Cities of beauty, lies, ugliness, and hope

Vancouver is an odd city.1

Sitting on the edge of the ocean, hemmed in by mountains and lustrous valleys, it is geographically gorgeous. During these (ever-increasing) warm, summer days, when we can be free of the seemingly months of never-ending rain, this city is truly something close to a paradise. Neither too warm nor too cold, you can hike in the mountains and skip stones off the beaches all in the same day. The forests are beautiful. The mountains breathtaking.

Vancouver is also a city that bristles with hope. Since before its official, colonial “founding” in the 19th century, it was seen as a link to Asia; a commercial hub and market city waiting to be connected to the exotic Orient. The colonial managers saw in Vancouver virgin territory waiting to be settled, civilized, and rapidly turned into a profitable outpost and connection to China. (This was, of course, somewhat of a surprise to the Coast Salish peoples who had lived here already for time immemorial and saw Vancouver as their home and their traditional territories.)

But Vancouver’s beauty and hope is underpinned by ugliness and lies. First and foremost amongst these is that inherent contradiction in how the colonial settlers looked at the traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples and saw virgin, uncivilized lands. To them, these were lands waiting for exploitation and development.

That way of thinking continues. We still see Vancouver, perhaps not so much as a virgin, but as a place waiting for development, yearning for exploitation. Our colonial managers haven’t much changed their ideation and orientation – we are still focused on the exotic orient (we are the “Gateway to Asia”, “Canada’s Pacific Gateway,” the Canadian outpost in the “Asia Pacific”, and so much more). We still see Vancouver as a resource to be exploited.

What we find it increasingly hard to see Vancouver as is what the Coast Salish saw it as – a home, a place to live, a place to build communities.

This is part of the lie of Vancouver. Our endless, colonial desire to take this place and commercialize it has commercialized it, but we pretend that it isn’t, that we are relishing in this place’s natural beauty, and that we all benefit from it tremendously. But we don’t. Not all of us can afford to play outside in the sun. We’ve taken something that should have made us homes and made it commodity instead. And then we lie to ourselves, and we say that the natural beauty of the place makes up for what we have to do to be here – to mortgage ourselves almost out of existence, to work one job for rent and another for food.

And that lie is an attempt to mask the ugliness that lies at the bottom of our glass and concrete city on the side of the sea. The ugliness founded on colonial dispossession, that promised prosperity for all who seek it but instead relies on exploitation of the majority for the success of the few. The ugliness that uses our city’s First Nations past as a marketing tool (see the Olympic Inukshuks) while ignoring the fact that Inukshuks weren’t Coast Salish in origin, never mind the dispossession and displacement that happens when the marketing takes off and succeeds in spurning on a new round of accumulation by dispossession, eliminating Coast Salish communities and affordable housing, dis-empowering them and others, and casting them into some historical rubbish bin that we can rummage through when we need a decoration but won’t let enter our consciousness too often.

Even our positioning as a gateway to Asia, a continuing colonial imperative, is itself ugliness wrapped in a shroud of hope – while we might be content to see our geographic connection to Asia and China and the exotic Orient as being commercially beneficial – and really, the reason why we built our commercial infrastructure here, on the West Coast as it’s nearest the Far East – the moment that Asia and China and the Orient become just a little too prominent in a Vancouver, the moment that our marketing pays off, then Asia and China and the Orient become existential threats to our happiness and our way of life. While our colonial management still tells us to build business to export to Asia, we toss and turn at night about signs in Chinese, fretting about how so much is changing so fast. (Yet we don’t fret about the lack of Salish, or even Chinook, signs.)

We seem to be happy to balance off our hope and ugliness, blind to the fact that one is subservient to the other, and the other builds up and supports the myth of the one. And that’s not even thinking about the capital-o Other.

And like so many other people here, I have a deep and personal connection, through my personal relations, to that Other, that exotic Orient, Asia and China. To Hong Kong, in particular, but “over there” in general.

Hong Kong is an odd city, too.

The parallels between Hong Kong and Vancouver are too many to be simply a matter of inconsequential coincidence. Hong Kong is a stunning city sitting on the edge of the ocean, hemmed in by mountains and countryside. It too can be experienced on (occasional) stunningly beautiful days with clear air and subtropical weather, with mountains and beaches and endless miles of consumer paradise waiting to be enjoyed and shopped.

And Hong Kong too is beauty and hope and ugliness and lies.

On its face, Hong Kong is unabashedly a capital of Capital. The towering, towering skyscrapers and commercial buildings in Central and Admiralty and even now, inching up in Tsim Sha Tsui and Kowloon, are massive, phallic monuments to finance and unproductive circulation of capital. If anything, this face of Hong Kong is its hope and, undoubtedly to some, its beauty. HSBC is an awkward building but a shining jewel in the heart of the central business district, and the news that the bank may relocate from London back to Hong Kong, which was rumoured earlier this year, was warmly received as a righteous return of the prodigal son (or sun?) Mentioned, but not quite discussed, was the fact that HSBC was considering such a move to avoid corporate taxes in the United Kingdom, taxes that it wouldn’t face in Hong Kong, a former colony of the United Kingdom.

That colonial history is perhaps from where this odd beauty-in-capital comes. It is also perhaps the root of many of the striking similarities between Vancouver and Hong Kong. Britain colonized Hong Kong in the 1800s, much like it did Vancouver. And much like Vancouver, Hong Kong was colonized explicitly to support trade with Asia and exploitation of local resources. In the case of Hong Kong, though, the local resources being exploited were things like tea, and willing consumers of the British opium trade. Vancouver was left with trading trees and furs.

But what of Hong Kong’s beauty, hope, ugliness, and lies?

If Hong Kong’s beauty and hope come from its position of a capital of Capital, then more of its beauty and hope must come from its commitment to endless capitalism and growth, a promise guaranteed even by the Chinese Communist Party, who evicted the British in 1997 after finally exercising their rights under a spectacularly poorly written lease.2 This commitment – one promised to last for fifty years, to 2047, was explicitly made to restore hope to troubled capital markets in Hong Kong, who feared expropriation and loss of assets with the Communist handover. Never mind that the Communists haven’t been communist for a considerable length of time, if they ever were.

Given that Hong Kong’s beauty and hope comes from its position of power vis a vis capital, one immediate lie is in the very physicality of Hong Kong itself. It is truly a beautiful place, far from what you would expect in the brass, gold, glass, and concrete canyons of Central, or the glitzy Causeway Bay. Less than one third of Hong Kong is urbanized in the extreme way we think of Hong Kong. Two thirds of the territory are preserved as country parks, and they are astoundingly beautiful, with banyan trees, and terrifying hills, and gorgeous beautiful beaches alongside the South China Sea.

If Vancouver’s beautiful lie is that its natural beauty hides the ugliness of its addiction to capital, Hong Kong is an odd inversion where the glamour of its capital overshadow its natural splendour.

But Hong Kong’s ugliness is evident in its collection of lies, all in the interests of capital. You might think that a city so committed to the service of capital that it brought Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping together3 might actually somehow live up to the aspirations of both: that it might be a city of common wealth, with all having some and some having more. Or that it might be some shining example of the efficiency of the market, where any consumer whim could be met in seconds.

Hong Kong isn’t like that.

Hong Kong is, much rather, one of the world’s most unequal places. A few are very, very rich. Many, many more are very, very poor. From the windows of one house, in the prestigious Victoria Peak district, which reportedly costs more than $190mm USD, you can see the towering agglomerations of state-owned micro apartments, into which poor families are crammed. So many of these families were refugees from the Chinese Civil War, people who fled battles on foot, walking for miles and miles, only to swim across rivers or oceans to land in the British colony of Hong Kong, where they were not welcomed as refugees but rather looked on as burdens. And it was only when shanty towns started burning down and hundreds of lives were lost that the British colonial managers did anything. And what they did was build massive apartment buildings of microscopic flats.

Bending to the will of the market, Hong Kong’s minimum wage is laughable, as are its working standards. Gifting employers with dozens of hours of overtime is becoming an expected social norm. Social enterprises are popping up to provide employment to workers with disabilities – except that in Hong Kong, aging seems to be a disability, and if you’re over 40, you’re likely to be training your replacement and then find yourself unemployed.

Hong Kong has a terrific will to build. Despite the fact that so comparatively little of the territory is urbanized, what it urbanized is ridiculously urbanized. Office buildings tower. Apartment buildings tower. Towers tower. And everyone owns so little — housing costs are ridiculously high, but they’re second only to Vancouver. Apartments are measured in the low hundreds of square feet – though in Vancouver, they’re increasingly measured in only the mid to high hundreds of square feet. It’s almost as if in its rush to catch up with Hong Kong, Vancouver is stretching to reduce its housing size and increase its cost. And perhaps both cities are united in this ugliness.

But there’s also an interesting counter-narrative to all of this as well. Hidden inside the deeply conflicted communities in both Hong Kong and Vancouver are glimpses of a would-be better world that is yearning to get out.

In Hong Kong, it’s the democracy movement. Since its inception as a crown colony, Hong Kong has never experienced democracy. It’s long been promised, and even committed to in the Basic Law4, but it’s never been fully implemented. Even the Chinese Communist Party promised democracy as part of its evolution of governance in China — but it’s something that just isn’t happening.

Despite this, there are hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers who want real and genuine democracy in their territory, and they’re willing to fight for it. The Umbrella Movement and protests in support of Hong Kong’s fledgling democracy brought thousands to occupy the streets of Admiralty and Central — along with Mong Kok, Causeway Bay, and other districts. Streets were occupied for weeks on end — and minds were changed in Hong Kong. And even though Hong Kong’s tentative democracy is fantastically rigged – where 57% of the population votes in favour of pro-democracy candidates and only receives 38% representation in the Legislative Council5 – people still organize for a better Hong Kong and a better world.

In Vancouver, it’s sometimes harder for someone like me to see what the hope is. I know it’s present in the communities that celebrate the arts – celebrating the potential of art to allow us to express ourselves more humanely, instead of simply working to be able to afford work. Or maybe it’s the groups that are working actively in support of reconciliation with the First Nations people in our region, acknowledging the historic wrongs colonialism and settling has done to them. And maybe it’s the people working to build a more affordable and equal society, through housing co-operatives or social enterprise that puts people first. Oddly, and perhaps strangely, there isn’t so much electoral engagement — and while we can claim to have genuine democracy, it’s certainly possible to wonder if ours is as rigged as Hong Kong’s, given the free flow of corporate investment in political parties at a municipal level, and the close interrelations between the corporate and government spheres at higher ones. But there is hope there.

The similarities between Hong Kong and Vancouver are too many to be simple, inconsequential coincidence. Both cities are beautiful, full of hope, but also hiding lies and ugliness. The true story is how we engage with this as we try to eke out our livings.


  1. Creative Commons photo credits: “Vancouver Night Skyline” by Jerry Meaden, and “Hong Kong Skyline” by Abdul Rahman.
  2. Really. The lease of the New Territories, the northern portion of the Hong Kong SAR were leased to Britain for 99 years in 1898, as opposed to being simply ceded as Hong Kong Island and Kowloon south of Boundary Road were earlier in the century.
  3. It happened.
  4. As a commitment to “universal suffrage,” which apparently doesn’t mean anything, given the (thankfully rejected) attempts at implementing a Beijing-approved universal suffrage law in 2015.
  5. Hong Kong also has two types of representatives in its Legislative Council – some are popularly elected, and others are elected by “functional constituency,” essentially trade groups. Arguably, those should be more ‘controllable’ by Beijing, and even there, 50.73% of the votes were cast in favour of the pro-democracy camp, and 45% were cast in favour of Beijing-aligned parties/

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