Claiming Chinese heritage to court Vancouver vote

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am

A large, framed piece of Chinese calligraphy hangs from the wall of Vancouver city councillor Raymond Louie's office. Mr Louie reads aloud the English translation, printed in tiny lettering at the lower corner of the frame: 'Visionary, always looking at the big picture and planning ahead.'

The big picture, Mr Louie explains, is what he has in mind for his plans to govern Vancouver. But to carry out his vision, the mayoral hopeful and two-term city councillor must first win the support of his political party and secure crucial votes from the city's large and disparate Chinese population.

A Vancouver-born son of Hong Kong immigrants, Mr Louie, 43, launched his campaign for mayor last week, becoming the first Chinese candidate to run for the city's top job.

If he is successful in the November election, he will not only bear the distinction of becoming Vancouver's first Chinese mayor, he will also be granted the distinguished task of welcoming the world to the city during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Yet for Mr Louie, capturing the majority of Vancouver's potentially decisive Chinese vote is anything but certain.

As a second-generation Chinese Canadian, he speaks no Mandarin and limited Cantonese, and refuses to be pigeonholed by his ethnicity.

'I don't want to just be a Chinese candidate,' he says. 'My role is to represent everyone in the city.'

Furthermore, his entry into the race may eventually see himself pitted against the incumbent mayor, Sam Sullivan - a man who belongs to no visible ethnic minority, but who nonetheless makes frequent public speeches in Cantonese, regularly reads local Chinese-language newspapers and touts a strong Chinese support base.

Mr Sullivan's aggressive outreach to the city's large Chinese population was widely credited for helping him and members of his Non-Partisan Association achieve a narrow victory in the last civic election in 2005. Mr Sullivan was estimated to have won about 65 per cent of the Chinese vote, or 11,000 ballots, from Chinese voters.

His total tally was a mere 3,700 more votes than his chief competitor.

But before Mr Louie even gets a chance to test his popularity at the polls, he must convince his own Vision Vancouver party to select him as the nominee.

Within Vision Vancouver itself, Mr Louie must battle for a spot on the ballot with provincial legislature member Gregor Robertson and park board commissioner Allan De Genova, another candidate who has built strong support from Vancouver's Chinatown over the years.

The party is expected to announce its nominee by mid-June.

Mr Louie says he is optimistic about his campaign, and even though he rejects being identified as 'just a Chinese candidate', he believes his ethnicity is an asset. 'The issue of being Chinese gives me the perspective, I think, of coming from an immigrant family and gives me some understanding of some of the challenges that immigrants face,' he says.

Mr Louie, a married father of three, says he learned the virtues of hard work from his father, a short-order cook, and his seamstress mother, who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong.

For years, he worked at his parents' Vancouver bakery, before taking on other jobs at a local mailing house and the mailing department of a newspaper company, and eventually entering city politics.

Mr Louie says he is unfazed by Mr Sullivan's ability to connect with Chinese voters.

'Mayor Sullivan has some ability to speak a few languages ... But I know that many in the Chinese community have said to me that it's more than just being able to say a few words in Chinese,' he says.

The mayor's knowledge of Cantonese is something of a 'novelty', he says, but he notes that Mr Sullivan has lost support from Chinese voters during his term in office, mainly over criticism that he has not been tough enough on illegal drugs.

'His performance has been poor and people have been watching,' Mr Louie says.

'Secondly,' he adds, 'if he does face off with me, he's now facing a person of that ethnic origin. As much as he's able to speak a few words in Cantonese, so can I.'

Guangdong immigrant Eddie Chan Sen Yow, a strong supporter of Mr Louie's campaign, says he doesn't think much of Mr Louie's Cantonese-speaking ability.

'It's not very good,' Mr Chan says, but he supports Mr Louie based on his perception of the candidate's honesty, hard-working nature and outspokenness in the city council.

It will take much more than speaking or looking Chinese to sway Chinese voters en masse, analysts say.

Getting people to the polls is the first challenge. Close to 40 per cent of Vancouver's residents are Chinese, yet only a fraction of the Chinese population turned out at the last election, says Kennedy Stewart, a professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University.

Based on an exit poll from the 2005 election, Professor Stewart says only about 17,000 - or fewer than 10 per cent of eligible Chinese voters - cast their ballots.

Nevertheless, even though they participate in small numbers, Chinese voters tend to make more sophisticated decisions, based on substantive policy issues, compared to the general electorate, which votes on candidates' personalities, Professor Stewart says.

He adds that Chinese voters are not necessarily drawn to Chinese candidates. 'Seeing somebody who looks like you makes a difference, but I don't think it's a wash at all,' he says.

Analysts also point out that Vancouver's Chinese population consists of numerous groups, each with its own distinct concerns and political leanings, which makes it difficult for candidates to target the Chinese community as a whole.

Mr Louie appears be the frontrunner among the so-called 'old-timers', or the descendents of the early wave of immigrants who arrived in Canada as labourers in the late 1800s, says K.K. Wan, a political commentator for local Cantonese-language Fairchild Radio.

But the later wave of Hong Kong entrepreneurs and businesspeople who came to Canada ahead of the 1997 handover have traditionally supported the centre-right politics of the Non-Partisan Association, he says.

Mr Louie says he intends to tackle a long list of weighty issues, including the lack of affordable housing in the city, crime, drug use, homelessness and rising taxes - issues that he says transcend ethnicity.

Although Vancouver has had several Chinese councillors over the years, Mr Louie says no other Chinese person has ever run for mayor, not because the city is unprepared for a Chinese leader, but because previous councillors lacked ability, timing or luck.

'You have to be at the right place and the right time,' he says. 'And maybe this is the right place and the right time for me.'