Calgary does U-turn on 'Asian mall' limit

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 March, 2009, 12:00am

Alex McCuaig and his girlfriend were hungry after midnight recently, so they walked down the block from their home in Calgary, Alberta, to the only restaurant still open.

It was the Chinese barbecue house in one of the dozens of new Asian malls that have opened in the past two decades in the biggest city in the province.

'There's no other place open that late,' said McCuaig, a writer who was in the middle of renovations at his girlfriend's home when the hunger pangs hit. 'We were saying as we walked over there at 1.30 in the morning how great it was that there's an Asian mall right next to us.'

It appears many others agree, judging from the outraged response to a report commissioned by the city that advised a curb on development of Asian malls.

'An effort must be made to avoid 'exclusive' cultural-specific retail developments,' wrote Thomas Leung, head of Global Retail Strategies, in the report posted on the city's website this month.

'[They] lead to marginalised ethnic enclaves which can diminish overall community cohesiveness.'

McCuaig, who grew up in Calgary, said the wording was particularly troublesome since the city, an economic powerhouse from oil and gas until the recent global economic downturn, had been seen by outsiders as having a 'redneck' reputation.

Its population of more than 1 million, including nearly 70,000 ethnic Chinese, has strong social-conservative ties and a traditional bent.

But the concerns expressed about targeting Asian malls were immediate, Alderman Ric McIver said. He had heard from dozens of people who disagreed with the report.

'You can't ask people their ethnicity when they put in their development permit. Some people just didn't get it that this is wrong, offensive and probably illegal,' he said.

While there might be a small minority who wanted to limit Asian malls, Mr McIver was adamant that most residents had no desire to eliminate them. And the city did not ask whether a developer was catering to a specific ethnic group, he said.

Mr Leung said the advice was that malls should not just cater to a 'specific ethnic orientation' but 'be open to populations of all backgrounds'.

Calgary Chinese Merchants Association head Ken Lee said the city needed to do more than just order the report rewritten. The city has removed the passage about Asian malls from the report posted online.

'An apology is just the beginning,' Mr Lee said. 'We don't need planners to tell us what's best for our community.'

Trico Homes vice-president Richard Gotfried, who formerly lived in Hong Kong and worked for Cathay Pacific, said the wording was offensive. 'Substitute 'Jewish mall' for 'Asian mall' and you get the sense of why so many people reacted so strongly,' he said.

Mr Gotfried has worked with the Chinese community for 25 years and his Jewish father grew up in Shanghai. 'The principle that offends so many is saying where you can locate a business by ethnicity.'

The report is part of the city's long-term strategic plan for land use.

In a motion that passed unanimously, the city council, in response to the outcry, removed the report from its website and sent it back to the consultants, a Vancouver firm, for a rewrite.