The Great Wall of Mandarin: Why the Chinese will get no love

By Ng Weng Hoong, September 16 2016

Are the Chinese at risk of losing further goodwill in Canada? It’s looking that way according to my unscientific survey of English language media reports and online forum discussions.

The Chinese are the undoubted villains in some of the big bad stories in the Globe and Mail, South China Morning Post, The Province, The Tyee and others in recent times. But in alarmist fashion, the media is also constructing Canada’s very own Fu Manchu from the disparate stories on Vancouver’s rising housing unaffordability, tax evasion activities, money laundering, financial crimes, and anti-social behaviour. No other group has been so targeted: not the age-old offshore tax cheats or even the Hell Angels or the Mafia (the media knows whom not to investigate). Conflating the problem is the separate issue of the Chinese government in Beijing which is embroiled in human rights abuses and territorial bullying of its Southeast Asian neighbours. Inevitably, “Chinese” has become a code word for “problems”. This sentiment is consistently reflected in the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (APFC)’s annual survey finding that most Canadians are wary of China and the Chinese, citing a lack of trust and shared values.

One of the latest problems involves the place of Mandarin in Canada where English and French are the official languages. At the Wellington Court townhouse complex in Richmond City, the strata council has been conducting meetings in Mandarin instead of English, setting the stage for a landmark human rights court case pitting the building’s majority Chinese owners with the rest. As noted in an earlier commentary, the Mandarin language issue has taken root in Richmond where ethnic Chinese, boosted by many first generation migrants, now comprise more than half the city’s estimated 215,000 population. Seemingly resolved after the complex’s minority non-Chinese residents filed a human rights complaint last December, the issue has erupted again when the strata council under a new president, Mary Zhang, reverted to using the Chinese language. Andreas Kargut, and six other non-Mandarin speaking residents, who made the complaint against the previous council led by Ed Mao has again alerted the media to the latest dispute.

In a September 6 phone interview, Au Chak, a Richmond City councillor who is trying to resolve the issue, said he “understood” the strata council’s predicament. He said the council felt its priority is to work with the majority Mandarin-speaking owners of the complex’s 54 units who aren’t fluent in English to manage the property and deal with daily issues.

The council took several days to respond to Mr Kargut’s renewed complaint that the use of Mandarin violates the human rights of the complex’s non-Chinese residents. According to Mr Au, both Ms Zhang and Mr Mao, described as working professionals with a good command of English, told him they feared being misrepresented by the media. Mr Mao felt the media did not accurately report his position despite the lengthy interviews he gave last year when the dispute first broke.

“He felt his message was lost and he looked bad,” said Mr Au.

In the latest round, the council considered purchasing advertising space to present its story. In the end, it released a statement to the Richmond News and other publications disputing Mr Kargut’s account while accusing him of seeking the limelight.

Regardless of what’s accurate or not, the letter did not address the core complaint of Mr Kargut’s group that this being Canada, strata council meetings should be conducted in either English or French, not Mandarin.

“When a new council took over managing the strata in 2015, the group was more comfortable communicating in Mandarin. This decision was made to have efficient meetings,” the letter said.

Therein lies the problem. The council is on flimsy grounds however eloquently it argues for the use of Mandarin to expedite meeting proceedings. The use of English (or French) is fundamental to being Canadian.

How did it come to this, and how to break the impasse?

In pursuing growth for Canada’s mid-sized economy, various governments over the last few decades opened the door to wealthy or skilled migrants from China and elsewhere, knowing well that many lacked the ability to communicate in either official language. The British Columbia economy was in dire financial straits in the 1980s, and was nursed back to health with the help of Chinese migration and investment. These facts, and the terrifying prospect of a protracted economic downturn, have been largely forgotten by those now decrying the Chinese “invasion” of Vancouver and its suburbs.

While the young have integrated through the education system, many adult migrants, especially the elderly, are unlikely to ever become English-fluent or speaking. The language barrier is a lingering source of frustration for both the first-generation migrant and host populations, as manifested in the Kargut group’s complaint.

Breaking this impasse would require Mother Teresa’s patience and Solomon’s wisdom. This means the need for compromise.

The high-profile manner of the confrontation solves nothing and hurts everyone in the complex. While the Kargut group has a valid case, it must recognise that its own interest is best served if Wellington Court is efficiently managed and maintained. Instead of confrontation, would it not be better to approach this with forbearance and patience in recognition of the language barrier? The escalation of the dispute into a national human rights case has been unnecessary and avoidable.

The media too has a vital role given its pledge to help build community. Instead of adding fuel to nativist anger, it should highlight the many other condominium and townhouse complexes in Richmond and Greater Vancouver that have kept peace despite being confronted by the same language and cultural challenges. By frequently reporting only the few conflict stories while keeping silent on the many successful cases of co-existence in Richmond, the media is failing to give complete and balanced coverage of life in the city.

For the Chinese in Canada, particularly in greater Vancouver, the issue highlights their failure to grasp the fast-changing and increasingly difficult situation they’re in. They are not living in China, and must remember they cannot indefinitely impose their language and cultural limitations on their new neighbours. Worse, the accusations of human rights violations against the Wellington Court strata council have a wider repercussion at a time when the Chinese community is increasingly under the microscope.

As China takes on a higher profile on the international stage and as more Chinese travel, work and live abroad, they will have to realise that Mandarin and Chinese culture are ill-suited for operating in the world’s multicultural reality.

Mandarin and its 5,000-year imperial culture have become China’s new Great Wall. It is locking the Chinese in among themselves wherever they go, giving them a dangerous illusion that they can live without the goodwill of others.

Compounding Mandarin’s handicap as an isolating language, the Chinese have a habit of not actively seeking to engage others. Instead of broadening horizons, the Chinese abroad today risk becoming more insular and isolated, setting the stage for more misunderstandings and conflicts with their hosts. As Richmond’s history has shown, the Chinese will be actively courted for their money and skills, but they will not be loved. This is a Chinese handicap. Not just in Canada but everywhere.

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One comment

  • In a largely interesting report, Mr. Ng’s read of the Strata’s statement seems partial, probably mainly because Mr. Ng might be unaware that language conflicts are barometers of existing social tensions, and blaming a language can be a proxy for expressing ideas about its speakers that are otherwise unacceptable in modern democracies. Despite his good intention and many valid points in this piece, characterizing “Mandarin’s handicap as an isolating language” not only misses the point, but also risks blaming a language, notably Mandarin, and consequently its speakers, as mainly if not solely responsible for a complicated social issue here.

    I urge readers to click on the links embedded in the text above to read the Wellington Court Strata’s “statement to Richmond News,” as well as Mr. Ng’s “earlier commentary” which presented multiple-voices and perspectives in the larger social context. John Edwards’ 2012 pocket-sized “Multilingualism: Understanding Linguistic Diversity” is an easy read – for a review, see: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/cml/summary/v069/69.2.han.html

    Huamei Han, Associate Professor, Simon Fraser University

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