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Vancouver: No Place for Globaphobes

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Vancouver is a city that likes to brand itself as Canada's "Pacific Gateway," a global portal to the world. Like everyone else, we want our fair share of Asia's game-changing, economic boom.

Yet when Asia shows interest, Vancouverites have a history of responding with what you might call globaphobia. Sure, we want to be part of Asia's boom. But some of the locals don't always want to deal with the consequences of those rich globals bringing in the dollars.

The latest proof of this schism between the globals vs. the locals is seen in Vancouver's rising real estate prices. Rich Chinese from mainland China [the globals] are showing up at open houses on the city's leafy west side, chequebooks open and Mont Blanc pens drawn to ink deals starting at a $1-million-plus for teeny, tiny bungalows.

Now, some Vancouverites are delighted by this. Their aging little bungalows are going for record prices. If you're an owner -- a minority in Vancouver -- you are getting richer.

Nobody keeps statistics on how many Chinese are actually buying in Vancouver, but the anecdotes are telling. Eric Christiansen, a top relator in West Vancouver, told the Wall Street Journalthat 14 of the 16 homes that sold for more than $5 million this year were bought by these Chinese globals.

It's unquestionably heating up the market. One of my friends flew in a week ago from the east, sold his home for a handsome profit, and then promptly left town. Another pal was given a $2-million-dollar-plus offer on their house and, if he accepts, will now be able to semi-retire -- if, that is, they leave Vancouver for a smaller city.

But there's a whole other subset of Vancouver -- made up of the locals who don't own or are getting nervous about all the change coming in from abroad. They just can't see how they can keep up with China's globals, who they suspect might just be parking their money here, as if the city were a safety deposit box in case things go sideways in China.

One former Vancouver city councilor had the courage to say publicly what's on the minds of a lot of Vancouver's globaphobes: "If our prices are being driven up by people who are simply investing in our community and not living here, there are a whole lot of problems that result. (The high prices) erode the economy, it erodes the community when people come here and buy homes they don't live in and it makes the neighbourhoods unsafe and -- and less vibrant, it splits up families."

Sound familiar? It should.

In the 1990s, as China's communist regime got ready to take back Britain's colony Hong Kong, a wave of nervous Hong Kong Chinese also began flooding into Vancouver, snapping up passports -- and real estate.

Back then the major complaint from the locals was the new arrivals were bulldozing quaint Vancouver cottages to put up their so-called "monster houses" (which, incidentally, everyone seems to do now when they buy an old Vancouver bungalow). In that era, there was also endless debates about Hong Kong's astronauts -- those rich Chinese who seemed to spend most of their lives on jets going back and forth from Hong Kong (where they made their money) and sleepy Vancouver (where they domiciled their wives and children).

That era's backlash from the locals was often characterized as xenophobia. It did seem to echo Vancouver's history of anti-Chinese racism from generations before.

In retrospect, however, that 1990s debate over monster-homes and astronauts wasn't Vancouver's old racism showing. The city had outgrown that sort of nastiness. It was actually Vancovuer's early brush with globalism and it sparked the first flash of globaphobia.

A new sort of immigrant was jetting in, challenging the town's old hegemony. It was the locals (we don't need too much change, thanks very much) vs. the globals (sorry, we have the money and smarts to do what we want). The new arrivals were global citizens from Hong Kong. They didn't come to Vancouver to start up laundromats and noodle houses. They were here to build luxury penthouses and buy them.

Who won? Well, we all did.

Almost two decades after those complaints about the 1990s' wave of Hong Kong immigrants, Vancouver is clearly a more dynamic place.

It is renowned as an international city, perhaps the most Asian metropolis on the continent. Entire new pockets of Vancouver have sprung to life, such as the distinctly Hong-Kong style high-rise enclaves of Coal Harbour and Yale Town. Billions of dollars of foreign investment -- not to mention hundreds of thousands of highly skilled immigrants -- have poured into Vancouver. It's all helped the city climb the ranks as one of the world's great places to live.

So when anyone starts complaining to you that the mainland Chinese are now pricing Vancouverites out of their own city, keep that recent history in mind. Don't join the globaphobes. Vancouver is a place where the locals and globals don't just coexist -- they are actually building a dynamic city for us all.

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