The Hongcouver

Vancouver community gardens yield a bumper crop of ‘thieving Chinese’ stereotypes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 8:19am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:52am

It’s springtime in Vancouver, and the urban agrarians are out in force, tilling the community gardens that have become a trademark of the city and helped make it an epicentre of the locavore food movement.

Kale, organic garlic and heritage tomatoes are sprouting in gardens scattered in parks and public lots across the region. The tasty young offerings have brought out the pests, too: Cabbage moths, aphids and, if a recent report is to be believed, the Common Chinese Garden Pilferer.

The Richmond News last week devoted a feature to the subject of theft from community gardens by members of Richmond’s majority Asian community, “particularly older generation new immigrants from China”. Such gardens are generally unfenced and open for the admiration of all - but their crops are not for public consumption.

The distinction is lost on some, the Richmond News reported." For people from a Western culture, the idea of someone helping themselves to the lovingly grown vegetables and plants in a stranger’s garden is abhorrent and nothing short of theft,” the newspaper claimed. “For some Asian cultures … if there are no fences around a community garden, then the stuff growing in it is just that, for the community.”

There are 75 community gardens scattered across the city of Vancouver, with a further eight in the satellite city of Richmond. Richmond’s gardens are all managed by the Richmond Food Security Society, which allocates lots in exchange for a small rental fee. Gardeners are required to maintain and farm their own plot, as well as spend 15 hours a year on the general activities required to keep the scheme up and running.

Despite the workload, there is no shortage of would-be urban farmers, with a waitlist of 150 people for Richmond’s 300 or so lots. 

Colin Dring, executive director of the Richmond Food Security Society, said the city’s  community gardeners came from a range of cultural backgrounds, and he couldn’t be sure that there was less awareness of community garden etiquette in the Chinese community. “We haven’t explicitly examined the issue in detail and most of the information is anecdotal,” Dring said. “We’ve had Chinese community gardeners having stuff stolen by other Chinese, there’s definitely that. It’s not a one sided story, with a Western gardener trying to deal with someone [stealing] who is ethnically different.”

But Dring conceded that cultural differences sometimes came into play. “There’s definitely more work to be done with engagement, particularly understanding how different cultures view public space,” he said. “When you label something as a public park, or a sharing space, or a community garden…those language nuances mean different things to different groups.”

Dring - who studied psychology and environmental science, and whose mother was born in Beijing -  said his background helped give him an awareness that stereotyping may be at play in depictions of Chinese as inveterate crop snatchers. “In many ways [anecdotal information about Chinese thefts] just reinforces stereotypes. People will concentrate all their efforts on one group but the reality is that these thefts happen across all demographics in our community,” he said.

“My psychology training kicks in when I say that people look for things that confirm their world views. It’s a challenge. Without having opportunities for cross dialogue, it’s difficult to get to the root of why anybody is going into a public space and taking food or plants or ornaments.”

He said he was not aware of a greater level of theft in Richmond’s community gardens, compared to those in Vancouver city. “Anywhere that has community gardens experiences theft…it may be that we [in Richmond] have a more engaged community of gardeners and they are spending more time out there and they notice it more and are more vocal. No matter where you have community gardens, theft is occurring.”

The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.