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Why Chineseness Can Matter When Reporting On Vancouver

10/15/2014 02:10 EDT | Updated 12/15/2014 05:59 EST

Is it always necessary for a reporter to mention someone's Chinese ethnicity, origins, or cultural heritage? Or is it never necessary? If the answer is sometimes, then when and why?

I've been thinking about these questions over the past couple of weeks. Being the Vancouver correspondent for an English-language Hong Kong newspaper (the majority of whose readership is ethnically Chinese) puts me in an unusual position among my Vancouverite peers. My frequent use of "Chinese" as an ethnic or cultural descriptor has variously resulted in accusations that I am anti-Chinese, pro-Chinese, anti-Canadian, or even anti-Hongkonger.

So why mention when someone is (ahem) Chinese to any extent, ethnically, culturally, or by birth? Two recent stories might help explain my point of view.

There was a great deal of interest in the decision of Hong Kong emigrant Meena Wong to enter Vancouver's mayoral race. But why, asked critics, did I label her as hoping to become the "first Chinese mayor of Vancouver, one of the world's most Chinese cities outside Asia"? Surely this was both inaccurate (Wong's nationality is Canadian) and a bit racist? Why should Vancouverites worry one way or another about her Chineseness? And why label Vancouver, a Canadian city, to any extent Chinese? One reader had no problem with my referring to Wong's Hong Kong connections, but took great exception to my description of her as Chinese -- to his thinking, the two simply could not be conflated.

I happily stand by the description of Wong. In this case "Chinese" refers not to nationality but to ethnicity and cultural origins, since Wong was in fact born in mainland China before moving to Hong Kong as an 11-year-old. And her Chinese origins are important: a defining moment in Wong's path towards political life was her parents' persecution by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Her Chineseness matters.

Ditto for my description of Vancouver; it's a relevant descriptor of the city's high degree of Chinese ethnicity: 29.4 per cent, according to the 2006 census. The city has been shaped by waves of immigration from Hong Kong and mainland China, and Wong was part of that influx.

For what it's worth, I've spoken to Wong several times since I first wrote about her. She has made no mention or complaint about my descriptions.

The next week, I grappled with how best to describe the Chineseness of the BC Parents' Federation (BCPF), an activist group which had clashed with striking teachers. In the end I called it "a parents' group forged within Vancouver's Chinese community," which I concede is a little clumsy.

But I still can't think of a better way to describe the organization. Was I trying to make a racist connotation by mentioning the BCPF's ethnic connections? No. Ignoring this would simply have done a disservice to anyone trying to understand the motivations and origins of the BCPF. The story went on to explain (via academic Justin Tse) how the group should be viewed within the wider context of Chinese immigrant activism in B.C.

In contrast to the South China Morning Post, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation described the BCPF as "a group of parents from Richmond." That might sound safer, but there is a risk: they were "from Richmond" (a heavily Chinese satellite city of Vancouver), if ya know what I mean. To my mind, the use of what some would regard as a euphemism was worse than simply addressing the ethnicity of the protesters. Aside from anything else, it wasn't completely accurate. Among the BCPF protesters was Charter Lau, a well-known social conservative activist from Burnaby, not Richmond.

On a similar tack, domestic Vancouver media will sometimes use "Asian" as a "safe" multi-purpose ethnic descriptor. This strikes me as kind of pointless and kind of insulting. If ethnicity is relevant to a story at all, then Asianness provides almost zero context, and incorrectly asserts some sort of commonality between all Asians: be they Chinese, Bhutanese, Indian, or Indonesian. It's sloppy shorthand.

There is, of course, an inherent risk in highlighting ethnicity at all, Chinese or otherwise. For example, if a driver runs a red light and causes a major accident, what purpose would it serve to mention that they are ethnically Chinese, or a Chinese immigrant? For a Canadian readership, the racist implication would be unacceptable. But a Chinese readership might simply be interested in the fact without any racist understanding.

I do not think that I have yet crossed any racist lines with my reporting. But one day, inadvertently, I probably will. When I do, I'm sure the error of my ways will be swiftly pointed out.

This was first published in the South China Morning Post Hongcouver blog, devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver.

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