Vancouver a multicultural population, but is it all connected to Winter Games

Feb 15 2010 - 8:41pm

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Since the opening of the Winter Olympics, this city has been saturated in red -- the ubiquitous red Canadian flag, fans wearing red Canadian team gear.

And on Sunday, thousands of people poured into Chinatown on the first day of the Lunar New Year, turning the city into a sea of celebratory red silk.

In Vancouver's multicultural melting pot -- a place some have referred to as North America's first Asian city -- everyone was invited to the party ushering in the Year of the Tiger.

Crowds cheering the lion and dragon dancers along the parade route had come from places as diverse as French speaking-Quebec, Vietnam, Iran and India's Punjab province.

Politicians and environmentalists handed out candy in "hongbao" or red envelopes, and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson arrived in a Chinese shirt of burgundy silk fit for a Mandarin.

"Any culture is accepted. That's why you see we're not just Chinese people here," said Manochehr Dini, whose family immigrated to Vancouver from Iran 15 years ago.

The United States thinks of itself as a nation of immigrants, but that is an even more apt description for its neighbor to the north.

In Canada, about 20 percent of the population is foreign born. In the Vancouver area, 40 percent of the population are immigrants, according to Statistics Canada.

After the last big international event in the city, Expo 86, Vancouver was transformed by investments from wealthy Hong Kong property developers, driving a major wave of immigration. Now immigrants from Asia, who faced exclusionary laws earlier in the last century, are the biggest group of newcomers.

They have infused Vancouver with a strong Pacific Rim flavor, from hot dogs turned "Japadogs" to a New Year's party called Gong Haggis Fat Choy.

Richmond, just south of Vancouver, sometimes seems like a suburb of Hong Kong. Chinese Canadians, many of whom left Hong Kong when it reverted to Chinese control in 1997, make up more than 43 percent of the population, and the city has several Asian shopping malls.

Sammy Li, who moved to Vancouver from China by way of Texas, had never met Louise Boilevin until Sunday morning.

But Li walked up to her and asked to take a picture together. Boilevin, who described herself as French, Spanish and Celtic, wore a bright red, traditional Chinese silk dress with a furry tiger tail pinned to the back.

"Very beautiful," said Li. She liked seeing Boilevin embrace her culture. "I enjoy all different cultures connecting together. It's very great progress."

Still, as huge as the Asian influence is here, it hasn't been much in evidence in the Games.

Some Vancouver residents felt snubbed by the lack of Asians participating in the 2010 Games Opening Ceremony.

"Something didn't sit right with me," wrote Todd Wong, aka "Toddish McWong," a library employee and fifth-generation Chinese Canadian who dreamed up the quirky Gong Haggis Fat Choy celebration to unite the Chinese New Year and the birthday of Scottish poet Robbie Burns.

"Vancouver is always being touted as a multicultural city. It is the most Asian city in North America," he said. But the organizers of the Games "missed a chance to showcase the diversity of both Vancouver and Canada."

During the parade, marching children held up a sign saying "Best Wishes to the Olympic Winter Games and the Athletes of Canada and China."

And Li said she has been excited about the Olympics. She is cheering for Canada and China. "I think whichever country wins I will be happy."

For others, the Olympics were just a sideshow.

"I haven't really been following it," said Justin Chang, 21, a student at Simon Fraser University. He was too busy celebrating the New Year.

"We were born here, so we didn't have a connection to China," he said. The Lunar New Year celebration "is like a piece of our culture."

That feeling was something shared by Asians and non-Asians alike.

"In a sense we're very proud of the fact that we're a model of how well it can work," said Michelle Mallette, a Vancouver resident originally from eastern Canada.

She sees the Olympics as another chance to celebrate the country's diversity.

But, she said, "When Canada is on the ice, we'll all be cheering for Canada."

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