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‘Ethnoburbs’: The New Face of Immigrant Cities

August 5, 2016

The Tyee |  By: Christopher Cheung

Old settlement patterns have reversed, but old problems of adaptation remain.

Queenie Lai’s parents often call her a “white girl,” because she likes eating western food.

But in fact, though born in Canada, 23-year-old Lai is more in tune with her Chinese heritage than many of her peers. Growing up she studied Cantonese with a private tutor. She watched Hong Kong soaps on TV. She’s even acted in a Chinese theatre group, performing in legends like Mulan and a play based on the life of Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

“When I visit Hong Kong, people ask me, ‘Why is your Cantonese so good?’” Lai said. “I tell them, well, I grew up speaking it at home.”

Lai also lives in a very Chinese community, but one very different from the ethnic Chinatowns or Little Italys of the last century. Then, immigrants from Asia, Europe, and elsewhere clustered in inner-city neighborhoods, often not the best, to be close to others who shared their history.

By contrast, Lai grew up in Richmond, British Columbia, a bustling modern suburb that, away from its wetland trails, fresh produce farms, and the quaintly historic fishing village of Steveston, can feel like a mirror of East Asia. If you speak Chinese here, you can see a doctor, get a haircut, attend a church, buy a house or car—all without uttering a word in English.

But Richmond isn’t the only suburb with strong overseas influence. It’s an example of a growing demographic trend that’s turning the patterns of the last century on their head. Geographers call it the “ethnoburb,” and others have appeared outside longtime immigrant cities like Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Melbourne in Australia, and Auckland, New Zealand.

Many ethnoburbs have more immigrants as a share of their total population than their associated urban cores, and often more than native-born residents. According to the 2011 National Household Survey, more than two-thirds of Richmond residents—69 per cent—are immigrants to Canada.

The same survey found that Surrey, a South Asian ethnoburb next door, has an immigrant population of 40 per cent. It’s also home to lavish sari shops and Indian wedding banquet halls on a scale beyond that found in Vancouver proper.

Markham, outside Toronto, has a 58 per cent immigrant population; Richmond Hill, 55 per cent. The Melbourne suburb of Glen Waverly is half immigrants.

But while cities and suburbs undergo new transformations, getting along with new neighbours brings the same tensions as around the ethnic enclaves of old.

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