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RICHMOND: GLOBAL CENTRE OF A DEMOGRAPHIC EXPLOSION

June 12, 2015

By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun |

The City of Richmond is the centre of a global demographic explosion virtually unprecedented in human history.

Documentary film crews from Asia and Europe are among those trekking to this West Coast Canadian suburb to discover what happens when a once-sleepy, semi-rural municipality suddenly turns into a buzzing city of more than 200,000 in which more than six out of 10 residents are born outside the country.

No other city in Canada has a population in which 62 per cent of permanent residents are foreign born. It is rare for most global cities to contain even a fraction of non-nationals. In Mumbai and Shanghai, for instance, only one per cent of the population is foreign born.

When a Fox News commentator caused an international uproar this year by claiming the British city of Birmingham had become a “no-go zone” because it was overrun by foreigners (he was speaking of Muslims in particular), it turned out only about one in 10 residents of Birmingham were born outside the United Kingdom.

While there have been no race riots in peaceful Richmond, residents of the city have mixed feelings about the dramatic demographic and physical changes they’ve been witnessing in their city at the mouth of the Fraser River, commonly known before 1970 simply as “Lulu Island.”

Richmond’s residents tend to say they like the city’s parks, waterfronts, playing fields, public schools, coexisting ethnic groups and a pace that is a bit more relaxed than the neighbouring city of Vancouver, and especially less hectic than the ethnically homogeneous megalopolises of Asia.

Yet though many Richmond residents talk about how polite most people are, they also admit tensions exist, including over language differences, skyrocketing housing prices, Chinese-language signs, political trends and ethnic self-segregation.

Along with its rapidly growing ethnic populations, the physical shape of the city has grown — up.

Three decades ago the intersection at Number 3 Road and Westminster Highway featured nondescript one-storey commercial buildings, parking lots and a gas station (see photos, next page).

Now it’s the centre of the “Golden Triangle,” where University of Victoria urban geographer David Chenyuan Lai has counted more than 50 bustling Asian-themed malls and outlets.

Meanwhile, giant houses, which more than a few call “McMansions,” are steadily replacing small bungalows. And many residents are urging city hall to deal with how much of the city seems to have turned into a cluttered, noisy construction zone.

Vancouver International Airport, located in Richmond, has expanded into a global hub, while the so-called “Highway to Heaven” on No. 5 Road now features massive Christian churches side by side with grand Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist temples.

Once-leafy Richmond has transformed into what geographers call a “hyper-diverse” city. Indeed, with more than six out of 10 born outside the country, Richmond is a contender to be the most hyper-diverse city on the planet, measured by the proportion of immigrants.

Only Persian Gulf emirates such as Dubai and Qatar have more foreign-born residents than Richmond, but almost all of them are temporary migrant workers, often living in squalid conditions.

Richmond’s demographics are unique. Based on ethnicity, Richmond is 47 per cent ethnic Chinese, 29 per cent white, eight per cent South Asian, seven per cent Filipino, two per cent Japanese and seven per cent “other,” according to the 2011 General Household Survey.

Between 1981 and 2011, Statistics Canada figures show the ethnic Chinese population grew by almost 80,000 people, with the first wave from Hong Kong and Taiwan, followed more recently by those from Mainland China. In the same period, the white population of Richmond dropped by a total of 28,000 people.

Many factors go into Richmond’s popularity among ethnic Chinese and other immigrants.

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