Voracious Vancouver: Return to the Homeland

Thirty years ago, Edward Schuldt left Vancouver for a new life in London England. This past summer he returned to his homeland to take care of family matters. Below, he shares his observations of a place that has transformed from sleepy lumber town into a post-card pretty metropolis of glass and steel — with an economy driven by international real estate investors.

Captain Vancouver rests in a secluded rural graveyard just south of Richmond, Surrey, in England (not B.C.), about 100 metres away from the Thames and 80 kilometres away from the sea. I wonder what he would think now if he saw the thrusting, energetic, vibrant city of Vancouver that was named after him.

He might think, as I did on returning to my childhood home after 30 years, or, for that matter, what the Salish people did while witnessing what the constant influx of colonists and other immigrants did to their sacred mountainous, forested land by the sea.  OMG (to borrow the overused txt phrase), this place has changed.

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Growing up in Point Grey in the 1950s and 60s, I knew mainly people of European origin. They’d arrived in Gastown and early Vancouver in a steady stream. My maternal grandparents came from England in 1911 with my one-year-old mother; and my father, whose family was of German origin, came via the USA and then Calgary in the 1940s.  

Everyone in my Queen Elizabeth Elementary and Lord Byng High School was white: English, Greek, Danish, German, Scot, Italian or Eastern European. The only Chinese I knew ran a corner store on 16th and Camosun and the Roseland Market, another grocery shop on 10th Avenue.

The many oriental restaurants in the eastern part of Hastings Street were a mystery to me. We were told by our parents (and even the police) never to venture into that part of town after dark. I was 18 before I had my first Chinese meal at the Varsity Grill on 10th and Trimble, and 21 before my first curry, when I was actually in Fiji.

We knew that people of the Far and Middle East resided somewhere in Vancouver, but we rarely saw them.  And we never saw any native people, now referred to as Aboriginal or First Nations people; they were relegated to reservations, which we didn’t talk about.

It’s odd, considering certain non-white cultures have played a large part in Vancouver’s history. The Chinese, for example, practically built the Canadian railway. In fact, if it weren’t for them throwing their empty oyster shells into the Pacific Ocean at the end of the line, BC might not have a thriving oyster industry. The eggs inside the “empty” discarded shells blossomed in the perfect combination of fresh river and seawater. Very few Vancouverites know this—or just how badly the railway engineer bosses treated the Chinese.

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Well, like the oysters they discarded, the Chinese now thrive in Vancouver business and academia, and Vancouver has one of the largest Chinatowns on the continent. Indeed, when we arrived at Vancouver International, we couldn’t help but notice that nine out of 10 of the customs officials waiting to greet us were Asian.

And for the past two decades, the overseas Chinese, particularly after the demise of Hong Kong, have been busy buying up Vancouver real estate, boosting housing prices to the point where many Vancouver residents can no longer get into their own housing market (“Go even further West, young man, to Vancouver Island, if you want a house.”)

Anyway, I now have a faint understanding of what the First Nations people, originally of Asian descent, must have felt at the steady influx of white strangers. Wouldn’t it be ironic if, on this second wave of Asian influx, the WASP population eventually ended up on reservations.  

Vancouver has also for some time had a Middle Eastern population—many of whom worked in the lumber industry. But their increase is less noticeable, except in parts of the North Shore, where grocery stores, bakeries, and restaurants cater to a significant Iranian population in North and West Vancouver. Oddly, Vancouver still has relatively few black people.

Along with this huge cosmopolitan shift, the land itself has changed too. Although arriving to the city by airplane has always been “awesome!” in the truest sense of the word—the view a bounty of pristine sea, inlets, lakes, rivers, and snow-capped mountains—this time round I notice something else. The change from small city to international metropolis comes at a price. Clearly, even from thousands of feet up, you can see buildings and housing encroaching on nature’s bounty. The word that comes to my mind is “stretch.”

Yes, there are still vast expanses of water, primal rainforests and the ubiquitous mountains stretching above it all. But new stretches of highway penetrate virgin land. And the residential areas and the commercial estates are stretching up the northern mountainsides; ever further down towards the American border, and eastwards towards Chilliwack and beyond.

This “stretching” has been more subtle as well. Walking through my old Point Grey childhood streets, the maple and chestnut trees that used to line the sidewalks neatly now stretch across roads to meet in the middle, forming an almost impenetrable canopy of leaves. Instead of being pretty, they are intrusive, creating claustrophobic shade in a rainforest city whose residents don’t get enough light to begin with.

The roads are used by an increasing number of stretch limos.  Many more and higher buildings are now stretching skywards in competition with the cedars and firs.  Houses in North and West Vancouver all the way to Horseshoe Bay now stretch into primeval forest.

Throngs of people stretch on the seawalls before jogging along the borders of the city and Stanley Park. The skyscrapers of the West End and Yaletown now reflect the stretching ambitions of their inhabitants.  Vancouver has stretch buses, stretch yachts and stretch passenger ships in the harbour.

This appetite for growth seems voracious. Must make all these successful nouveau arrives very hungry, hence the countless restaurants, cafes, neighbourhood pubs and bistros everywhere, all full in spite of the sky-high prices. Don’t tell me that London and Paris are expensive places to eat; Vancouver is up there with the costliest.

Yet practically everyone seems happy.  I don’t remember Vancouverites smiling and hugging so much. Yes, the post-hippy world in general is more touchy-feely, but Vancouver more than most big cities seems to personify post-hippy happiness. I walk the avenues of North Van or around the Stanley Park seawall in the early sunlit morning and almost everyone says a cheery “good morning.”  

In spite of the challenges of growth, people here are incredibly positive.  The roads may be clogged with cars every rush hour morning and evening, especially on Lions Gate and 2nd Narrows bridges (actually worse than rush hour in London or Paris), and yet good nature (mostly) prevails.

Or is this all a veneer, a Canadian version of the American Dream? After all, the headlines regularly call attention to a troubling drug problem, not to mention the gang wars, which often play out on some of Vancouver’s toniest streets. Can such phenomenal growth happen without something having to give?

The world may well need more Canada, but after a month in the city where I grew up, I can say that Vancouver certainly does not need more world.

Edward Schuldt

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