This is why Vancouver has become North America’s anti-Asian hate crime capital

It’s said to be the most Asian city outside Asia. Where a quarter of residents speak a Chinese language and the char siu rivals what’s served in Hong Kong barbecue shops. Where a Sikh gurdwara, a Tibetan monastery and a Chinese evangelical church coexist in harmony along a three-kilometre stretch of road dubbed the Highway to Heaven. The kind of place that should be immune to a rise in pandemic-fuelled racism.

Vancouver has been anything but.

Last year, more anti-Asian hate crimes were reported to police in Vancouver than in the top 10 most populous U.S. cities combined. With almost one out of every two residents of Asian descent in British Columbia experiencing a hate incident in the past year, the region is confronting an undercurrent of racism that runs as long and deep as the historical links stretching across the Pacific.

COVID-19 was the trigger. But the resentment had been building for decades. Few areas have been so visibly transformed by Asian immigration — and money — as the Lower Mainland. Vancouver itself has become a glittering cosmopolis of luxury condos and designer boutiques. The disproportionate rash of incidents has raised an unsettling question: Maybe Vancouver isn’t the bastion of progressive multiculturalism it thinks it is.

“COVID has just revealed what’s always been there,” says Trixie Ling, 38, a Taiwan-born immigrant who three years ago founded a nonprofit called Flavours of Hope to assist refugee women. She was accosted in May 2020 by a man who spewed a stream of racist and sexist insults before spitting in her face. “There is so much anti-Asian racism in our past that carries through.”

The recent backlash against the broader Asian community started almost as soon as COVID-19 began spreading beyond China in early 2020, with Vancouver seemingly poised to become an epicentre. The city had more direct flights with mainland China than any other in the Americas or Europe. A local businessman flying home from Wuhan became B.C.’s Case 1 on Jan. 26, among the first detected outside Asia at the time.

Months later, it would become clear that route wasn’t, in fact, the principal cause of the virus’s spread in the area: Epidemiological studies showed that the primary source of infections was strains from Europe, Eastern Canada and Washington state.

But in the early weeks of the pandemic, simply looking Asian and wearing a mask in Vancouver triggered verbal assaults such as “Virus spreaders,” “Go back to China” and “Stop stealing masks from frontline workers.” The attacks quickly escalated: One 92-year-old was hurled out of a convenience store to the sidewalk; a woman was punched in the head at a downtown bus stop in broad daylight. Vandals repeatedly defaced statues and buildings in Chinatown with racist graffiti.

In 2020, Vancouver police documented 98 anti-Asian hate crimes, an eightfold increase from the prior year. That was triple the number recorded in New York, which logged the most of any U.S. city, according to police data collected by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino.

Of course, most incidents go unreported. An April 9 survey by Vancouver-based pollster Insights West revealed that 43 per cent of B.C. residents of Asian descent say they experienced a racist incident in the past year, ranging from racial slurs to property damage to physical assault. And almost half say they believe the racism will get worse. A report by the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice in September found that Canada, per capita, had a higher incidence of anti-Asian racism than the U.S., with B.C. topping the list of provinces reporting incidents.

For those living in Richmond, just south of Vancouver proper, where ethnic Chinese constitute 54 per cent of the population, it’s been a particularly bitter irony. Richmond residents began practicing social distancing and donning face masks even before the province’s first case was detected. Months later, public-health officials and researchers would commend the local Chinese community for playing a key role in containing the virus’s early spread. More than a year into the pandemic, Richmond’s total infection rate remains dramatically low, closer to that of Nunavut than to the Vancouver metropolitan area.

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