Vancouver: Notes From a Native Daughter

Chinaburb
Scenes from the Olympics.
Feb. 19 2010 11:34 AM

Vancouver: Notes From a Native Daughter

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A Native Daughter Returns to Vancouver-Whistler. Click here to launch slide show.

For most of my life I've thought of Richmond, British Columbia, chiefly as the location of the Vancouver International Airport. If you'd pressed me for further recollections, I would have observed that the broad, flat satellite city, built on islands in the Fraser River delta, was home to an Ikea, a number of shopping malls, and Hon's, my parents' favorite casual Cantonese joint. They usually went there on the way to or from the airport.

I might also have observed that in one of those strange linguistic ripples of globalization, the city's Aberdeen Centre, a shopping mall catering to Asian idioms and tastes, was named after Hong Kong's Aberdeen Harbour. The harbor, in turn, was named for the Scottish politician George Hamilton-Gordon, the fourth earl of Aberdeen. So although Scots were among Richmond's first white settlers, the name Aberdeen came here by way of China.

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I might have further noted—my relationship to Richmond being airport-based—that these days I travel to Vancouver on the Cathay Pacific flight that makes a pit stop on its daily haul between New York and Hong Kong. That flight, like the Scotland-via-China name Aberdeen, represents the two cultural poles tugging at Vancouver: Euro-America at one end, Asia at the other. In my family, these pulls have been literal: Whereas I moved to London and New York, my brother has lived in Seoul and Hong Kong.

A certain cosmopolitanism notwithstanding, and even though Richmond city officials have taken to calling the central shopping district "Golden Village," there's no escaping the fact that it's a messy collection of low-rise strip malls, forever undergoing churning growth.

But unpromising Richmond edged out the competition, my own native 'burb of Burnaby, British Columbia, to snag dibs on building the only all-new venue for the Winter Games, an Olympic speed skating oval with a 400-meter ice track and seating for 8,000.

The satellite city has done a spectacular job. On a cold, bright March morning, mountains visible from down in the delta, the Richmond Olympic Oval, which is partly paneled in iridescent blue, literally sparkles on the river shore. Inaugurated in December 2008, it is normally open for public skating, but the week I visit, it is closed for the World Speed Skating Championships. And so, styling myself a travel writer—not untrue, but it feels like an odd claim so close to home—I have deputized a friend as photographer and asked a city spokesman to let us in.

We approach the building via a foot bridge over a new pond, which, the spokesman explains, is part of a system that collects rainwater on the roof and funnels it to other uses. A grand stepped plaza opens up on the river side of the building, empty and inviting, like a parade ground before the parade. The building is intended for all kinds of uses besides skating, basketball and the performing arts among them. Most dramatically, a diaphanous, swaying, 70-foot-tall red net hovers above our heads like a giant amoeba. The undulating sculpture, designed by American artist Janet Echelman, is meant to suggest both fishing nets and Chinese lanterns.

We go inside and Spokesman A hands us off to Spokesman B. As we are processed through the formal rigmarole of getting championship press passes, at a desk with a dozen staffers wielding computers and printers, I suddenly get an idea of the vast logistical operation behind an international sporting event. I sense the Olympics marching forward like an army, complete with uniformed soldiers and expert engineers. Once we have been outfitted with lanyards and plasticized badges, we are allowed to enter the oval itself.

Metal clinks against ice as a practice session for the world's fastest skaters gets under way. Some wear hats or warm-up clothes over their skin-tight body suits. They cluster in threes and fours according to the color of their suits, Norwegians in red, Americans in dark blue, Canadians in red and black with an overlay of shimmering holographic gray. Men and women practice together and look alike; they're all hard and lean with piston-like thighs, a body part that, with its broad surface area, has been selected to display corporate logos. The skaters chat with one another and remove layers. And then, one by one, they get faster, breaking away from the pack to give the ice a real test. Before I know it, they are blurs of color, frictionless on steel blades.

Back outside we pass raw mounds of post- or pre-construction dirt. A whole new neighborhood is planned for hereabouts, on what schedule I'm not clear. At least some ancillary Olympic building plans have been put on hold by wobbly real-estate prices. Globalized Vancouver is tightly tied to the world recession.

We drive along No. 3 Road under the half-built new SkyTrain line, a raised concrete rib soaring to nowhere. On Alexandra Road, which is lined with strip malls and Chinese signs, I look for a restaurant that Jennifer 8. Lee, in her 2008 book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, concluded served the best Chinese food in the world outside China. It has already gone out of business. No matter: We come upon the Empire Mandarin, filling up for lunch with families and business diners. The waitresses do not speak English, but they supply us with bilingual forms for ordering dim sum. We tick prawn dumplings, barbecue pork buns, and bok choy with bean curd. The food arrives steaming and delicious. From the clacking crockery to the lobster tank, the Empire Mandarin reminds me of restaurants I went to growing up, like the Pelican and the Pink Pearl on Hastings Street. And so I feel a sense of continuity.

A writer and thinker I admire, Muslim religious reformer Irshad Manji, captured Richmond in the 1970s in her memoir-cum-manifesto The Trouble With Islam Today. Her family had landed here after fleeing from Idi Amin's Uganda. In Richmond, Manji attended a Baptist-run preschool and then a Saturday madrassah from which she was expelled for asking too many questions. She sought out her first Quran in English translation at one of Richmond's shopping malls, so that she could try to understand it for herself. At the local public junior high, she became student body president, despite having been denounced by a classmate as a "Paki."

"Lord, I loved this society," Manji writes. "I loved that it seemed perpetually unfinished."

In August, five months after my visit, the new SkyTrain Canada Line will finally open, connecting Richmond and the airport to downtown Vancouver. My mother will call to tell me that she and my father rode it to their restaurant, Hon's. A few more months later, Hon's will close, but only, it will say, for renovations. Richmonders will start to possess their Oval, which will be nominated for an architectural award. And Richmond may be a little less perpetually unfinished than before.

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