Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"Little Saigon"

Since posting my letter on Saturday (here, and on the neighbourhood list serve last Sunday) I have, over the course of three days, bumped into a number of area residents who have shared with me their comments, in addition to those I have heard from through email. While most are in agreement with what I have written, others have related stories of residents upset with the proposed designation, who feel Cedar Cottage is a perfectly good name, and why should we change it?

The naming question is not a new one. About ten years ago there was a move on the part of some area residents to name the area between East 12th Avenue (north) and King Edward Boulevard (south), and Knight Street (east) and Fraser Street (west), Dickens, after the two schools within the area (Charles Dickens Elementary and Charles Dickens Annex). This group, which formed shortly after I moved into the area, in 1994, began as a neighbourhood watch organization who initiated nightly foot patrols in order to remind sex trade workers and their clients, as well as anyone else who looked like they did not belong, that their presence was noted, and as such were not welcome. Shortly after that, one of its members started the Dickens Community Group List Serve (DCG listserve), which now totals almost two thousand subscribers.

While I have no problem with people organizing within their neighbourhoods (in fact, I encourage it), I cannot help but look on such groups with the same eyes they use to look on those they assume do not belong, particularly where public space is concerned. A case of watching the watchers? Maybe. Do I understand this tendency? I am not sure. But one thing I am sure of is that it is a difficult thing to proceed in this world with good intentions, to feel that what you are doing is right, without losing sight of the particulars that make life what it is.

I saw something similar back in 1995, when the City announced that the much larger area of Kensington-Cedar Cottage would be one of two test sites (along with Dunbar) for what was then called CityPlan, the result of a city-wide polling process that had asked all Vancouverites what was important to them with respect to the direction the City should take as an urban planner -- the result of which was a neighbourhood-based self-conception, as opposed to a centre-margin model.

I attended the first of these meetings but left not long after when it became clear that the fifty of us largely Anglo-European descendants that had gathered at these meetings were making decisions on behalf of an area whose ethnic diversity was not represented. When I complained to the City's planners that no one from the study group was from Vietnam or the Philippines, and that there were only two people whose ethnicity was Chinese (the dominant ethnic group in the area), I was told that the City was working on it. When I asked why the literature they had distributed to solicit our group was not written in Vietnamese or Tagalog, they said they were working on that too.

Those who came to dominate the CityPlan group included those who put forth the Dickens name. Is the name Dickens representative? Given the ethnic diversity of the area, certainly not (this despite the influx of Anglo-European descendants who have moved into the neighbourhood over the past fifteen years). Would I support it? No, because this is a name that harkens back to the Vancouver I grew up in, the ethnocentric British Vancouver of the 1960s and 70s, where the Union Jack was everywhere and the cops had Scottish accents; where repression ruled the day and anything outside that was exoticized, if not criminalized.

As for the "Little Saigon" designation, I am uneasy with that too, for reasons I mentioned in my letter, but also for those I did not.

The impetus behind the "Little Saigon" designation is attributed to a group called the Metro Vancouver Vietnamese Canadian Business Association (MVVCBA), and was picked up by City Councillor Kerry Jang last autumn. Jang, who is well aware that Vietnamese-Canadians account for Vancouver's fifth biggest ethnic population, took it to Council, who voted unanimously on its implementation (somewhere on Kingsway, between Nanaimo and Fraser Streets). When confronted by concerned residents (rightly so, because there was no public consultation), Jang was quick to point out that it was a vote towards its consideration, not its implementation; that there would be a public consultation process, and that Council would consider the results before making their decision.

Two weeks ago that consultation (held at a community house on Victoria Drive) came and went. This was an event described to me by participants not as a conversation but a celebration, complete with banner proposals. When I shared my letter with Jang, he said City staff collected a number of written comments at this session, and that these would be collated and read by Council in advance of a final decision. My guess is that the designation will pass, and that those ninety or so area residents (by today's count) who have signed the "Stop the Little Saigon Designation" petition, and those who submitted written comments at the consultation session, will exist merely as evidence of the consultation process. As for the MVVCBA, I went looking for them online and found that their domain name had expired. Not a healthy sign.

The MVVCBA, which I believe is located in Surrey, was not the first attempt by a business association to speak for those operating along the Cedar Cottage stretch of Kingsway. Some eight years ago a local businessman of Anglo-European descent, the same businessman who complained in the Vancouver Courier how area businesses were predominantly "nails and noodles" (now removed from the Courier site), tried to organize local businesses but, perhaps owing to his "nails and noodles" comment, failed to do so. This too is unfortunate, because any attempt at naming should come from within, not from without (MVVCBA, City Hall).

Something else worth noting is the celebration that took place in a parking lot on the south side of Kingsway's 1000 block last spring. This event, sponsored by the MVVCBA, featured the food, music, dance, dress and comedy of Vietnam, and was attended by Vietnamese-Canadians and non-Vietnamese Canadians alike. While I did not see many of my non-Vietnamese Canadian neighbours there, I did see a number of civic politicians mingling among local shop owners and community elders, some of whom arrived in uniforms they wore as officers in the South Vietnamese Army, a gesture that tells me those from the north should, and perhaps did, steer clear.

The presence of Vietnam's long-defunct South Vietnam army makes it apparent to anyone concerned that "Little Saigon"will not represent the larger Vietnamese-Canadian presence in this city, and that if it is gestures such as these that are intended to celebrate Vancouver's Vietnamese presence, why is the city not taking a unifying position with respect to its Vietnamese-Canadian population rather than one that privileges the southern part of the country over the north? We have "Little Italy" and "Little India" (the latter comprised of multiple ethnicities), so why not "Little Vietnam"? This is a question that must be addressed before the City votes not only to designate an area "Little Saigon" but, potentially, open wounds that go back long before French and U.S. soldiers arrived in Vietnam.

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