand elections in Canada. It’s not so easy to understand elections in Hong Kong. First, the entire land area of the territory of Hong Kong is about the same size as the entire land area of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. You can get on a subway train in downtown Hong Kong and end up in Mainland China in about an hour and half, not taking into consideration the potential lineups at the border.

And that presence of Mainland China not too far away from downtown Hong Kong is something that complicates even the idea of elections in Hong Kong in a ridiculous fashion. Nevermind the colonial history of Hong Kong – a colonial history that meant that when Britain controlled Hong Kong, it wasn’t too interested in giving Hong Kong residents the vote, except until the point when Hong Kong was going to be returned to China, at which point it tried frantically to give Hong Kong residents the vote  — until China asked them not to.

So you end up with a bizarre electoral system in Hong Kong, which means that despite the fact that the pro-democracy parties in Hong Kong received 57% of the vote in the 2012 legislative council elections, they received only 38.5% of the seats in the legislative council.4 Admittedly, even that is somewhat easy to understand — Hong Kong has a party-list proportional system, where residents are asked to vote for the parties that they support, with a list of candidates who will receive seats made available, and that list sorted based on the party’s preference. That sounds super complicated, making elections not easy, but that’s not true.5 In any event, what’s easy about Hong Kong’s elections is how simple it is for the system to be rigged against democracy:  a large part6 of the seats in the legislative council are reserved for “functional constituencies,” or business groups and organizations. Arguably, these voters are easy for Beijing to influence – and that’s borne out by the massive number of seats that go to the pro-Beijing camp.

But of course the legislative council itself isn’t the end of the road in terms of elections in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s de facto head of state is its Chief Executive7, and the Chief Executive is supposed to be elected. Key word there — supposed. In reality, the CE post isn’t elected, or even close. Instead, there’s an electoral committee of 1,200 people who vote on the nominated candidates — and Beijing gets to give the nod to the nominated candidates. Even the 1,200 electors in the electoral committee are nominated by Beijing. So, it’s incredibly easy to understand how the CE vote will go — it will either be a candidate approved by Beijing, or a candidate approved by Beijing, or a candidate approved by Beijing. And the people voting for the CE? All approved by Beijing.

This is ridiculously complicated, and it’s not easy. But what’s easy to understand is the impact: Hong Kong’s “democracy” is a pseudo-democracy, one that’s been built under the constraints of China, who do not want Hong Kongers to vote for anything that would give them independence outside of the framework China has given them. And interestingly, the people in Hong Kong are not happy with this.

What’s not so easy to understand is the difference in public reaction between Hong Kong and Canada. Canada’s democracy is one that is solidified in its constitution and one that cannot be reduced to meaninglessness easily. However, it’s quickly trending that way — recent cases of alleged electoral fraud haven’t seemed to have provoked any kind of public response. The current election is one that seems to be ready to return the Conservatives to power, despite the alleged corruption and fraud. Why are Canadians taking the easy way out, of not voting, of not contesting?

Hong Kong has a voting system that is rigged against the voters. Beijing controls the legislature, Beijing controls the election process for the Chief Executive. And yet, this year, and last, tens of thousands were on the streets of Hong Kong, protesting for the unfettered right to vote. Calling for the same basic rights that Canadians have.

Would they be protesting so strongly if the system they were about to get was the same as Canada’s? Or, rather, should Canadians be on the streets in similar proportion to Hong Kong?

At the very least, no matter the candidates that may be the least worst in your individual riding, the least you can do as a Canadian is get out there and cast a vote. Think of the people in Hong Kong who cannot.



Image credit: “2008 Canada Ballot” by D’Arcy Norman and “Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution” by Pasu Au Yung, both Creative Commons.

  1. See “Unfair Elections Act” as an example: http://democracywatch.ca/campaigns/makefairelectionsactfair/
  2. Especially since the government no longer allows the voter identification cards they send you to be considered identification
  3. Though, there have been a number of incidents this year where the government has sent incorrect information that would lead some voters to think their polling station was more than 500 kilometers away.
  4. Wikipedia details this, here.
  5. Arguably, this electoral process is actually the closest to the true way that Canadians weight and evaluate their voting intentions, but that’s another article.
  6. 30 seats, or fully 42.8% of the legislative council
  7. The name of the post may not be a nod to Hong Kong’s centrality in the global corporate flow of money, or maybe it is…?
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Canadian politics

“We Translated a Mandarin-Only Conservative Statement and It Criticized the NDP for Marrying Chinese Women.” – VICE News

Arguably, they translated a simplified Chinese-only written statement. But still. Interestingly played, Conservatives.

“We Translated a Mandarin-Only Conservative Statement and It Criticized the NDP for Marrying Chinese Women.”
Hong/couver, Long Read

Cities of beauty, lies, ugliness, and hope

Vancouver is an odd city.1

Sitting on the edge of the ocean, hemmed in by mountains and lustrous valleys, it is geographically gorgeous. During these (ever-increasing) warm, summer days, when we can be free of the seemingly months of never-ending rain, this city is truly something close to a paradise. Neither too warm nor too cold, you can hike in the mountains and skip stones off the beaches all in the same day. The forests are beautiful. The mountains breathtaking.

Vancouver is also a city that bristles with hope. Since before its official, colonial “founding” in the 19th century, it was seen as a link to Asia; a commercial hub and market city waiting to be connected to the exotic Orient. The colonial managers saw in Vancouver virgin territory waiting to be settled, civilized, and rapidly turned into a profitable outpost and connection to China. (This was, of course, somewhat of a surprise to the Coast Salish peoples who had lived here already for time immemorial and saw Vancouver as their home and their traditional territories.)

But Vancouver’s beauty and hope is underpinned by ugliness and lies. First and foremost amongst these is that inherent contradiction in how the colonial settlers looked at the traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples and saw virgin, uncivilized lands. To them, these were lands waiting for exploitation and development.

That way of thinking continues. We still see Vancouver, perhaps not so much as a virgin, but as a place waiting for development, yearning for exploitation. Our colonial managers haven’t much changed their ideation and orientation – we are still focused on the exotic orient (we are the “Gateway to Asia”, “Canada’s Pacific Gateway,” the Canadian outpost in the “Asia Pacific”, and so much more). We still see Vancouver as a resource to be exploited.

What we find it increasingly hard to see Vancouver as is what the Coast Salish saw it as – a home, a place to live, a place to build communities.

This is part of the lie of Vancouver. Our endless, colonial desire to take this place and commercialize it has commercialized it, but we pretend that it isn’t, that we are relishing in this place’s natural beauty, and that we all benefit from it tremendously. But we don’t. Not all of us can afford to play outside in the sun. We’ve taken something that should have made us homes and made it commodity instead. And then we lie to ourselves, and we say that the natural beauty of the place makes up for what we have to do to be here – to mortgage ourselves almost out of existence, to work one job for rent and another for food.

And that lie is an attempt to mask the ugliness that lies at the bottom of our glass and concrete city on the side of the sea. The ugliness founded on colonial dispossession, that promised prosperity for all who seek it but instead relies on exploitation of the majority for the success of the few. The ugliness that uses our city’s First Nations past as a marketing tool (see the Olympic Inukshuks) while ignoring the fact that Inukshuks weren’t Coast Salish in origin, never mind the dispossession and displacement that happens when the marketing takes off and succeeds in spurning on a new round of accumulation by dispossession, eliminating Coast Salish communities and affordable housing, dis-empowering them and others, and casting them into some historical rubbish bin that we can rummage through when we need a decoration but won’t let enter our consciousness too often.

Even our positioning as a gateway to Asia, a continuing colonial imperative, is itself ugliness wrapped in a shroud of hope – while we might be content to see our geographic connection to Asia and China and the exotic Orient as being commercially beneficial – and really, the reason why we built our commercial infrastructure here, on the West Coast as it’s nearest the Far East – the moment that Asia and China and the Orient become just a little too prominent in a Vancouver, the moment that our marketing pays off, then Asia and China and the Orient become existential threats to our happiness and our way of life. While our colonial management still tells us to build business to export to Asia, we toss and turn at night about signs in Chinese, fretting about how so much is changing so fast. (Yet we don’t fret about the lack of Salish, or even Chinook, signs.)

We seem to be happy to balance off our hope and ugliness, blind to the fact that one is subservient to the other, and the other builds up and supports the myth of the one. And that’s not even thinking about the capital-o Other.

And like so many other people here, I have a deep and personal connection, through my personal relations, to that Other, that exotic Orient, Asia and China. To Hong Kong, in particular, but “over there” in general.

Hong Kong is an odd city, too.

The parallels between Hong Kong and Vancouver are too many to be simply a matter of inconsequential coincidence. Hong Kong is a stunning city sitting on the edge of the ocean, hemmed in by mountains and countryside. It too can be experienced on (occasional) stunningly beautiful days with clear air and subtropical weather, with mountains and beaches and endless miles of consumer paradise waiting to be enjoyed and shopped.

And Hong Kong too is beauty and hope and ugliness and lies.

On its face, Hong Kong is unabashedly a capital of Capital. The towering, towering skyscrapers and commercial buildings in Central and Admiralty and even now, inching up in Tsim Sha Tsui and Kowloon, are massive, phallic monuments to finance and unproductive circulation of capital. If anything, this face of Hong Kong is its hope and, undoubtedly to some, its beauty. HSBC is an awkward building but a shining jewel in the heart of the central business district, and the news that the bank may relocate from London back to Hong Kong, which was rumoured earlier this year, was warmly received as a righteous return of the prodigal son (or sun?) Mentioned, but not quite discussed, was the fact that HSBC was considering such a move to avoid corporate taxes in the United Kingdom, taxes that it wouldn’t face in Hong Kong, a former colony of the United Kingdom.

That colonial history is perhaps from where this odd beauty-in-capital comes. It is also perhaps the root of many of the striking similarities between Vancouver and Hong Kong. Britain colonized Hong Kong in the 1800s, much like it did Vancouver. And much like Vancouver, Hong Kong was colonized explicitly to support trade with Asia and exploitation of local resources. In the case of Hong Kong, though, the local resources being exploited were things like tea, and willing consumers of the British opium trade. Vancouver was left with trading trees and furs.

But what of Hong Kong’s beauty, hope, ugliness, and lies?

If Hong Kong’s beauty and hope come from its position of a capital of Capital, then more of its beauty and hope must come from its commitment to endless capitalism and growth, a promise guaranteed even by the Chinese Communist Party, who evicted the British in 1997 after finally exercising their rights under a spectacularly poorly written lease.2 This commitment – one promised to last for fifty years, to 2047, was explicitly made to restore hope to troubled capital markets in Hong Kong, who feared expropriation and loss of assets with the Communist handover. Never mind that the Communists haven’t been communist for a considerable length of time, if they ever were.

Given that Hong Kong’s beauty and hope comes from its position of power vis a vis capital, one immediate lie is in the very physicality of Hong Kong itself. It is truly a beautiful place, far from what you would expect in the brass, gold, glass, and concrete canyons of Central, or the glitzy Causeway Bay. Less than one third of Hong Kong is urbanized in the extreme way we think of Hong Kong. Two thirds of the territory are preserved as country parks, and they are astoundingly beautiful, with banyan trees, and terrifying hills, and gorgeous beautiful beaches alongside the South China Sea.

If Vancouver’s beautiful lie is that its natural beauty hides the ugliness of its addiction to capital, Hong Kong is an odd inversion where the glamour of its capital overshadow its natural splendour.

But Hong Kong’s ugliness is evident in its collection of lies, all in the interests of capital. You might think that a city so committed to the service of capital that it brought Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping together3 might actually somehow live up to the aspirations of both: that it might be a city of common wealth, with all having some and some having more. Or that it might be some shining example of the efficiency of the market, where any consumer whim could be met in seconds.

Hong Kong isn’t like that.

Hong Kong is, much rather, one of the world’s most unequal places. A few are very, very rich. Many, many more are very, very poor. From the windows of one house, in the prestigious Victoria Peak district, which reportedly costs more than $190mm USD, you can see the towering agglomerations of state-owned micro apartments, into which poor families are crammed. So many of these families were refugees from the Chinese Civil War, people who fled battles on foot, walking for miles and miles, only to swim across rivers or oceans to land in the British colony of Hong Kong, where they were not welcomed as refugees but rather looked on as burdens. And it was only when shanty towns started burning down and hundreds of lives were lost that the British colonial managers did anything. And what they did was build massive apartment buildings of microscopic flats.

Bending to the will of the market, Hong Kong’s minimum wage is laughable, as are its working standards. Gifting employers with dozens of hours of overtime is becoming an expected social norm. Social enterprises are popping up to provide employment to workers with disabilities – except that in Hong Kong, aging seems to be a disability, and if you’re over 40, you’re likely to be training your replacement and then find yourself unemployed.

Hong Kong has a terrific will to build. Despite the fact that so comparatively little of the territory is urbanized, what it urbanized is ridiculously urbanized. Office buildings tower. Apartment buildings tower. Towers tower. And everyone owns so little — housing costs are ridiculously high, but they’re second only to Vancouver. Apartments are measured in the low hundreds of square feet – though in Vancouver, they’re increasingly measured in only the mid to high hundreds of square feet. It’s almost as if in its rush to catch up with Hong Kong, Vancouver is stretching to reduce its housing size and increase its cost. And perhaps both cities are united in this ugliness.

But there’s also an interesting counter-narrative to all of this as well. Hidden inside the deeply conflicted communities in both Hong Kong and Vancouver are glimpses of a would-be better world that is yearning to get out.

In Hong Kong, it’s the democracy movement. Since its inception as a crown colony, Hong Kong has never experienced democracy. It’s long been promised, and even committed to in the Basic Law4, but it’s never been fully implemented. Even the Chinese Communist Party promised democracy as part of its evolution of governance in China — but it’s something that just isn’t happening.

Despite this, there are hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers who want real and genuine democracy in their territory, and they’re willing to fight for it. The Umbrella Movement and protests in support of Hong Kong’s fledgling democracy brought thousands to occupy the streets of Admiralty and Central — along with Mong Kok, Causeway Bay, and other districts. Streets were occupied for weeks on end — and minds were changed in Hong Kong. And even though Hong Kong’s tentative democracy is fantastically rigged – where 57% of the population votes in favour of pro-democracy candidates and only receives 38% representation in the Legislative Council5 – people still organize for a better Hong Kong and a better world.

In Vancouver, it’s sometimes harder for someone like me to see what the hope is. I know it’s present in the communities that celebrate the arts – celebrating the potential of art to allow us to express ourselves more humanely, instead of simply working to be able to afford work. Or maybe it’s the groups that are working actively in support of reconciliation with the First Nations people in our region, acknowledging the historic wrongs colonialism and settling has done to them. And maybe it’s the people working to build a more affordable and equal society, through housing co-operatives or social enterprise that puts people first. Oddly, and perhaps strangely, there isn’t so much electoral engagement — and while we can claim to have genuine democracy, it’s certainly possible to wonder if ours is as rigged as Hong Kong’s, given the free flow of corporate investment in political parties at a municipal level, and the close interrelations between the corporate and government spheres at higher ones. But there is hope there.

The similarities between Hong Kong and Vancouver are too many to be simple, inconsequential coincidence. Both cities are beautiful, full of hope, but also hiding lies and ugliness. The true story is how we engage with this as we try to eke out our livings.


  1. Creative Commons photo credits: “Vancouver Night Skyline” by Jerry Meaden, and “Hong Kong Skyline” by Abdul Rahman.
  2. Really. The lease of the New Territories, the northern portion of the Hong Kong SAR were leased to Britain for 99 years in 1898, as opposed to being simply ceded as Hong Kong Island and Kowloon south of Boundary Road were earlier in the century.
  3. It happened.
  4. As a commitment to “universal suffrage,” which apparently doesn’t mean anything, given the (thankfully rejected) attempts at implementing a Beijing-approved universal suffrage law in 2015.
  5. Hong Kong also has two types of representatives in its Legislative Council – some are popularly elected, and others are elected by “functional constituency,” essentially trade groups. Arguably, those should be more ‘controllable’ by Beijing, and even there, 50.73% of the votes were cast in favour of the pro-democracy camp, and 45% were cast in favour of Beijing-aligned parties/
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