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The Conversion of George Chow

Before joining Jim Green, he led Chinatown's attack on 'harm reduction'.

By Sam Cooper 19 Oct 2005 |

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The single biggest voting demographic in Vancouver is its Chinese-Canadian community. This segment-typically 25 to 30 percent of the city's vote-is often seen as conservative and even self-interested. But the council candidates courting it say the community's vote is diverse, mature and most definitely not monolithic.

One thing is clear. With growing numbers, economic strength, and political clout, Chinese-Canadian voters are very much on the minds and day planners of city council hopefuls.

According to Fairchild Media reporter Frank Qi, NPA mayoral candidate Sam Sullivan's Cantonese language fluency and connections are well respected in the community, while his challenger Jim Green has recognition problems.

Qi says if Green has any notoriety in the Chinese community, it's because he's remembered as a drug addict rights advocate in the Chinatown area, from his days leading the Downtown Eastside Residents Association.

"Some would say that, yes," admits Green, interviewed after a campaign speech in Vision Vancouver's Cambie and Hastings election office. "I'm not concerned though. I think a lot of old ways of thinking are going to change this year."

The reason for Green's confidence has a name. George Chow.

Major reversal

In the biggest stunner of the mayoral race besides Sullivan's defeat of Christy Clark in the NPA nomination, Green wooed his former Chinatown adversary Chow to join the Vision slate.

A popular President of the Chinese Benevolent Association, Chow ran as an independent against the safe injection site in Vancouver's last election, garnering huge support from the Chinese community and an unprecedented 18,000 votes.

Both Sullivan and Peter Ladner tried to land the star candidate for the NPA, but instead, Chow risked losing support in the Chinese community to join Green, his old neighborhood sparring partner. Why?

He says practical experience proved the safe injection site is improving the area, prompting him to jump the harm reduction, divide. But will enough of the Chinese community jump the divide with him on Nov. 19? Chow is betting on it, and says he sees himself as a bridge builder, bringing the left and members of the traditionally conservative Chinese community together.

Given the consensus among candidates from the NPA and Vision that the Chinese vote is, in fact, diverse and maturing, it's possible Chow could swing some traditionally conservative votes to the Vision slate, but it's far from guaranteed.

Maturing, not monolithic

"In the last federal election, support was split across the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives, so all sides can gather support (from Chinese-Canadian voters), " says Fairchild's Qi. "But generally the Chinese voters are more conservative socially and economically."

NPA candidate BC Lee says the first thing to understand about Chinese-Canadian voters is they come from different places, with different educational backgrounds, so diversity is a given, although some conservative views are fairly common. "They are coming from different origins like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Mainland provinces," Lee said. "And they aren't just voting for candidates because they are Chinese, but because of their policies."

Though Sullivan is confident about how he is received in the community, he says he takes nothing for granted and stresses the perception that Vancouver's Chinese-Canadians only vote for their own candidates and interests is false.

"Many are pleased with the (language) effort I've made and that I'm trying to understand, but I don't think anyone votes for me because of that," Sullivan says. "But the fact that I read the Chinese newspapers does give me more connection to the community."

Sullivan uses the example of last year's city ward vs. at-large voting referendum to illustrate the civic spirit in the Chinese-Canadian voting community.

"During the debates I was presenting them with reasons why they would be better off in the at-large system and they listened politely but then they said, 'Okay, but what will it do for the city?'"

While Sullivan is careful not to appear overconfident, Qi believes the NPA slate best compliments the Chinese community's concerns, namely small business owner's desire for lower taxes and fiscal responsibility, and calls for better control of drugs and crime in Chinatown.

Safe injection, political risk

Qi's not sure how Chow's new position of support for the safe-injection site will be received, but Chow believes the longer Chinese-Canadians are in this country, the more they are open to new "practical" solutions. At least that's how it was for him, and he hopes others follow, even though some Chinese radio media commentators are criticizing his move.

"The drug issue is always paramount," says Chow. "It's a unique issue within the Chinese community with the historical injury of the opium war where China was reduced to nothing." "Chinese get really worked up about it. They see it (drugs) as a real demon that we should do everything to fight."

Chow smiles almost ruefully remembering past battles with Green and members of the Carnegie Centre, who supported a contact centre for drug addicts in Chinatown. There were anti-drug marches, shouting matches and many emotional meetings.

"It was difficult, we were pouring out emotion and sometimes they were saying you merchants are too gung-ho, you are just manning cash registers and seeing dollar signs," says Chow. Sometimes, he says, people would tell him to leave Canada, accusing him of having no sympathy for the addicted poor.

But Chow says he came to realize both he and Green were fighting for a better neighborhood and as a councilor, Green has matured.

"When he was fighting for DERA, those were different issues," Chow says "He was antagonizing, but looking at his record as a councilor he is balanced. I chose my affiliation (with Vision) based on what I'm comfortable with. Revitalizing this area is the closest to my heart, and that is my connection with Jim. If we could improve this area it would help the whole city."

'Jump the divide'?

"I may lose some of the Chinese voters. I think some of the people are still unhappy. But I began to see drug addiction as a health issue and not a criminal matter, and that is what it takes to jump the divide."

Chow adds his jump was encouraged with support from Chinatown residents who first accepted and then supported the safe-injection centre, but BC Lee is not sure that is true.

Lee won't say whether he thinks Chow will lose support, but accounts of his own experiences in Chinatown seem to suggest it.

"Whenever I talk to people in Chinatown, the question is always not do you accept it (safe-injection site), but do you think it helps Chinatown?" said Lee. "And they say it does not help. I can't find a single person who thinks adding a second safe injection site is reasonable. They say 'Open it next to Jim Green's house.'"

Chow says even if he loses some Chinese supporters, he expects to significantly improve on last election's results and though Lee maintains he's running for himself and not against Chow, a comparison of each candidates numbers on election day should indicate how diverse the Chinese vote really is, and whether Chow is strong enough to carry Chinatown over the harm reduction divide.

Sam Cooper is on staff of The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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