By Ng Weng Hoong, July 17 2016, Sunday

If Pierre Pelletier were a politician, he would have come under intense public scrutiny in the last 18 months that he has been in charge of a key surviving institution in British Columbia’s Richmond City. Instead, as publisher of the Richmond News, he has the role of scrutinising politicians, policies, issues and the people of Richmond themselves.

In today’s era of social media and digital distractions, Pelletier is likely more focused on the financial pressures facing the city’s only regular English language newspaper serving some 215,000 people. A year ago, its main rival abruptly shut down after 83 years in operation amid the brutal cull in the news business.

The Richmond Review’s demise is a warning that even in one of Canada’s most vibrant cities with a growing population and a strong economy, Pelletier must re-work his newspaper’s strategy to stay relevant, if not, afloat. For the most part, the Richmond News has played its role as a fair, impartial and accurate observer.

But there’s also a troubling part that says it has lost touch, and Pelletier recognises that the challenge is not just coming from the digital world.

Richmond is North America’s only city where the majority population, of about 55%, is ethnic Chinese. Their accelerated migration from other parts of the world over the last two decades has transformed a once quiet rural community into a bustling frontline city for Canada’s growing connection to Asia.

Speaking to a small audience at a Richmond Brighouse Library forum on July 9, Pelletier admitted that his paper has done a “poor job” of connecting with the majority of Richmonders. That connection on account of the rising Asian population has been weakening for years, so much of the blame will have to go to his predecessors.

The trend of a demographic shift was officially telegraphed way back in 2011 when, according to Pelletier, the National Household survey showed that around 70% of Richmond’s residents had come from elsewhere, most of them international migrants. English was not their first language; at best, many could read basic instructions and hold a simple conversation.

Citing Statistics Canada, Pelletier said that between 1981 and 2011, migration boosted Richmond’s ethnic Chinese population by around 82,000 people. Over the same period, the white Anglo population declined by 28,000 to account for around 24% of the city’s population today.

That demographic swing of over 108,000 has turned Richmond into “the most hyper-diverse city in the world,” said Pelletier. Over the same period, Richmond added 10,000 South Asian and 11,000 Filipinos.

Over the years, City Hall responded by increasing its services in Chinese and other Asian languages, said Richmond councillor Derek Dang, one of the forum speakers. Wendy Jang, the city’s Chinese Community Services coordinator, gave a detailed account of its continuing revamp and upgrade of its library services to meet the needs of its new “customers”.

It is not known if the Richmond News and the English language media took any meaningful action in the face of this dramatic demographic shift and economic expansion. The Richmond Review clearly failed to overcome the decline of its readership and advertising base at the same time that the Chinese language media expanded.

Crucially, their contrasting fortunes are reflected in the advertisement count. The Chinese publications have tapped into the thousands of new businesses while the English language media have rarely secured advertisements from the city’s rising number of Chinese property developers, restaurants, import-export companies, financial services providers and shopping centres. This would make for an interesting case study on how to starve in the midst of plenty.

Richmond: Image versus Reality
Some long-time residents resent the city’s decision to invest in services to help migrants, particularly the elderly who do not know English and are unlikely to ever learn it. More recently, the critics have honed in on the proliferation of Chinese language signs in Richmond’s downtown core, the city’s rising housing cost and growing ethnic segregation. This is Canada, shouldn’t these new arrivals be learning and using English? Some see Richmond as an example of Canada’s failing multiculturalism policy as they accuse politicians of pandering to the ethnic vote. The political battles have generated plenty of media attention, both in Canada and abroad.

In June 2015, Douglas Todd, the Vancouver Sun columnist and a critic of Canada’s pro-diversity and migration policies, devoted a three-part series to Richmond’s demographic shift.

His conclusions were mostly negative and sensational. Todd downplayed the migrants’ successful and peaceful transition into their new environment. He also omitted the one big positive in the Richmond story: its booming economy. To stay relevant, Canada, a large country with a small population and an increasingly uncompetitive resource-based economy, has remained open to inward migration of talented people with capital. Of course, the easy way to “solve” the inevitable integration challenges would be to shut the doors and watch the country’s living standard decline.

Todd zeroed in on the issue of the Chinese-language signs, describing it as “one of the most explosive issues in Richmond.”

So explosive that “they’ve gained worldwide attention, with media flying into the city from Korea, Japan, Germany and elsewhere to cover how residents handle it when their city’s ethnic majority suddenly changes.”

Reporting from Ground Zero, he said he witnessed tensions “rising to the fore — over ethnic enclaves, new policing challenges, language barriers (particularly conflict over Chinese-language signs), shifting politics, extreme housing unaffordability and threats to community cohesion.”

Richmond News has added its voice to the sense of gloom from the Chinese influx: the rising cost of housing, birth tourism, tensions between the Chinese and other races, and a human rights case due to the use of the Chinese language at the expense of Canada’s official languages.

“For people who have never been to Richmond and to read all these reports, you would think that this is the worst place on earth to be, with people at each others’ throats,” said Henry Yu, a University of British Columbia history professor, in introducing the panel.

Glancing at Pelletier as he touched on the popular negative portrayal of Richmond from the impact of Chinese migration, Yu added:

“For anyone who lives in Richmond or the lower mainland and visits Richmond, you’d know it’s a peaceful place where people want to come and live in. There’s no gangland clash or people literally fighting over language signs.”

Yu evoked a popular Sherlock Holmes quote about the dog that didn’t bark in reference to the lack of media attention on Richmond’s successes. The city is not known for having serious social problems and has coped well despite its rapid growth and demographic shift.

“That’s the positive version that we don’t get to read about. There are no gangs in schools organised along ethnic lines creating social problems. Students are not failing and dropping out. Richmond’s immigrant families are not facing generational difficulties between parents and children,” he said.

“Compared to many other cities around the world that have also undergone rapid demographic changes, why haven’t we seen more social problems and breakdowns?”

Acknowledging that Yu had posed “a good question”, Pelletier said he and his team “have these discussions all the time in our office.”

“We struggle with this every week. We ask if we’re being too negative toward one group, or should we turn a blind eye?”

“We’re here to uncover the news, to inform the people. Sometimes, there’s negativity in it. We try to have some feel-good stories.”

“But we are a newspaper. And that means we have to bring light on some hard news stories. Being a free press is very important, unencumbered by political bias. All we can do is bring honesty to play.”

The second part of his answer has an embedded dilemma. While Richmond News is anchored around a core group of long-time readers among Richmond’s English-speaking residents, Pelletier said it wants to help build the community by giving voice to all major groups.

“Our job as a paper is to connect all in the community. We want to be the voice of Richmond, not just the voice of English-speaking people in Richmond.

“We publish an English language paper for English-reading residents in Richmond. We tend to concentrate on the audience that reads English.”

“The question I have for myself and for everyone at work, especially at the editorial meetings every week: are we doing a good job of connecting with the entire community?”

“No, I think we’re doing quite a poor job of bridging those gaps.”


Failings on both sides
Pelletier doesn’t have to try too hard if he wants his paper to connect with Richmond’s diverse groups, particularly its ethnic Chinese majority.

In a city where 76% of the population isn’t white, the Richmond News’s entire editorial team of five journalists and four media consultants is white. It is not known if any of them has the background and understanding of Chinese or main Asian cultures, or the language skills. But it sends a message that the newspaper is a white institution operating in a mostly Asian setting, an outpost reporting from deep inside occupied territory.

This unique situation raises interesting questions. Western foreign correspondents covering Asia are often accused of being ignorant and arrogant towards the people they write about. In my time as a reporter in Asia, I have encountered a range of foreign correspondents, including a few who arrived with the cultural, linguistic and historical knowledge as they had genuine interest in the region and its people. The rest came for a variety of reasons, and their knowledge of Asians was derived from Hollywood movies and fast novels. Most encounters between foreign correspondents and Asian subjects pass without incident, but mutual resentment and friction from misunderstandings are a constant hazard. Inevitably, some stories bear the scars of difficult interviews and reveal as much about the writers’ state of mind as they do the subjects covered.

These days, major international news media make it a point to hire both foreign and local reporters on the ground. They recognise the need for diversity and local knowledge as reporting on Asia has become increasingly complex.

In “hyper-diverse” Richmond, a reverse universe exists where white journalists report on a Canadian city populated by residents who are mostly from Asia. The Richmond setting is as ripe as any Asian city for misunderstanding to arise between reporter and subject. The only difference in Richmond is that the weight of expectations is fully on the Chinese migrant, not the reporter, to adapt to the Canadian environment.

Some Chinese business owners are oblivious to this reality. The continued use of Chinese language-only signs even in a small part of Richmond irritates most Canadians, including those of Chinese descent. Following extensive media coverage, the city organised a major workshop and forum in March 2015 to deal with the issue. Participants discussed ways to persuade or force the city’s Chinese merchants to include English or French in their signages to show respect for Canada as well as the sizeable non-Chinese population in the city.

The issue has simmered down but remains unresolved. It will likely come up again. My conversations with Chinese community leaders reveal that many Chinese business operators are insensitive and unconcerned about the impact of their action on the community.

Pelletier expressed his frustration with the “widening gap between the Chinese population and the rest of us.”

“We get letters complaining about this (language issue). Lots of letters.

“We question ourselves: if we do stories like this, will it perpetuate Richmond’s negative image? It’s a very difficult situation for us.”

Canada’s Chinese dilemma

Pelletier has asked the wrong question as to whether he should or should not publish these “negative” Chinese stories. It’s a false dilemma. Of course, he should, as a publisher of record.

The problem is with the paper’s lack of balance. The Richmond News has become the unofficial, uncritical registry for complaints against the city’s Chinese residents. It conveys a creeping fear that Richmond is being destroyed by an invasion of ugly Chinese migrants with bad habits. The media has a role to report and inform as well as provide balance. The Richmond News has both the institutional memory and strength to remind readers that Canada courted these migrants, mostly business and professional people, and their families, warts and all, when B.C found itself in severe financial difficulty in the 1980s. It makes no attempt to highlight the “positive” stories that Richmond’s population of relatively wealthy migrants has helped fund its costly infrastructure upgrades and expansion over the last two decades. Vancouver’s international airport in Richmond is one of the best in North America today while its seaports and highways across the lower mainland are being expanded to the benefit of British Columbians.

The investments and businesses brought in by the new arrivals have created jobs for many Canadians as well as opened up new export markets to Asia. Amid the continuing global economic uncertainty, this is a major achievement and long-term contribution by the migrants to Canada that is rarely appreciated by some of Richmond’s residents. As a result, few realise that the Canadian economy escaped the worst of the 2008/9 global financial meltdown due largely to its growing Asian ties.

Those complaining about elderly migrants not learning and using English must be reminded that their offsprings have become fluent in both the English language and their mother tongues. Most do well in schools. People must be given time to settle in, and, as Henry Yu has pointed out, Richmond is an unusual success story of migrant adapation.

This narrative of the Chinese contribution and their children’s successful transition to life in Canada is forgotten amid the constant flow of stories from the mainstream media detailing every infraction and misbehaviour, real or imagined, of the Chinese migrant.

At the forum, Pelletier unwittingly spoke for the mainstream media’s refusal to acknowledge the rising Asian, particularly Chinese, role in B.C. Historically, publishers and editors in Canada have shown little interest for Asian stories, which probably explains the low representation of Asian or Asia-informed journalists in the media. Why should journalists be expected to learn about Asian cultures or understand the Asian viewpoint when this is Canada, and “they” are the ones who have migrated here?

This was a possible argument 30 years ago when the world was more Anglo-centric. Today, for better and worse, Asia is asserting global influence to match its rising political and economic clout. China and Japan are the world’s second and third largest national economies. Canada has little choice but to deal with these countries; its media has to become more Asia aware and focused. China alone sends out 100 million tourists and several million migrants and students each year to Canada and other countries while its companies continue to expand international trade and investment. China’s impact (along with the rest of Asia) on Canadian society, politics and economy is long-term, massive and unavoidable.

Richmond News stands out as an egregious example of how unrepresentative and outdated the metro-Vancouver media is in the communities they purport to serve. As much as Pelletier says the paper wants to represent Richmond, the lack of Asian representation in its editorial team means its head is buried deep in the sand.

To my question and comment that the Vancouver media keeps out Asian voices and faces, Pelletier said his paper is looking to hire someone with Chinese and English language skills to help translate stories and information. He said he has a hard time looking for this person. Might it be because Richmond News wants only a translator and not a writer with views and opinions? Why would a young, intelligent and educated person with both Chinese and English language and cultural skills work as a translator for a community newspaper?

There are aspiring as well as proven journalists and writers in the Asian community who could be sought out to provide inputs on various levels. It shouldn’t be difficult for the Richmond News to create a regular column for Asian leaders and writers to comment on the city.

The real question is whether the mainstream media is prepared to break its glass barriers to hire capable Canadians of non-white descent. In 2011, visible minorities accounted for over 45% of B.C.’s 2.2 million population. Today, it’s probably 50% of 2.4 million, but visible minorities, who are more educated than the average Canadian, continue to be severely under-represented in the media. The exception is the Vancouver-based Georgia Straight which practises the most open and progressive hiring policy.

BC’s invisible minorities

At a community lunch event in March, KanwarJit Sandhu, 72, asked Richmond Councillor Bill McNulty about the lack of diversity at city hall.

McNulty replied that he couldn’t provide the ethnic and gender breakdown of the city’s staff, but said that he wants increased diversity in hiring to better reflect today’s Richmond. Richmond-based businessman Peter Liu, a Tianjin, China-born migrant who is running for office, hosted the event at the China House Seafood Restaurant in Capstan Way.

I asked Sandhu, a former president of the Richmond Multicultural Community Services who has been living in the city since 1974, what motivated him to raise this question as it has never been reported in any public discussion. He said he had posed the diversity question to City officials before but has yet to receive a satisfactory answer.

“City Hall is way behind on diversity hiring. It has a long way to go to reflect the city’s population mix,” he said.

The media in Richmond and elsewhere in metro-Vancouver has not picked up this issue either even though it is of great public interest. While the major publications have extensively criticised what they see is the over-representation of Chinese buying in Vancouver’s housing market and Asian students in Canada’s universities, they have not reported on the under-representation of Asians in the country’s leading public institutions, companies, media and governments. There has been no analysis on why qualified and well-educated Canadians of Asian descent with ties to Asia are not tapped for key jobs to help Canadian companies connect with the region.

ISSCO in Richmond: The dog that doesn’t bark

Pelletier spoke at the forum that marked the end of the triennial International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas (ISSCO) conference that was held in Richmond on July 6 to 9.

This was ISSCO’s first international conference on Canadian soil, and for Richmond City, one of its biggest events in 2016. More than 200 international scholars and around 100 community leaders gathered at the Sheraton Hotel to deliver research papers on China and the Chinese diaspora in different parts of the world.

One of the world’s leading China scholars, Wang Gungwu, the 85-year chairman of the Singapore-based East Asian Institute, delivered a lively hour-long speech on the outlook for China and its likely impact on the world. Professor Wang along with the other scholars provided plenty of ideas and material to think about China, the Chinese diaspora and their place in the world, and what they mean for Canada. I’ll be writing up his speech and other ISSCO stories in due course.

The Chinese media covered the event. Richmond News and the mainstream media did not. The fact that ISSCO was held in Richmond was not even mentioned in Richmond News’s calendar of community events. Once again, the dog didn’t bark.

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