#JAPANESEPROBLEM: The “Chinese problem” too

Posted by Guest Contributor & filed under Identity.

Photo of boarded up windows in Vancouver Chinatown following the 1907 race riots. 
Vancouver Public Library 940.
Photo of boarded up windows in Vancouver Chinatown following the 1907 race riots. Vancouver Public Library 940.

Share this Story


, , , , ,

What happens when a place you call home sees you as a “problem”?
by Erica Isomura

Note: This is the third piece in a series exploring the JAPANESE PROBLEM performance and its relevance in Vancouver today.  Read part one: #JAPANESE PROBLEM: Hastings Park 1942 and part two: #JAPANESEPROBLEM: Reflections, reactions & realities.


I am a descendant of Japanese Canadian internees. My great-grandparents and grandparents were displaced from their homes on Commercial Drive and East Broadway, stripped of everything they owned, and taken to Hastings Park, Tashme, and Greenwood. Hastings Park was a processing grounds in East Vancouver while Tashme and Greenwood became internment sites in remote BC.

However, while the history was absent for me – as in, not actually talked about in my family – my Japanese ancestry didn’t actually seem to create a “problem” for me in the same way it did for my grandparents and great-grandparents while I was growing up in the Lower Mainland. If anything, being part Japanese seemed to make me a slight edge of coolness over other kids of Asian descent at my school. With the global influence of Japan and popularity of its fashion, manga, electronics, and food, Japanese culture was highly revered by my classmates. I had multiple instances of people telling me they wish they were part Japanese too.

While my mixed background was somewhat interesting or curious to others, having Chinese heritage on my mom’s side was apparently less cooler than being part Japanese. In general, I got the impression that being Chinese was more of a problem and less desirable. For instance, at school I noticed kids from immigrant Chinese families being teased more than other classmates of East Asian descent, whether it be related to language, lunch food, clothing, or mannerisms. It’s still not clear to me today if this was on account of issues of class, xenophobia or “foreign”-ness, or what, exactly. On the ladder of Asian-kid coolness, Chinese-ness just seemed to fall on a lower rung.

I don’t have any statistics to back these claims. But from living in Vancouver today, I’ve come to realize that maybe this feeling I had wasn’t totally wrong. Before sitting down to write these thoughts, I typed the following words into google out of curiousity: “chinese” “problem” and “Vancouver,” then hit enter.


My web results after searching the terms “chinese” + “problem” + “Vancouver”



New Chinese money rules threaten tide of foreign buyers in Canada
Globe and Mail – Jan 4, 2017

Race and real estate: how hot Chinese money is making Vancouver unlivable
The Guardian – July 7, 2016

Vancouver being transformed by new wave of brash, rich Asians looking for safe place to ‘park their cash’
National Post – Dec 12, 2014

The Destruction of Richmond, British Columbia, through Chinese Migration
Council of European Canadians – Aug 17, 2015


I scrolled through an entire page full of search results with loaded titles, seemingly ready to aim and shoot fire to take down anyone of Chinese descent, foreign-born or otherwise. Google reiterates line by line that the Chinese are surely taking over and buying out Vancouver as we know it. No longer disparaged for taking unwanted jobs in Canada, the new point of disdain for Chinese Canadians is couched within references to wealth and affordability.

As middle class families struggle to afford property, employment opportunities and wages lull, and the cost of living climbs, statements like these headlines are the new normal in Vancouver. All of our problems are because of “them,” “those people.” I’ve heard sentiments like this echoed by members of my own Chinese Canadian family, differentiating between our “Chinese-ness” and theirs, and feeling upset when we’re all lumped together. Nobody wants to be the targeted enemy in this public conversation.

If this is how we are reacting as Canadian-born Chinese, how does this impact those who have more recently immigrated to Canada? In 2009, close to 43% of people residing in Metro Vancouver were of Chinese ancestry. How many of these people will feel like forever foreigners, outsiders to a place they are trying to make their home, too?

I realize these conversations aren’t so straightforward when I reflect on how acquiring new money would influence any family’s spending habits. Or, when I recall there are still tens of millions of rural Chinese who live in poverty, and when I consider our globalized realities – in North America, we rely on the industrialization of China to provide most everything we use on a daily basis. In this simultaneous socio-economic moment, the gentrification of neighbourhoods like Chinatown and Strathcona are pushing low income Chinese seniors out of their homes and communities. And it’s not just the wealthy Chinese who are buying up these properties and moving into the neighbourhood.

I hold little doubt that this prevalent negative perception of Chinese immigrants contributed to last year’s anti-Chinese flyering in Richmond. A cartoon captioned, “Step aside, Whitey! The Chinese are taking over!” was publicly posted around the city. It is 2017, yet I feel I have been transported back 110 years to 1907, the year the anti-Asian race riots brought white workers to Chinatown’s streets to violently deface, smash, and destroy Chinese-owned businesses and homes amidst resentment of Asian immigrants employment and success here in Canada.


Photo of boarded up windows in Vancouver Chinatown following the 1907 race riots. Vancouver Public Library 940.

Photo of boarded up windows in Vancouver Chinatown following the 1907 race riots.
Vancouver Public Library 940.



“Why does this history continue to repeat?”

In Canada, we like to look back at the past sometimes – perhaps when a commemorative holiday comes up, when somebody significant who cared about human rights passes away, or when we’re forced to apologize – and talk about about how “we didn’t any better back then” or how “we’ve come so far since _________ (insert name of racist event or policy)”. These instances of discrimination may not look like unjust detainment, slurs, or physical violence, yet they remain interrelated and constant to uphold social hierarchies and power dynamics.

The national focus on reconciliation processes provides an example of this. In 1920, government official Duncan Campbell Scott amended the Indian Act to make residential schools mandatory to “get rid of the Indian problem” and today, Indigenous children continue to be taken from their family homes and overrepresented in foster care system across Canada. These are long-lasting results from systemic discrimination and intergenerational trauma that we remain accountable to.

While both our current federal and provincial governments have said they are committed to working towards reconciliation and a “renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples,” their actions speak otherwise. The BC government’s recent approval of Site C Dam is seen as a short-sighted “reconciliation fail,” violating treaty rights and disproportionately impacting downstream Indigenous communities. This follows the Supreme Court of Canada’s approval of the development of a ski resort on Ktunaxa territories, revealing the disregard for Ktunaxa religious and spiritual practices. Would a place of worship rooted in Christianity be so blatantly disregarded in this way?

This colonial, Eurocentric mindset is yet another form of white supremacy – reproducing a hierarchy within our society of accepted norms, practices, and governance systems. These varied instances of racism or discrimination against Indigenous people or people of colour do not always look like unjust detainment, slurs or physical violence, yet they remain interrelated and constant.  These instances continue to uphold social hierarchies and power dynamics with lived consequences.

Beyond simply remembering or acknowledging our past, we need to realign ourselves, our understandings of one another’s histories, and our actions. 75 years from now, what will we be apologizing for?


An Invitation

Through an invitation from the JAPANESE PROBLEM performances at Hastings Park, we are asked to

look back

look forth

shed light on shadowed stories

stretch heart from chest

expand unavoidable feelings

witness families’ unhealed wounds

carry tears never shed

reckon with living history

examine shifting social realities

scrutinize the ‘us,’ the ‘them’

carry responsibilities to the other

look past

look present


I don’t have all the answers to why this history continues to repeat, but every day I work towards creating a future anew.  I am grateful for the artists and activists who guide me on this journey. Thank you to JAPANESE PROBLEM and Universal Limited for this reminder of the work that’s still to come.  

JAPANESE PROBLEM is screened hourly as part of Nikkei National Museum’s Hastings Park 1942 exhibit. The Hastings Park 1942 exhibit runs now through January 18, 2018. Nikkei National Museum’s gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 11-5pm.


For more information about Japanese Problem or Universal Limited’s work, please visit japaneseproblem.ca.


To learn more about the history of Hastings Park, visit hastingspark1942.ca


Series written by Erica Isomura

Erica Isomura is a yonsei (fourth-generation) Japanese and Chinese Canadian, who writes from Vancouver on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil Waututh nations. She was the curatorial and programming assistant for the Hastings Park 1942 exhibit at the Nikkei National Museum.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *