“Cast your mind back to the distant days of January, when the Chinese communities in Richmond started masking up, staying home and avoiding busy places,” Ian Young tells me.
Oh boy. By that time, my relatives were already frantically sending me lists of local places that a rumoured virus carrier had visited. My Chinese landlord in Vancouver knew my dad worked in health care and asked me to help him order boxes of masks. A Chinese friend, from Hong Kong, wanted to wear a mask on a Vancouver bus but was scared about what others might think.
But few other British Columbians were worried about COVID-19. This was before the ubiquity of physical distancing, before the mad rush to stock up on personal products. Dr. Bonnie Henry wasn’t yet a household name. Media were busy reporting on events unfolding in Wet’suwet’en territory.
Among local Chinese, however, it was a different story. Young, a Vancouver-based correspondent for Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, was watching closely.
Metro Vancouver’s various Chinese communities — ethnic Chinese with ties to various parts of East Asia — felt the panic from overseas. News of something akin to SARS spreading in Wuhan went viral among B.C.’s Chinese before the virus itself did.
And so the community’s response to guard against COVID-19 came early.
Many members stopped visiting Chinese restaurants and shopping centres, Young noted. The resulting quiet was regarded as a “curiosity” by people who weren’t connected to the city’s Chinese communities, he found.
Politicians encouraged people to support Chinese businesses, pinning the loss of patrons on rumours and racism. Health Minister Adrian Dix and others marched through Burnaby’s Crystal Mall, a popular Chinese destination with a wet market, in February to show their support.
Young didn’t mince words on Twitter: “Don’t imagine that white-knight stylings will make you the saviour, when what’s really needed is for Chinese folk themselves to feel more comfortable going out again like they used to do.”
Many East Asian locals had already started physical distancing by January. That’s because many had lived through SARS and had, as Young describes it, a “gut reaction and cultural memory.” (Young was the editor in charge of the South China Morning Post’s SARS quarantine team in Hong Kong, and likened the impact of the virus and the climate of fear to that of 9/11.)
It’s insights like this that make Young’s coverage of Metro Vancouver’s Chinese and the city’s ties to East Asia unique, especially when mainstream English media rarely have the cultural expertise or contacts. Instead, they tend to interview the same few Chinese voices over and over again.
Young, for example, recently reported on why chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam isn’t liked by many Chinese in Canada. Those lacking cultural and political perspective might wonder why ethnic Chinese might be so critical of her.
With the same kind of myth-busting, analysis and commentary he brings to his coverage of the local housing crisis, Young has been unpacking the pandemic as it relates to B.C.’s Chinese, from “maskaphobia” to the politics of health.
I recently chatted with Young about his astute coverage.
On the early start to physical distancing
On Feb. 8, Young took a photo of an empty Aberdeen Centre, a mall in Richmond, B.C.
“This was a profound thing,” said Young. “Aberdeen Centre to me is as close to a city square as anywhere in Richmond — I’m talking specifically about ‘Chinese Richmond.’”
The mall typically hosts holiday celebrations, fairs and community displays. The Aberdeen transit station attached to the mall was also where local residents on opposing sides of the Hong Kong protests clashed last fall.
“The food court has got 800 seats, and it’s always packed. You’re doing laps with your tray trying to find a seat. So it was shocking that it was deserted,” said Young.
“This was something that had entered the mindset of Richmondites, and [yet] it was barely being reported. The Chinese communities were certainly ahead of the curve. That should be acknowledged.”
It was only after Young pointed it out that outlets like CBC began picking up on the story.
On an expert’s response to the early start
Last month, Young interviewed a Canadian expert in new and re-emerging viruses who said he “absolutely” believes the early response by B.C.’s Chinese may have helped the province combat the virus more successfully than other jurisdictions.
University of Manitoba professor Jason Kindrachuk said more research is needed to determine the true impact but called the community’s quick action “fantastic” and said it “needs to be applauded and recognized.”
“There may have been a grassroots movement,” Kindrachuk, a former Vancouver resident who worked in Africa during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, told Young. “What you have in B.C. is a Chinese community that was seeing the impacts across Asia [and] had been through SARS.”
On the unintended revelation of Richmond’s low infection rate
“I think there was this perception that went on for so long about Richmond being a hot spot of infection because there’s so many Chinese people,” said Young. “It plays to a lot of racist tropes about cleanliness and disease in general.”
One piece of fake news that went viral online showed Chinese climbing Costco scaffolding to get bags of rice, allegedly in Richmond.
According to the most recent census, 54 per cent of Richmond residents identify as ethnic Chinese. (Richmond is 23 per cent white.)
B.C. doesn’t share information on specific communities with confirmed COVID-19 cases, only which health authority they fall into.
Health officials have said this reduces stigma in hard-hit places and prevents a false sense of security in others.
“It’s irrelevant what community you’re in,” Henry has said. “The risk of this virus is everywhere in British Columbia.”
Richmond is part of the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. The figures released by government don’t let the public know whether a COVID-19 case is in Richmond, Vancouver, the North Shore or a number of smaller coastal communities.
But in late April, Young tuned into Facebook Live chat with a VCH doctor who shared a partial breakdown of cases. Richmond only had 10 per cent of the jurisdiction’s cases, whereas 60 per cent were in Vancouver and 30 per cent on the North Shore.
On a per capita basis, Richmond’s rate of infection is 36.8 cases per 100,000 people. This is half Vancouver’s rate and about one-quarter of Canada’s rate of 120 cases per 100,000 people.
Young said Richmond had “a very laudable reaction” to COVID-19.
“I think it’s worth pointing out that despite being the most Chinese city in the world outside Asia, with all these links to China and Hong Kong, it had half the rate of infection of Vancouver just over the river. And I don’t think that’s captured as a fact in common perception.”
The public wasn’t meant to know these specifics. When Young put the numbers to the health authority itself, a spokesperson said that it wouldn’t elaborate.
On why Dr. Theresa Tam is criticized by some Chinese Canadians
Born in Hong Kong, Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, has received plenty of racist hate online.
And she’s been criticized by high-profile conservatives like Ontario MP Derek Sloan who questioned whether she was more loyal to China than Canada and called for her firing.
But look within Canada’s Chinese communities and you’ll find people critical of Tam and her advice too, simply based on her record on the job.
“All these people in my ethnic Chinese circle were vehemently critical of Dr. Tam in ways that my non-Chinese friends and acquaintances would be very reluctant to state, fearing themselves grouped with racist rabble-rousers,” said Young.
“I’m not suggesting that racism gets a pass. What I am pointing out is that Chinese communities here are not shy about expressing things that some people in non-Chinese communities would be reluctant to do as a simple matter of solidarity against racism.”
Aside from bigots who seem to be targeting Tam for being a woman and for being ethnically Chinese, her connections to the World Health Organization have been a point of controversy.
Tam, who’s served on a number of WHO committees and missions in the past, is currently an advisor to the agency’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on COVID-19.
“It’s a hugely controversial thing in some Chinese community circles to champion the WHO because of its stance on Taiwan as a non-nation.”
The WHO has been criticized for uncritically accepting China’s virus data, parroting its messaging and being overly complimentary to the country.
On top of this, there’s also Tam’s describing COVID-19 as “low” risk until March 15 and her long dismissal of the need for the public to wear face masks. In April, she said that wearing them “seems a sensible thing to do” and on May 20 she said masks would serve as an “added layer of protection” when physical distancing is not possible.
“It really pissed off so many in the Chinese community, particularly those who believe the real successes that places like Hong Kong and Taiwan have had,” said Young.
“All sorts of highly-qualified people have praised mask-wearing. So we’re talking about big sections of the community fully invested in masks, and they see Dr. Tam basically flip-flopping, taking a position that’s neither here nor there.”
On ‘maskaphobia’ and where it comes from
On April 15 in Vancouver, a man told two Asian women wearing masks “Go back to your country. That’s where it all started.” A third woman who came to their defence was attacked by the man, who kicked her, wrestled her to the floor and ripped out a clump of her hair.
This was one of many racist and violent incidents against people who are or look East Asian, often in masks, around the world. On May 22, the Vancouver Police Department noted they had opened 77 hate-associated police files so far in 2020, compared to 26 in the same period last year.
Young interviewed sociologist Yinxuan Huang of the University of Manchester, who’s been examining “maskaphobia.”
“It is on the one hand a cultural conflict between the East, where wearing masks are pretty normal, and the West, where wearing masks can present a different meaning, even a sort of threat to some extent,” Huang told Young. “This cultural difference has become an excuse to legitimize xenophobia, particularly given that China is where the pandemic started.”
Wearing masks has made Asians in overseas communities “clear targets” of amplified racism, Huang added, which often stems from a perception of Asians as being bad at integrating with the mainstream society they’ve moved to.
Health authorities in Canada have expressed worry that if they recommend masks, then the public will start ignoring other measures such as hand washing and social distancing.
“I don’t think people are as stupid at health authorities seem to assume,” said Young. “They say that masks don’t work 100 per cent of the time. Of course they don’t! Nothing does. But the absence of 100-per-cent efficacy doesn’t mean they don’t help.”
Why Young isn’t afraid to engage trolls on Twitter
Young’s reporting on the role of immigration and foreign money in Vancouver real estate has long attracted Twitter trolls and armchair analysts in denial of his research.
His COVID-19 reporting has attracted a similar new audience, from virus skeptics to those who believe this all started from bat soup in China.
“I always try to engage, unless someone is outright rude to me at the first instance,” said Young. “For a lot of trolls, they can be quite surprised when someone engages and says, ‘Hi there.’ Some of them say ‘I dare you to block me! Block me won’t you!’
“You also run the risk of silo-ing yourself if your immediate reaction is just to block. I actually don’t block that many people.... There are some terrible people out there. There are hardcore irredeemable racists, but I try to converse. I don’t mind taking the piss a bit with them too. People treat Twitter different ways. I treat it as a conversation.”
On the divides and differences between ‘Chinese Vancouver’ and the rest of Vancouver
After decades of immigration, Chinese communities in Metro Vancouver have their own social networks, information channels and particular destinations. The pandemic has highlighted this parallel “Chinese Vancouver” and how it seems to exist outside of the mainstream.
After all, Aberdeen Centre, the popular Chinese “city square,” was empty of patrons in February, while Vancouver’s mayor had to shut down bars on St. Patrick’s Day in March and instruct people to instead “drink a Guinness at home.”
I put the question of these divides and differences to Young.
“It’s definitely not an enclave. It’s bigger than [an] enclave,” said Young. “We do have quite segregated parallel cities. But there’s different kinds of Vancouver; there’s all sorts of different ethnic Vancouvers. It’s an inconvenient thing to think about, but it shapes so many people’s personal understandings of what they mean by ‘Vancouver.’
“In Hong Kong, Vancouver occupies a huge space in people’s minds. It’s a special place. You watch Asian dramas on TV that reference someone in Vancouver. You go to karaoke in Hong Kong, and there are these generic videos filmed at Stanley Park or Kits Beach associated to versions of western songs filmed. Vancouver punches so far above its weight. But these Vancouvers aren’t a Vancouver that non-Chinese Vancouverites understand.”
On being a Vancouver correspondent for a Hong Kong-based international paper
Young is originally from Australia, where he worked in newspapers before reporting for the London Evening Standard and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. He became the international editor there before arriving in Canada in 2010 and becoming the Vancouver correspondent.
“I’ve always been an outsider for various reasons throughout my career,” said Young. “If you’re an ethnic Chinese person in Australia, you’re an outsider for a start. That was the same in London. And when you go to Hong Kong, you’re an outsider for different reasons: my accent and because I don’t speak Chinese. But when I came over here to Vancouver, all that merged and I kind of ended up straddling a lot of different worlds.
“I do occupy a strange place. There’s lots of things I’ve written about that are huge surprises to people in Chinese communities when they see it in English.
“As a foreign correspondent writing for not just the Vancouver community but also people who are observing Vancouver from afar, there’s a different perspective. I think the fact that there is now a small community of foreign correspondents who are taking a foreign correspondent’s eye to Vancouver is useful, because Vancouver, like any other city, can be an insular place.
“When you’re a goldfish, you don’t know you’re living in a bowl. And when I say outsider’s perspective, I’m not just talking about me, but my editor’s perspective as well. It’s useful to understanding the city, not just for the people who are there.”