Race and real estate: Chinese Canadians sound off about stereotypes and prejudice

Chinese Canadians say they feel unfairly blamed for the housing affordability problem in Metro Vancouver.

'A lot of times you're being misjudged,' says Weymi Cho, former cast member of Ultra Rich Asian Girls

Pam Zhao, left, and Weymi Cho, right, are former cast members of the online reality web series, Ultra Rich Asian Girls of Vancouver. The two now run a floral shop in Point Grey. (Bal Brach/CBC News)

As the debate over rising real estate prices and housing unaffordability continues in Metro Vancouver, some in the Chinese Canadian community say they feel unfairly targeted as the root of the problem.

They say when people generally speak about foreign investment in Metro Vancouver real estate, they tend to lump all Chinese people in the same category — as wealthy foreigners driving up the cost of housing for locals.

They say that is simply not true.

Urban planner and researcher Andy Yan conducts a monthly call-in show on Fairchild radio in Mandarin and Cantonese. 

Yan, whose own grandfather paid the head tax to get into Canada, says Chinese Canadians have their own stories to tell about not being able to afford housing, but that narrative has not been told.

The callers on Fairchild radio share their stories of struggling with the cost of housing in Metro Vancouver, and vent anger around issues of foreign investment in real estate. 

"A lot of it [calls] is frankly outrage," said Yan.

"It's a complete and total outrage in terms of inequality. It is complete and total outrage in terms of fairness, in terms of transparency." 

He said the Chinese community blames speculators for sky-high housing prices. 

Research called racist

Yan has personal experience with racism and real estate. In 2015, Yan published research that found that two-thirds of expensive home sales at the time, on the city's west side, went to people with non-Anglicized Chinese first names.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said Yan's research had racist overtones.

Yan would like to see a more nuanced approach to stories about real estate and foreign investment in the market.

"I don't like the idea of constantly portraying one group as victims and then and the other group as agents. So if you will, like some people blaming the ultra rich folks as the agents of residential unaffordability in Vancouver.

"And yet the other side of the group says well there are perpetual victims."

Researcher Andy Yan says his research shows most home buyers he studied in 2014 needed a mortgage to buy their homes on the west side. (CBC )

Pam Zhao, 28, is a wealthy Chinese Canadian who was once a foreigner. 

Zhao and her business partner Weymi Cho were former cast members of the online reality web series Ultra Rich Asian Girls.

She feels that because her family came to Canada under the immigrant investor program and has money, she is treated differently and viewed as the part of the reason why there's a housing affordability problem. 

"The stereotype is always going to be there," said Zhao, who runs a floral shop in Point Grey. 

Zhao said some people make off-the-cuff remarks about her wealth, others assume that she would not need to work for a living.

"Even when I'm taking a cab to downtown and sometimes [the] driver talks to me...and then he would actually be like 'oh you're Chinese — taking a cab, you must be rich.'

"Now I was like where does that come from? Maybe I drank today and I have to take a cab or something like that."

Zhao — whose family arrived in Canada when she was 12 years-old — described an incident where someone spit on her friend's high end luxury car as the two watched from a restaurant patio in downtown Vancouver.

"What can you do?," said Zhao when asked about her response to the incident. 

She understands the frustration people feel about the high cost of living in the city, but feels the anger is misdirected and instead, people should focus on solutions to the housing crisis.

Pam Zhao, far left, and Weymi Cho (centre left), are former cast members of the online web reality show "Ultra Rich Asians" (William Luk/Ultra Rich Asian Girls)

Zhao and Cho are no longer on the show and now run their business full time. 

"A lot of times you're being misjudged," said Weymi Cho.

"Even for this first flower shop like we do pretty much do everything .... and a lot of people are like 'you don't need to work for money' and second off  'oh you're lucky you have a flower shop...' They think like we're just sitting here and have a cup of tea." 

While there is evidence that non-residents make up a sizeable portion of certain housing markets in the region, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) estimates that non-residents own less than 5 per cent of all residential properties in Metro Vancouver. 

"Blaming foreigners — blaming the Chinese is actually a red herring," said historian Henry Yu.

"In other words it misleads us to think that if we just stopped Chinese from coming, if we stop them from buying or we made it more expensive for them to buy, we'd be all okay.

It's like actually, you're trying to solve the wrong problem."

In CBC's original podcast called SOLD! Yu describes a long history of racial scapegoating in B.C.

About the Author

Bal Brach

@BalBrach

Bal Brach is an award-winning reporter at CBC News Vancouver. She has more than a decade of experience working in television, radio and online news across Canada. Bal's storytelling skills have earned her a Jack Webster Award. She is also the recipient of regional and national Radio Television Digital News Association awards. Bal can be reached at Bal.Brach@cbc.ca or on social media @BalBrach