Vancouver: East West

“WE believe we live in the best place on earth. We know it, we love it, we feel it and we want it. We are surrounded by the ‘haves’ and we want it all.” Even a tipsy woman in the trendy Opus Bar, where I am enjoying an evening cocktail, sings the praises of her city. Kate was pushed over from a giggling bachelorette party with some risqué questions, before I turned the tables by asking her to define a Vancouverite.

At the very least, Vancouver is a place where it seems impossible not to be upbeat, with or without alcohol. Maybe it is all that exercise; seldom have I seen more people out running or cycling every morning. Or perhaps it is just the invigorating view of mountain and sea that places Vancouver between two aspects of nature at her loveliest.

“It’s the freshness,” says Prit, who I meet playing pétanque on the city’s beach. “Wherever I go, when I come back to Vancouver I feel the freshness, the rain.”

Ah, the rain. “Yes, it rains 75 per cent of the year [it is actually around 170 days] but it’s still warm,” says Matt Churchill, who runs The Standard bike shop on the edge of the city’s Chinatown. “People just gear up with fenders, rain coats, rain pants and a backpack with a change of clothes. Vancouver is very forward-looking and cycling is being pushed hard as part of its plans to be a green city.”

Starting a theme I have already become familiar with in Vancouver, Matt has moved here from further east. “I am originally from Calgary, where there are only about four months of the year that you can easily ride a bike – it gets dangerous and cold,” he says. So many people I meet seem to be from Calgary, Toronto or some other smaller town in Canada’s interior and east coast. One thing driving them to leave is the harsh winters elsewhere, although apparently that does not stop hard-core cyclists. “You just pee on the gears,” says a bike courier browsing the shop, offering a de-icing tip from his hometown of Banff that I am sure you cannot wait for winter to try.

“I have been here for four years,” says Matt. “It is a city in which you can’t be bored. There are so many options, always something to do. You can climb a mountain, jump in the ocean or do a million other things. The worst thing is the rain. Or the rent, it is an expensive city to live in. Oh, and liquor stores shut at 11 and they close on holidays. Why, when that is when they should be most open?”

On a walk along the foreshore, bikes are only one of the modes of transport I see being used. There are joggers, walkers, boarders and in-line skaters, as well as a group of mothers doing exercises with their baby buggies in tow. Even the bicycles themselves show a variety that ranges from unicycles to tandems – although most are spotlessly new. There are none of the battered utilitarian bikes of cities such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen.

The sea wall runs from the university across False Creek and into the green expanses of Stanley Park, giving a stretch of seafront you can follow for kilometres. Against a backdrop of luxury yachts, I see sailboats, dragon boat racers, kayakers and, above all, stand-up paddle-boarders, illustrating that not all the exercising is confined to land.

“Our coastal setting is a big part of who we are,” says Jenn Potter, a guide with Tours by Locals. “Our proximity to the beach means we’re constantly reminded – to put it bluntly – that life is good. We regularly stop to take a breath and look around and feel happy about where we are. We work to play rather than live to work as in other large Canadian cities. The hippie movement in Canada in the 1960s was centred in Vancouver, and Greenpeace started here.”

Behind the shore path, blocks of upmarket apartments glitter in the sun. At their bases, expanses of grass are filled by sunbathing women reading books, personal fitness trainers putting clients through their paces, yoga and tai chi practitioners, and couples just enjoying each other’s company. I guess all the lazy people might still be in bed, but the impression is of a city full of energy.

I take to the skies with a Harbour Air floatplane tour to admire Vancouver from above. We take off from the water towards a hill of bright yellow sulphur awaiting export, then bank away from the city centre before flying along the coast. Within minutes we are soaring past Grouse Mountain, where I hiked and mountain biked on a previous summer visit and where skiers and boarders play in winter, then past even higher peaks still topped with snow. As we return, almost the whole city is laid out beneath me, looking almost insignificant against the scale of the rugged West.

Vancouver’s beautiful setting is also the reason for the high rents Matt complains about. With the Pacific on one side and mountains on the other, land is at a premium – in contrast to the vast expanses of the rest of Canada. One solution to the cramped setting is to build upwards, as I can see in the ranks of apartment blocks lining the shore as we come in to kiss the water again.

In the city centre, the shiny skyscrapers give a North American anonymity that allows Vancouver to pass for anywhere from New York to Chicago on film, although details such as Tim Horton coffee shops, Maple Leaf flags or yellow fire hydrants no doubt frustrate the location scouts. Downtown malls sit beside redbrick office blocks from the 1930s, while the grid of wide streets and avenues is filled with cars, pick-ups and buses built to Detroit-size scale.

The line for the bus is like a diversity poster: a young red-headed Celt in shorts and T-shirt, an older Indian businesswoman in a summer dress, a Goth girl with random tattoos, a bearded hipster in red turn-ups, sock-less brogues and Trilby hat, an Asian woman in a wide sunhat, and an iPhone-wielding blonde in Lululemon yoga pants.

In fact, apart from the wonderful setting, it is hard to put a finger on what makes Vancouver – and Vancouverites – unique. “One generalization is that we’re a pretty casual city when it comes to dress,” says Jenn. “Even downtown, people in suits stand out more than people in yoga gear, hipster duds or manga wear. And we talk more about what we do with our leisure time than what we do for work. ‘What do you do?’ usually means ‘What do you do for fun?’.”

All that energy is a west coast one and, looking around, the difference between what I see and, say, Seattle or San Diego, is not obvious. The number of Asian faces perhaps? One-third of Vancouver’s population is Chinese, although that figure hides a mixed history.

“Just like many other big cities on the American west coast, most of the early wave of Chinese immigrants were from Quangdong, many working on the railroads,” says Daniel Lui, who owns a teashop in Chinatown. “They spoke their own dialect and, even though I speak Cantonese, I cannot understand it. Then it was people from Hong Kong, in the 1960s and 1970s, with a large number coming around the time of Hong Kong’s independence from Britain in 1999. They speak Cantonese. Now it is Mandarin Chinese-speakers from Mainland China, since the 1980s when the country started to open up. They have worked hard, saved money and are looking for a better life.”

Much of the influx of wealthy Mainland Chinese – yet more easterners arriving in Vancouver if you will – was the result of an immigration policy targeted at rich foreign investors. They could apply for permanent residency in Canada if they had a net worth of at least US$1.5 million and invested half of that with the government in an interest-free loan. The scheme was dominated by Chinese but was cancelled in early 2014 due to concerns about the lack of contribution such immigrants were making to the economy, and the number who could not speak English. But the money they brought – and many continue to bring – will influence the city for years to come.

The change in the Chinese population can be seen most starkly in Chinatown, which covers a few blocks near to the harbour. Abandoned by the wealthier recent arrivals in favour of the swanky city of Richmond in the west, the district’s older Chinese shops are shutting. Daniel’s teashop is one of the few to survive. The empty spaces are being filled by a new mix of trendy and artistic shops, driven into what had become a run-down area by high rents elsewhere. Matt’s The Standard bicycle shop is one such, and another appealing to the same young customer profile is Flatspots Longboards. As the name says, the shop specializes in longboards and takes its name from the wear on one part of a wheel when doing slides. Besides racks of boards and accessories, the shop sports its own skate bowl inside where you can try out the goods before purchase.

“If you look around the historic buildings of Chinatown, you will see most carry the name of a benevolent society somewhere,” says Jackson Hilts, the manager. “When the railroad was being built, the societies looked after people who fell on hard times. In recent years, as most of the Asian people, or at least their children, have moved out to Richmond – the modern Chinatown if you will – the benevolent societies have been looking out for businesses to come in and support the community. They prefer not to sell out to corporate interests, who mostly want to build upmarket housing developments that will bring in a completely different demographic.

“Most of the staff here live above the shop, where we get cheap rent. I pay pretty nominal rent as I live at home with my parents. It’s a choice: I’d rather have a car. Most of the guys don’t have a car but spend the money on rent.”

The rising price of property is a constant refrain among Vancouverites, and is changing the face of the city in ways other than just the growth of apartment blocks. “From necessity, people have had to relook at different pockets of the city to start up their businesses,” says Amanda Kai at The Parker, a vegetarian restaurant on the edge of Chinatown. “So you are seeing these micro communities spring up.” Her business partner, Nick Box (who has moved here from Edmonton, which he simply describes as “boring”), picks up the theme. “People in Vancouver are very supportive of the small, independent, local scene,” he says. “It is not just that they like novelty – although they do. I am blown away by the number of people who really get what we are about. It seems to be a growing trend for people to go out for a vegetarian meal in the same way they might go out for an Italian one.

“Most of our customers are not vegetarians. Many are doing it for health reasons – maybe they eat one meal a day with meat. A lot of times it might be a group of friends celebrating a birthday or something and only one is vegetarian, but they come here so they feel comfortable.”

That tolerance is a theme I find myself returning to a few days later when I meet with baker Jackie Ellis. One unmistakable contribution from the Asian influx, which also includes large numbers from Japan, Korea and The Philippines, is the city’s food and Jackie uses her own Chinese roots as inspiration for original flavour combinations in her award-winning cakes. Born in Vancouver, she studied pastry making in Paris before coming home to open the popular Beaucoup Bakery, famed for its authentic French-style, butter-rich croissants.

“I have been trying to define Vancouver’s culinary identity and it almost impossible because there are so many cultures in the mix,” she says. “At the bakery we have lemon tart, which is very French, but we put Asian flavours in it. Vancouver’s food is completely infused with similar Asian influences. There are so many great sushi, ramen or Korean food places and the Chinese food is off the charts.

“The fusion is so deep that everybody here knows how to use chopsticks – it is just not a thing.”

As I try, unsuccessfully, to keep my shirt free of crumbs while eating some of her delicate pastries, we talk more about this Chinese influx. “Asian people sometimes now feel like a majority in Vancouver,” she says. “At school, I was one of the few Asian kids, but Richmond is now almost completely all Asian. I have relatives here who do not speak any English but get by. When immigrants were the minority, the onus was on them to understand the Canadian culture, but now there are so many there is not that pressure to fit in.”

She sees that as a tribute to Canadian tolerance, pointing to the Canadian habit of saying sorry when someone bumps into you. “We will go through every avenue to defuse tension,” she says. “There is not that pressure to be Canadian in the same way that Americans have to be American. It is acceptable to be separate, to be different. It is hard to think of an American west coast city that would allow so many immigrants. There are many people here who do not speak English yet they are Canadian citizens.”

Jackie’s bakery is a block away from Granville Island, a place about which it is impossible not to use the word “melting pot” – so I won’t try. This former industrial area, in the shadow of a huge grid-like road bridge spanning False Creek, has been transformed into a foodie’s paradise with a busy market and shore-side dining. Visitors and locals mingle in a lovely setting that is unmistakably in the city yet also somehow feels apart from it. The island is larger than it looks, and a walk around finds me stumbling on zany art workshops and quirky souvenir shops. This is the place to find a pirate’s chest or a hand-carved totem pole.

From Granville Island, I take one of the rainbow-colored Aquabus ferryboats for a tour from the water. The service cruises False Creek, picking up and dropping commuters, other locals and visitors alike. I use it like a hop-on, hop-off tour bus, visiting sights such as the tiny but fascinating Maritime Museum.

Still in museum mode, I visit the Central Art Gallery where there is a large art exhibition by Canadian author Douglas Coupland, he of Generation XIn it, he has tried to define what it means to be Canadian and one exhibit is simply a grab-bag of brand names and things: Tim Horton, an ice hockey puck and face mask, a narwhale horn and a bag of Robin Hood floor. Another uses a repeated series of identical Lego houses to highlight the contrast between the Canadian mythology of endless wilderness and the reality of life in the suburbs of cities such as Vancouver.

I leave possibly no surer of what it is that makes someone a Canadian, or a Vancouverite, but more certain there is such an identity. Part of it is just those secret code words that every culture enjoys using to define itself as separate from “others”, down to the brand names of food unique to the place – from Ouma Rusks in South Africa to Anzac biscuits in Australia and New Zealand. These are ties that bind deeper than we might first think.

In many ways, Vancouver is Generation X come to life: a city of people who in one sense could be from anywhere – as most are. But the city that has taken them in has also melded them together in a very positive way. It has given them a character they may not know themselves, a distinct one of tolerance and optimism, perhaps driven by the oft-met promise of a better life, that I fall more in love with every time I visit.

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