The Hongcouver

Why ‘non-Anglicised Chinese names’ matter in Vancouver’s housing market: No, it’s not about race

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 6:26am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:49am

Q: What’s in a name? Specifically, a non-Anglicised Chinese name?

A: Quite a bit more than some in Vancouver might suspect.

The question stems from a high-profile study released this week by Vancouver housing researcher Andy Yan, acting director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program and a longtime advocate for more data on the city’s housing unaffordability problem.

Yan looked at all MLS sales of detached houses in three of the city’s expensive Westside neighbourhoods in a six-month period and found 66 per cent of buyers had non-Anglicised Chinese names. Among sales worth C$3 million or more, the proportion of buyers with such names rose to a whopping 85 per cent.

Yan says his findings point to an influx of foreign capital to Vancouver, and that a non-Anglicised Chinese name “may be an indication that an owner may be a recent immigrant to Canada”. For his troubles, Yan has been caught in a storm this week over whether or not his use of such a proxy was racist, and he rejects his critics with some heat.

“My great-granddad paid the head tax,” he told me on Tuesday. “So to somehow use [concerns about] ‘racism’ to protect your privilege? That’s just absurd. This is an almost-uniquely Vancouver reaction.”

Among his critics was Jimmy Yan, a legal commentator on Chinese-language Fairchild Radio, who took objection to the use of non-Anglicised Chinese names as a proxy for being a recent immigrant. He posted an online poll (since removed) on WeChat and Weibo which invited naturalised Canadians to say whether they used Anglicised or non-Anglicised legal names. He said that of 58 respondents, 81 per cent used non-Anglicised names, which he believed undermined Andy Yan’s proxy method.

But this is a difference of semantics: Jimmy Yan told me that the very fact someone is a naturalised Canadian means that he does not define them as a recent immigrant. Yet Andy Yan’s study makes no such distinction (and nor do I); a “recent immigrant” could just as well be a naturalised Canadian as not.

Jimmy Yan told me he wouldn’t call Andy Yan racist, but “definitely, the study is racialised”. As for the general premise that mainland Chinese money dominates detached house sales on the Westside of Vancouver, he agreed this was “not inconsistent with my observations”.


What non-Anglicised Chinese names prove

So a non-Anglicised Chinese name does not in isolation prove that an individual buyer is a Chinese or Canadian citizen. No-one should argue otherwise.

Andy Yan doesn’t, and he also accepts that the metric as a hard measure of recent immigration on an individual level is also imperfect. So let’s take a step back: What exactly DOES a non-Anglicised Chinese name prove, to an overwhelming degree of probability?

For a start, it’s overwhelmingly probable that those folk were all ethnically Chinese, though Yan’s numbers are certainly not an attempt to measure the ethnicity of buyers, since he excludes Chinese names that carry an Anglicised component.

The second overwhelming probability is that Yan’s non-Anglicised-Chinese-name buyers possess a Chinese language as their mother tongue.

Yet according to the 2006 census, only 15 per cent of Vancouverites had some form of Chinese as their mother tongue.

How can this massive disparity between the presence of such people in Vancouver in 2006, and their overwhelming relative presence among rich house buyers in Yan’s study nine years later be accounted for? Is it conceivable that this demonstrates not an influx of Chinese cash – but a higher Canadian earning capacity among Chinese speakers?

That possibility is pretty remote, since ethnic Chinese incomes are substantially lower than those of the general Canadian population. According to the 2006 Census,  the ethnic Chinese median income of C$22,907 is easily outstripped by the general Canadian population’s C$26,850.

I favour the simpler, obvious, explanation: The great bulk of those non-Anglicised Chinese name buyers are relatively recent, rich, arrivals to Vancouver.


More data? Here’s more, and it looks kinda the same

What was forgotten in the furore over Yan’s study is that his findings are hardly outlier stuff. At least four studies using Chinese-name methodology have also indicated this huge presence of such buyers in the market’s top end, as they sought evidence of the role of Chinese money.

In 2011, Landcor Data Corp tested the lux end of the market by poring over every C$3million-plus house sale in Vancouver and C$2 million-plus condo sale in Richmond over the previous three years. They applied a narrower metric than Yan, looking only for non-Anglicised MAINLAND-Chinese style names. The results? An overwhelming 74 per cent of luxury buyers for all of 2010 had such a name. That number had risen steadily from 46 per cent in 2008, and 68 per cent in 2009.

Here’s the rub. As a group, these buyers, as possessors of what Landcor called “quintessential PRC” names, are overwhelmingly likely to have been speakers of Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) as a mother tongue. Yet, again according to  the 2006 census, Mandarin mother-tongue speakers made up only 3.9 per cent of the City of Vancouver’s population, and 7.7 per cent of the population of Richmond (even if we include half of all non-specified-Chinese speakers, those numbers only rise to 8.7 per cent and 14.4 per cent respectively).

Then, in 2013, the Mandarin-speaking vice-president of Macdonald Realty, Dan Scarrow (whose mother is of Taiwanese origin), found that 33.5 per cent of all detached houses sold by his firm in the City of Vancouver in 2012 (178 out of the 531) went to buyers with non-Anglicised mainland-Chinese style names.

These represented 48 per cent of all of Macdonald’s detached sales in dollar terms.

Scarrow ran his company’s numbers again in August this year, and found that 70 per cent of all C$3million-plus sales (of all housing types) in 2014 were made to buyers with such names.

In July this year, the Reuters news agency checked 50 detached Westside land titles for homes sold for C$2 million-plus in 2014 and found “nearly half of the purchasers had surnames typical of mainland China” (a looser definition than employed by a full-name study).

None of these studies is perfect. Yet they all present a huge disparity between the top-end buying presence and actual 2006 Census presence of Chinese mother-tongue speakers (although less convincingly so via the surname-only study).

This suggests a fundamental premise which has not been contradicted by any equivalent evidence: Namely, that Westside detached housing sales, at the very least, are dominated by wealthy buyers with relatively recent mainland Chinese origins.

Until Vancouverites and the city’s power players can come to a consensus on this rather basic notion, then all subsequent questions - to what extent is mainland Chinese money present in other sectors of the market? Does it trickle down into the lower end? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? – will be left to languish in a morass of uninformed jabber.


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 [email protected] or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.