Does Vancouver need an Asian Film Festival?

I am hoping that the title of this post binds me to publishing this entry this year… it could very easily languish in my Drafts like many other well-intentioned blog posts. Afterall, the Vancouver Asian Film Festival starts today….

Today, we’re going back to that comment made by our New York host that was just a fact of life for her but, for me, it might be the catalyst of enlightenment… of sorts. She had observed how Asian diaspora/pride/identity crisis is so pronounced where she now lives compared to what she experiences in twenty years of growing up Vancouver.

Now, what makes Vancouver so special? What makes the various big cities in North America different from each other? Other than the obvious that there are west coast cities like Vancouver, L.A., and San Francisco, and east (coast) cities like Toronto and New York, I am fascinated by why Vancouver, Seattle, and San Francisco aren’t identical twins for our similar proximity to Asia compared to, oh, those cities way across the continent in the Eastern time zone.

We learned back in grade school how Canada roughly differs from the United States in that while the U.S. boasts of a melting pot (newcomers tend to assimilate after which you can all peacefully co-exist), Canada’s multicultural picture ressembles more that of a mosaic (where differences are celebrated and maintained and overall, a coherent picture emerges). The reality, I find, is that mosaics are maintained in the big cities, American and Canadian, and melting pots occur in in the smaller cities… like in Halifax, where I grew up.

When I was growing up, other than my family, it was few and far in between when I saw an Asian face–private school did not help that matter–such that reading Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club and watching the movie for the first time really moved me. There were writers who understood me, even if it hardly made sense at the time that diaspora would be felt in a west coast city like San Francisco with a long Chinese tradition. In Toronto in the ’90s, there were plenty of us staking our place in the city, defining the image of the new Chinatown–take that Little Italy and Greektown!! (Kidding.) For the reason that we were impressionable adolescents during that particularly heady time in the growth of the city’s Chinese population, I like to think it was an important time, what we’ll call the tipping point when we revisit Toronto history ten years from now.

It’s different in Vancouver. I would not have known that going from Toronto, a city that is 9.5% Chinese, to Vancouver, 18% Chinese*, would make such a difference. Afterall, Toronto is twice as large as city and has a hundred thousand more Chinese people there, that I wouldn’t notice… right?

MY, the little sister, is so struck by the Asian content in Vancouver when she visits and–how do I say it tactfully?–sometimes it’s just so plainly obvious that we overrun the place. Like at Oakridge Mall on the west-side. And it’s not like I work in government or the arts or in North Vancouver (any longer), but I work in science and at some gatherings of colleagues, they are about all I seem to see. It is really, really great for me since I have my mother to thank for “grooming” me all my life to leave Halifax for somewhere with more Chinese folks. I seem to only have gotten as far as Vancouver.

I have no idea what the percentages are like in San Francisco which has an old Chinese tradition in common with Vancouver. I do know that a great deal of the literature, Asian-American culture, and activism comes from that area. And with the U.S. being the media giant it is, I generally thought that was true for North America.

But you ask the people who grew up in east Vancouver, a special pocket of the city adjacent to Chinatown, and they cannot understand what the activism or fuss of Asian-Candian arts/theatre is all about. What is the point of watching low-budget or indie Asian-American films when Hollywood is so nice and glossy–what is so special with seeing someone who looks like your average classmate on the big screen? What is the whining fuss about in Asian-American literature? Unlike my formative years where where was nary an Asian face amongst my peers, east Vancouverites saw them aplenty in school–the jock, the gangsta, the nerd, the good girl, the bad girl, the artist, all the personalities, even if they also experienced/noticed the dearth on the screen. In that special part of the city, a generation of Chinese people has grown up being the dominant culture in their high school, having top-notch cultural amenities (read: food and fellow Chinese-Canadians for friends) at their easy disposal. They did not experience the same type of racism we experienced everywhere else.

Scary enough, east Vancouver is not such an isolated pocket these days. Once upon a time, the affluent west-side was Anglo-Saxon-y and the “boroughs” like Coquitlam and Surrey were “normal” (read: diverse) and “Canadian”. Perhaps these outer-borough Chinese kids felt a few years of confusion in high school that was soon washed away when they started attending UBC, cheekily dubbed The University of a Billion Chinese and then being the dominant culture became the norm. These days, the “boroughs” are part of the super-city municipality/region, Chinese people are putting down roots everywhere, and people are more connected and mobile (and open-minded) than before.

Then who needs the Vancouver Asian Film Festival? There’s not really a question about it. The artists need it. So do new Vancouverites, visitors, non-Asians. Just, not a lot of people I know.

In conclusion, I’m finding that Toronto is normal. Halifax is normal. San Francisco and New York are normal. And it’s just that Vancouver is a special, special place. And I think because it is so special, I’m starting to let go of some of that decades-old angst.

* See my spreadsheet of Census 2006 data.

On this day..