Reading and misreading Chinese immigration to Vancouver

Many of the reactions I’ve received to the recent write-up of my research with Jing in the Globe & Mail (and to my quick perusal of the comments section) seem to suggest that there’s something fundamentally dishonest and wrong about immigrants looking to make a better home for themselves in Vancouver.  I want to clarify that I don’t think this is the case.  The intent of my discussion with Frances was to make three things plain:

  1. Immigrants are people.  They’re a highly selected set of people, but they are fundamentally human.  This all too often gets lost in discussions about their impact on local housing.  That they’re mostly coming to Vancouver to make a better home for themselves is a fundamentally human thing to do.  And Vancouver is a great place to make a home.
  2. The selection processes concerning who gets invited to come to Vancouver matter.  Many (but not all) of these processes are policy-relevant.  Right now Canadian immigration policy selects heavily for “skill” and wealth (it is difficult to fully disconnect the two, though the skilled stream selects more upon our constructions of the former and business/investment streams have selected more for the latter).  The assumptions behind this selection are that these immigrants will most contribute to the dynamism of the Canadian economy.  As such, the policy is very much market-focused and oriented toward the business world rather than considering other motivations for immigration or broader questions about social justice.
  3. The selection processes concerning who makes a decision to come (or try to come) to Vancouver also matter.  Mostly those who make this decision already know (thanks to things like internet chat forums) that they will not have nearly as many economic opportunities in Canada as they already do in China.  If you’re really into economic dynamism and a high status career, you stay in China!  So most immigrants who come to Vancouver from China select themselves for being more interested in the quality of life in Canada. They want cleaner air, safer food, better and more sensitive education for their children.  They want a home life, where they can spend time with their children.  They also want a responsible and navigable bureaucracy, where they don’t need to know the right people or bribe their way to get what they feel they need.  These are all very human things to want, and they all involve appreciating what Canada has to offer – not free market dynamism, but rather careful restrictions and regulations placed around markets by a largely responsive government to make them work better for people.  [Yes, yes, Canada doesn’t always do this to my satisfaction, but compared to China we do it pretty well].

So mostly the people who select themselves to come to Canada are nice, home-loving sorts who really appreciate what Canada has to offer them.  But because of Canadian immigration policies (as well as the difficulties in navigating bureaucratic systems in China), they also tend to be quite privileged and well-off.  This is the world which my comment to Frances that, “Canada could look at letting in fewer millionaires and more refugees” was meant to reflect.  There are plenty of nice, home-loving sorts of people who would really appreciate what Canada has to offer them currently being excluded by Canadian immigration policies.  And many of them need better homes far more than the wealthy privileged folks we’re currently inviting to the country.  That said, I’m also quite sympathetic to letting in more immigrants period, and I don’t mean to suggest those who have already arrived are in any way undeserving.

So I’m not seeing villains, but are they out there?  Are corrupt officials, ruthless capitalists, and their extended family members also getting into Canada, and using immigration to hide their wealth?  This seems very likely.  There are corrupt officials, ruthless capitalists, and their extended family members from countries all over the world doing terrible things (I believe there might be one running for president of the United States at the moment).  And they often get away with it.  We should try and stop that from happening.  But I’d suggest these people are relatively rare, and they’re certainly a minority among immigrants to Vancouver.  Indeed, the folks we talked to were selected for rejecting that aspect of life in China.  They came to Canada to get away from cronyism and corruption.

So I think villains are quite rare, but it’s worth noting that the wealth flowing into places like Vancouver has had an enormous impact on local life. Housing prices, in particular, have risen astronomically, motivating much of the ire at new immigrants, especially those coming from China. We should acknowledge that regardless of the intentions of wealthy immigrants, they’re contributing to processes of gentrification on a global scale. It’s important that we work to figure out equitable ways of dealing with this  from a policy standpoint (I’m not sure the foreign-buyer tax qualifies, but I’ll admit it represents at least an effort).  But it’s also important that we work on this without demonizing immigrants.

Immigrants arriving for better homes, not better money

About a month ago, local reporter Frances Bula ran a story in The Globe & Mail where she went out and actually talked with many of the wealthy Chinese immigrants at the heart of many local debates (mostly over housing).  I thought it was a good story!  I also thought it sounded a lot like the story I’d been working on getting into an academic journal with a grad student since 2014.  After a lengthy review process, that story was finally accepted for publication in Social Problems (our first choice) earlier this year, but academic publishing being what it is, who knows when it will actually come out.  I sent Frances a note about how much I appreciated her article and I mentioned that in many respects she’d scooped us!  I attached our paper.  In her generous response, she wrote up a little piece about our research, out today in the Globe & Mail under the title, “Wealthy Chinese migrants come for better housing, not money: study.”

It’s a fine little write-up.  Thanks Frances!  But after I sent it to my co-author, UBC Sociology PhD Candidate Jing Zhao, she suggested she would’ve substituted “homes” for “housing” in the title, which is more or less what I’ve done above.  (Also the article is coming out in Social Problems instead of Social Work, but that’s a minor quibble for anyone not invested in academia!)

Here I wanted to post a link to the Pre-Print Version of the full article directly for those interested in reading it.  I’m slowly getting the hang of where and how copyright works – mostly in this case just by closely reading the fine-print of the copyright agreement where it notes my rights to distributing pre-prints!  Building on this, I’m hopeful I’ll get most of my old and new work out in the public domain in some form or another through this blog and other venues (like my Faculty website). So here’s today’s piece (with citation and abstract):

Nathanael Lauster & Jing Zhao.  Labor Migration and the Missing Work of Home-making: Three Forms of Settling for Chinese-Canadian Migrants.  Forthcoming in Social Problems.


Much of migration theory has come to revolve around the category of the “labor migrant,” without taking into account labor, like home-making, that remains unrecognized by the market. Drawing from qualitative interviews with thirty one Chinese migrants in different stages of making a move from Beijing to Vancouver, we attempt to bring better visibility to how the labor involved in home-making intersects with migration. Defining home-making as work in the pragmatic-existentialist context of the stabilization of everyday routines, we uncover three themes to home-making work: settling in, settling down, and settling for. Discussion of these themes reveals two important issues for migration theory: settlement relies upon the work of home-making and the work of home-making in many cases motivates migration. For these reasons, the work of home-making should be more carefully studied within the migration literature.


At Home Looks Like…

A few years ago I received a grant (with co-I Frank Tester) to explore more closely the connections between housing and home in two locations with marked housing crises: Vancouver, BC and Arviat in Nunavut.  And so the Making Housing Home project was born. The basic starting point for the work was that housing was an important component of home, but did not, in and of itself, constitute home.  Instead home could be found in our routines and connections to a wide variety of people, places, and things.  So we set out to document everyday routines and their relationship to housing.  Mostly we worked through in-depth interviews and collaborative calendar and map construction projects.  But we tried as many different ways to get at home as we could think of.  One sub-project involved working intensively with youth in both Arviat and Vancouver to get cameras and some basic photography training into their hands and let them document what “at home” looked like for them.

One member of my research team, Karina Czyzewski, took an especially critical lead role in this sub-project.  Working with the youth in Vancouver, and with other team members, she put together an exhibit at the Roundhouse Community Centre.  Then she brought photos and descriptions of home together into this wonderful booklet, which we printed off and gave to all youth participants and several other community partners in both Arviat and Vancouver. I’m now providing an electronic copy of the booklet here to get as wide exposure for it as possible.

So here’s the booklet!  (Or click on the image below!  Note: 19MB size file)


While our research is still on-going, and I’ve got a whole lot of data analysis ahead of me, I think this is a good time to get some of the voices of our participants out there, speaking in their own words about their experiences of home.  I think the results speak for themselves.  So… at least for the moment… I’ll stop talking about them.  Enjoy, and feel free to share widely!