The smell of freshly steamed buns wafted through the air at a Richmond Chinese bakery. An impatient lineup stretched out to the pavement.
Suddenly, an elderly Mandarin speaking woman elbowed in to the front of the line.
"These mainlanders," sniffed a woman to her companion in Hokkien, a Chinese dialect usually spoken by people from China's Fujian province and other southeast Asian countries like Singapore, Taiwan and the Philippines.
"They don't know how to behave." The pair then launched into a whispered tirade about how mainland Chinese people were country bumpkins with no class or nouveau riche who dress in designer labels.
"It's not really their fault," the companion said magnanimously. "What do you expect, living all those years under Communist rule?" The exchange, rife with stereotypes, was overheard by a Province reporter a few months ago. It is not uncommon.
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To an outsider's eyes, the Lower Mainland's Chinese-Canadian community might seem homogeneous. But within this community there are invisible divisions marked by differences in language, countries of origin, class, politics, values, even length of time in Canada.
According to the 2011 census, about 432,680 people in Metro Vancouver, or almost 19 per cent, identified themselves as having Chinese ethnicity.
Most Chinese immigrants are from Hong Kong, and more recently, mainland China. But there are also many ethnic Chinese from countries such as Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Among residents who report having a Chinese mother tongue, 138,845 say they speak Cantonese, which is the dialect from Hong Kong and Guangzhou province.
About 96,400 speak Mandarin, predominantly spoken in mainland China and Taiwan, while another 125,580 speak a Chinese language not specified, which, according to Statistics Canada, could also include Hakka, Taiwanese, Chaochow, Fukien and Shanghainese. David Wong, a Vancouver-born architect, is sensitive to these invisible divides. Seven years ago, he started an irreverent blog in a fit of fury, after what he saw as politicians pandering to new immigrants and neglecting Chinese-Canadians who have lived in B.C. for generations.
The blog, called The Ugly Chinese Canadian, explores the "unspoken thoughts and politics within the Asian-North American community" from "a 'banana's' perspective." One entry riffs on tensions between Hong Kong Chinese, who came over in great waves before the 1997 Hong Kong handover and the newly wealthy mainland Chinese, who are now the most populous immigrants arriving in B.C.
"We assume H.K. expats do not like being outdone by the wealth flaunted by their once impoverished mainland brethren," it said. "And golly, are these once back-country yokel farmers without taste! There isn't a day we (don't) hear H.K.ers complain of how loud and obnoxious the new mainlanders are."
It echoes similar tensions simmering in Hong Kong, where locals complain about mainlanders jaywalking, spitting, cutting in line and eating on the subway; of pregnant women flocking to their hospitals to give birth, taking up precious medical resources; and of wealthy investors driving up real-estate prices (sound familiar?)
Despite the tone of the blog, Wong said the fractures within the community sadden him.
"It breaks my heart to see," he said. "It's not healthy ... to dislike a certain group because of their characteristics."
Wong acknowledges it's inevitable immigrants bring their customs, traditions, values and behaviour as they start to rebuild their life in a new place - yet in some cases he wishes it was not so.
He talks about how, a few years ago, he was embroiled in a spat over whether a non-Chinese friend running for office should use simplified or traditional Chinese characters in his campaign material. He championed the use of simplified characters - associated more with China than Taiwan - and received angry emails as a result, even getting accused of being a "communist slut."
Another time, a client from mainland China objected to him having a Japanese-Canadian as a partner in his architecture firm. "Don't you know he's an enemy of the Chinese?" Wong recalls the man whispering to him.
He gets upset when he hears about immigrants coming to Canada for citizenship, then returning to their home countries.
"Now that we have acceptance for all people in Canada, I want to tell them, 'Don't ruin it now ... don't blow it,'" said Wong.
He's aware he might get flack for his views, but insists "people need to talk about these things and not let it seethe under the carpet."
Alden Habacon, director of intercultural understanding at the University of B.C., said tension between groups of the same ethnicity are not new. One way this plays out is in friction between new immigrants and Canadian-born descendants of immigrants who have lived in Canada for generations.
For those who are Canadian-born, "instead of identifying with (newcomers) to celebrate your shared heritage, you avoid them because they are the stereotype you have fought all your high-school life not to be," he said.
Habacon, who was born in smalltown Saskatchewan to Filipino immigrants and moved to Vancouver at 17, struggled with his identity growing up: "In high school my greatest fear was to be labelled an immigrant because it was seen as lesser."
He was so proud of his "strong Canadian identity" that he joined the army reserve to make his Canadianness "irrefutable." That was so unnecessary, he says now.
Wong, too, shared similar issues growing up.
As a Chinese kid growing up in East Vancouver, he was bullied, spat on and called names. They were moments that made him wish he was not Chinese, he said. But as he grew older, he began to appreciate his heritage.
Wong expressed doubts about Canada's policy of multiculturalism, which he described as a "dismal failure."
It would be nice, he said, if new immigrants acted more Canadian. "I think new immigrants can embrace the values we have here more."
He paused, then added: "But it will happen."
Habacon believes multiculturalism has been misunderstood and used as a convenient excuse to keep imported traditions that smack of bigotry. Multiculturalism emerged out of an intent to be inclusive, he said. It is not carte blanche to practise beliefs and traditions if those beliefs and traditions exclude others.
He gives a scenario. If your sweet old-fashioned grandmother tells you to marry your own kind, what do you do? It's awkward, he said, because on one hand it's something your elders insist is tradition, or just how things are done in your family, yet it does not embody the values of acceptance, diversity and inclusivity Canadians are about.
Our challenge today, said Habacon, is to say: "You know, grandma, I love you and everything, but that is racist."
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