Chinese-Canadians and South Asians urge vigilance against xenophobia and bigotry

Donald Trump’s first weekend in the White House was met with record protests in Washington, D.C. and around the world, and the president’s approval rating is hovering in the low to mid-thirties, which is unheard of territory for a brand new occupant of the Oval Office.

In Vancouver, an estimated 15,000 joined a women’s march on Saturday, Jan. 21, which passed in front of the newly opened Trump Vancouver hotel and luxury condo tower on Georgia Street. The building itself has been a source of controversy for years, even back when it seemed Trump had little to no chance of winning the presidency. Last winter, in reference to candidate Trump’s remarks about Muslims and Mexicans, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson wrote in a letter addressed to the developer financing the project: “Trump’s name and brand have no more place on Vancouver’s skyline than his ignorant ideas have in the modern world.”

Photo by Roaming the Planet

Immigrant and minority communities on their guard

Trump’s “populism” may be unpopular here in Canada, but minority communities in this country have reason to be worried the virus could spread. His style of politics, with its divisive appeals to xenophobia and nationalism couched as part of a populist attack on economic elites and an entrenched political establishment, is not strictly an American phenomenon. Leaders like Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines have also risen to power following campaigns featuring populist, anti-establishment themes.

For immigrant and minority communities in B.C., there is already disturbing evidence that Trump’s win has emboldened local xenophobes and bigots. In speaking with myriad people from the South Asian and Chinese communities in Greater Vancouver, one common theme was the need for vigilance right now to maintain the plurality and celebration of diversity that characterizes our city.

When journalist and community activist Gurpreet Singh heard recently that the KKK, North America’s most notorious white supremacist organization, was handing out recruitment flyers in Abbotsford, he knew that a strong and swift response was required.

“They chose to distribute the flyers on the birthday of Martin Luther King…and the content of the flyers suggests they were aiming to recruit young people, so it’s very disturbing,” says Singh. “Ever since Donald Trump got elected they feel emboldened, although Trump is just a symptom and not the cause of the problem. This problem has always been there and we need to continuously work against it.”

Singh, who publishes the magazine Radical Desi, knows all too well the danger posed by racist groups operating in Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. In 1998, Nirmal Singh Gill was beaten to death by skinheads in the parking of the Sikh temple in Surrey where he worked as a caretaker.

Together with the Coalition Against Bigotry and other allies, Singh helped organize a demonstration against the KKK on Sunday, Jan. 22 at the Gur Sikh Gurdwara in Abbotsford, which was founded in 1911 and is the oldest Sikh temple in North America.

“Police and community leaders need to be vigilant about this,” Singh says. “We wanted to send a message to the racists that we all stand together against bigotry.”

Kevin Huang, Hua Foundation co-director and co-founder.
Photo courtesy of Hua Foundation

Chinese-Canadian communities wary but optimistic

The incident in Abbotsford followed a similar case in Richmond last November, when xenophobic flyers targeting Chinese people were distributed.

“Instances of hate speech, we’ve heard through social media, have been rising,” says Kevin Huang, co-founder and executive director of the Hua Foundation.

Huang sees a generational divide when it comes to the potential impact of a Trump-like message in Canada.

“Earlier generations of immigrants went through very different circumstances: extreme racism and segregation that was a lot more violent and in-your-face,” Huang explained. “Some of the folks who ‘made it’ might adopt the fallacy of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ but due to the way the world is now, that type of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ just doesn’t work anymore,” alluding to growing inequality and the lack of good jobs and affordable housing for the millennial generation.

Huang also worries that other fears, or more conservative values, held by some in local Chinese-Canadian communities could be exploited by right-wing populist voices. “Fear of drugs, fear of homelessness, and especially in Vancouver with the fentanyl crisis, there is a divide…There is definitely a subset of our parents’ generation who might subscribe to that narrative,” he says.

Sid Chow Tan, a veteran Chinese-Canadian community organizer and anti-racist activist, is still bewildered by Trump’s win. “The older I get, the more absurd life seems to become. I’m still trying to understand why our democracy elects greedy and mean people of all colours and creeds,” says Chow Tan, who also worries that a Trump-style message could sway some in the local Chinese community. “Right-wing populism among rich Chinese capitalists is possible, especially if ‘honorary white’ status is forthcoming,” he says.

Huang, a first generation Taiwanese-Canadian who has worked extensively with youth, remains optimistic about the future. “I think there is hope, especially within our generation,.” Huang says. “The question for a lot of younger Chinese-Canadians is how do you participate on equal terms and how do we remove ourselves from the hegemonic framework that we often grew up in?”

For Huang, the risk of old conservative values and events such as Brexit will be to the detriment of youth.