Asian Heritage Month

Ideas of home

By Anu Sahota

Post & Beam, Vancouver Special External Link, Monster Home - each of these shorthands denote much more than architectural sensibilities, or, arguably, lack thereof. Post-war affluence was represented by the high ceilings and expansive windows of the mid-century Post & Beams. The economic recession, home buying by baby boomers and changes to immigration patterns in the 1970s help explain the boxy, Vancouver Special style, which emphasized making the most of square footage with extra rooms, garages and secondary suites to accommodate tenants or in-laws. The Monster Home, now a North American fixture, is an even more culturally loaded descriptor.

While Chinatowns, Little Indias and Little Italys connote neighbourhoods in which immigrants in a particular era have set up shops and community spaces, monster homes are historically associated with the new class of business immigrants who arrived in Canada throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Monster homes (on the West Coast anyway) are superficially known for their immodest spaciousness, stuccoed exteriors lacking in detail and gates sometimes crowned by fiberglass lions. However, movements such as globalization, transnationalism, and economic neoliberalism ought to be acknowledged in concert with any attempt to deconstruct, as it were, the monster home.

Signed in December 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration mandated the transition of power over Hong Kong to China in 1997 following 150 years of British Rule. Not surprisingly, Hong Kong's affluent professionals had a lack of confidence in the Chinese Communist government. Around the same time, changes to Canada's immigration policy in 1985 allowed for new considerations of the business immigrant These could include entrepreneurs, investors and the self-employed, so long as they had capital (a net worth of at least $500,000 and at least $250,000 invested in Canadian ventures). There were, then, both political and economic reasons for increased emigration to Canada by wealthier immigrants.

The largest volume of Hong Kong immigrants arrived in Canada between 1990 and 1994, approximately 172,840 or 57% of all Hong Kong emigrants. The numbers fell from 1994 to 1997 following the Asian Financial Crisis and later as confidence in the Chinese government and markets grew (only about three thousand or less a year after 2000). Most of the new immigrants settled in Vancouver - Asia's Pacific Rim counterpart. The influx of immigrants was such that Vancouver would be dubbed Hongcouver, an offensive term that persists today.
Monster homes were built throughout the mid-1980s and 1990s to accommodate these new immigrants. The most pronounced and publicized tensions occurred in the wealthier parts of Vancouver, where some older homes were being demolished and replaced with homes which were, on balance, wildly dissimilar to the existing neighbourhood aesthetic. Residents united in opposition to their construction, putting pressure on the municipal government to enact zoning bylaws restricting lot size and housing designs. Curiously, it was developers who speculated that these were the kinds of homes new residents wanted, well ahead of the immigrants even arriving in Canada.

In a 2004 article in the Vancouver Courier External Link, architecture columnist Barbara Petit recalled that "neighbours kept trying to find reasons to say why they didn't like the houses and one of the reasons was their neighbourhood would be overrun by people that they couldn't even understand (...) We interviewed {the immigrants} and they were shaking their heads. Immigrants that were coming in were educated, they had good taste but they couldn't understand what was being served for dinner. In many cases, they weren't the houses they wanted to buy, but they wanted to seem Canadian and they assumed for the longest time that it was what Canadians liked. The insides of the houses were very tasteful."

Nevertheless, many of their predominantly white middle and upper class neighbours feared the Hong Kong immigrants planned to establish new urban fiefdoms, in the process tearing down structures associated with "a British-inflected cultural vision of stability and harmony." ** Older homes represented old money and continuity with history while the new homes symbolized offshore wealth and global shifts in economic and political influence. All of these issues coalesced at a neighbourhood level as disputes over 'good taste' and 'compatibility' were sometimes racialized as variants of the old xenophobic Oriental menace caricature.

This 1992 clip from CBC Television news in Vancouver captures public debate over the construction of the monster homes and centers on a zoning bylaw that would have restricted lot sizes and established design guidelines. It is interesting to observe here how the civic government (at the time led by Gordon Campbell, now B.C.'s Premier) was put in the position of mitigating disharmony which had its origins in policies at a federal and international level.


Watch the Monster Homes segment on CBC news (1992)(runs 3:57)

Peter Gzowski
In March 1990, Morningside's Peter Gzowski spoke with local resident and broadcaster Colleen Leung who explained the reasons for the Hong Kong influx and admitted her own concern over the "conspicuous consumption" of Hong Kong Asians. (runs 10:57)

** Katharyne Mitchell in Crossing the Neoliberal Line: Pacific Rim Migration and the Metropolis (2004)

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