When we were young, my sister and I were members of Vancouver Chinatown’s traditional dance troupe. Dressed as peacocks and tea pickers, complete with swirling ribbons or painted fans, we were joyful and colourful ornaments in a neighbourhood that, in the early 1980s, was impoverished but proudly vibrant.

My family had arrived in Canada, via Hong Kong and Malaysia, in 1974. My parents worked multiple jobs and sent us to school on the edges of Chinatown. Daily Chinese classes failed to dent our English selves – we refused to speak Cantonese, except to order food, when, briefly and miraculously, we became fluent. For my parents, the Chinatown enclave was both a magical kingdom and a refuge, perhaps the only place in which they could forget their worries for a while.

Vancouver’s Chinatown came into being in the 1880s, as migrants fled the region of the Pearl River Delta in the wake of political violence that claimed an estimated one million lives. In Canada, Chinese migrants took on the railway’s most dangerous jobs while earning less than half the salary of their white counterparts. When the railway was completed, the workers, intent on sending remittances home, found jobs in sawmills, coal mines, tanneries and brickyards. But their presence drew an ugly backlash from mainstream society.

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An editorial in British Columbia Magazine in 1911 warned of the “frightful and irrational fecundity of the race”, and a cheap labour force that, in the words of the local daily newspaper, World, consisted of “a degraded humanity”. The city and federal government passed a battery of discriminatory measures against the Chinese, including a C$500 head tax (the government collected C$33 million in these arrival taxes, the equivalent of C$321 million, or US$257 million today), curfews, levies, disenfranchisement and an immigration exclusion law.

Targeted by violence, forced out of mainstream trade by anti-Chinese by-laws and reviled as a public menace – “I consider their habits are as filthy as their morals,” the provincial secretary told a Royal Commission in 1885 – the community had only itself to rely on.

Across North America, Chinatowns developed a parallel civic society, providing schools, benevolent associations, libraries and a complex social organisation. Gradually, a self-protective architecture evolved: colourful facades that would satisfy an outsider’s desire for a contained, exotic experience – and an inner world that could meet the everyday needs of Chinese workers segregated into an increasingly crowded space.

It is a little known fact that the brightly painted facades of the oldest Chinatown in the United States, in San Francisco, were designed in 1906 by the architect-engineers T Patterson Ross and AW Burgren, who were hired by Chinese merchants to dream up deliberately exoticised architecture.

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In American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighbourhoods, journalist Bonnie Tsui documents how the “oriental city of ‘veritable fairy palaces’, was a conscious, East-meets-West attempt by Chinese merchants to change the community’s image […] and ensure its continuing survival.” The Chinese merchants wondered, if their frontier-style buildings were livened by elaborate flourishes, would mainstream society’s fear of the outsider diminish? Might they even enter the colourful gates, drawn to the exotic world on their doorstep?

By 1910, Vancouver’s Chinatown began to incorporate flying eaves, glazed tiled roofs and other stately decorations. Ironically, the ornamentation which they hoped would convey dignity and social cohesion added to a pervasive misconception: that the Chinese used such details because theirs was a community of perpetual aliens, incapable of adapting to a new environment. Ross and Burgren’s architecture became emblematic around the world.

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Melbourne’s Chinatown, for instance, underwent revitalisation work in the 1970s that included the construction of “Chinese archways” and “celestial avenues” which, Kay Anderson writes in the online article “Chinatown Re-oriented”, were intended “to inject ‘Chinese’ character into the area” in keeping with Australia’s turn towards a new era of official multiculturalism.

Chinese residents fought the city’s plan, stating in the national press that they wished “to be treated as Australians and with dignity” and did not want their streets to be turned into “items of curiosity” that would isolate them “as different, queer, quaint”. The residents lost their fight and city by-laws would later enforce the use of “Chinese colours” and vertical signage that would, as the mayor said in 1986, give greater “definition to the precinct”.

In parallel, Japan’s Yokohama Chinatown has never assimilated into its surroundings, despite being settled more than 150 years ago. Today, more than 500 businesses crowd into an area of just 500 square metres, making it a “fairy palace” par excellence, a kaleidoscope of stuffed pandas, mooncakes, authentic and invented dumplings, fortune-tellers and kitsch.

On a recent visit, one Chinese student whose uncle has run a business in Yokohama for more than 30 years, told me that this Chinatown is not a tight-knit community but rather a collection of businesspeople working closely with the City of Yokohama.

“The community is not involved with politics,” he says. “They only want to earn a living.”

The number of Chinese residents in this Chinatown is in decline, and the vast majority of its 20 million tourists are Japanese; tourism is the reason Yokohama’s Chinatown looks as extravagantly exotic as it does.

“No need to interview us,” a restaurant owner says. “We are just operating a restaurant, nothing more.”

Yokohama’s Chinese community offers a glimpse of how roots set down elsewhere become part of a country’s political and ethnic identities, rather than simply a satellite of China abroad. In Yokohama, new hamakko – or Yokohama-ite – identities that are inextricable from Japan, have come into being. Lived Chinese identity is far more fluid than the quarter’s architecture would imply.

An hour away, in Tokyo, a plain red-and-white sign identifies a community that does not refer to itself as Tokyo’s Chinatown, but simply “North Exit of Ikebukuro”. Since the 1980s, Chinese have been arriving here in search of immigration assistance, day cares, groceries and language classes, as well as the dozen Chinese-language community papers that carry job advertisements. Chinese now comprise the largest group of foreigners in Japan, with more than 700,000 residents. Unlike Yokohama Chinatown, there are no colourful facades here and few, if any, tourists.

Jason Ho was born in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, and moved to Tokyo with his family when he was 10 years old. At first, unable to speak the language, he was isolated.

“My classmates saw me as a joke,” he says. “For three years, I was lonely. But when I came home to the North Exit of Ikebukuro, it was like coming home. People around me spoke Chinese. I felt safe.” But as he became fluent, his idea of himself began to shift. Ho recently moved to Vancouver to study.

“My computer uses a Japanese keyboard, but my phone uses a Chinese one,” he says. “Now I study English, so I have to change between three languages. Sometimes it makes me crazy. Last year, I started studying Korean, and found it easier. There are times when I accidentally speak Japanese to my grandfather.”

When I ask Ho if he would choose to live with only a single language, he answers without hesitation. “No, I don’t think so. I would prefer not to. I would not feel like myself.”

In 1872, before the fall of the Qing dynasty, the Empress Dowager sent 120 Chinese students abroad in the hope they would accrue expertise, return home and serve the country. Those early students were accepted into Harvard, Yale, MIT and Columbia universities. Once home, they would occupy leading positions across diverse fields.

Today, some one million Chinese students are abroad. The government estimates that 80 per cent return home, and that this percentage is steadily increasing. The returnees are known colloquially as hai gui (“sea turtles”), a pun on the words “returning across the sea” and a descriptor first used by a student sent to America in 1847.

Since then, generations of returnee students have been at the forefront of the revolution, modernisation and globalisation of their country. The visitors and inhabitants of Chinatowns past are an honour roll of the country’s intellectual and revolutionary heritage. From Kang Youwei and Sun Yat-sen – reformist scholars and fathers of republican China, who visited Chinatowns around the world in the early 1900s to raise funds and win followers to their cause – to artist Ai Weiwei and the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo (both men frequented New York’s Chinatown in the 1980s).

Returnees have always been conduits between worlds, but the sheer number of hai gui poses a problem unique to the Chinese government. One of the most striking differences immediately noticeable to students abroad is the absence of the Great Firewall, China’s highly sophisticated censorship machine.

Inside the country, sensitive subjects are rigorously monitored. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Chinese Wikipedia and Google (including all its products) are currently blocked, as are news organisations, including, intermittently, the BBC, Bloomberg, Reuters and the South China Morning Post. Increasingly there are two Chinas, one behind the Great Firewall and one outside.

For decades, writers and generations of scholars, including student leaders involved in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, have been part of outside centres of criticism, analysis and reform. Today, supporters of the Falun Gong movement, which is brutally repressed in China, can be seen organising in most Chinese enclaves, and after Liu Xiaobo’s death in Chinese custody this year, memorials took place around the world.

From their very beginnings, Chinatowns were politicised spaces where competing visions for China’s future were vociferously argued. They have always been an interior world engaged with the politics of China, as well as local concerns of housing, immigration, labour law and social justice. Chinatowns, according to Tsui, serve “as a spiritual and historical touchstone for older generations, and as a physical home for new immigrants”, continuing to provide a way-station for the most economically precarious new arrivals.

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In the 1980s, many Chinese immigrants to Vancouver hoped to prosper and leave behind the struggles of Chinatown, but I suspect they believed, and hoped, the enclave would persist. Its sometimes kitschy atmosphere allowed for memory without sentimentality, nostalgia freed from rigid tradition. Its alleyways and buildings are the physical evidence of a discriminatory history, as well as a population that “has always flourished in a community form”, as Tsui observes.

That is all changing. The Chinese working class and poor communities are being displaced here, powerless against the unified forces of developers backed by city rezoning and incentivising plans – the price of individual condos in two recent developments is between C$1 million and C$2 million.

In Everything Will Be, Julia Kwan’s powerful 2014 documentary on the demolitions and losses in Vancouver’s Chinatown, Bob Rennie, the owner of Vancouver’s largest real estate firm, insists that “the Chinatown that your parents enjoyed here is gone forever”, and says the city must look to the future.

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Developers claim they are preserving the neighbourhood, but the fact remains that the heart of the community – meaning its people and their livelihoods – are currently fighting for their existence.

There is now a new Chinese enclave where Vancouver blurs into Burnaby. Where the old Chinatowns were low-rise shopfront streets and alleyways, this new area, with its glass skyscrapers, shopping malls and a plenitude of restaurants specialising in Chinese regional cuisines, reflects a shifting global order. The predominant language is Mandarin.

This area, Metrotown, has a strong resemblance to the urban live-work neighbourhoods built beside rapid transit stations, and near to vibrant green spaces in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore. Architecturally, it resembles an Asian metropolis, rather than an imagined oriental aesthetic. Metrotown carries the tension of a new Chinatown, which is no longer an area with distinct borders, or something that can be contained by exotic gates.

Similarly, where China ends and others begin is no longer simple to pinpoint. Can a country capable of producing – and, increasingly, designing – the vast majority of goods the West requires truly be considered so different, so perpetually foreign? Kay Anderson argues that Melbourne’s Chinatown has been used by the state and local levels of government as “a product and symbol of some essential ‘Chineseness’, some inherent difference against which mainstream Australia was set”.

The old idea of the Chinese as “a degraded humanity”, incapable of assimilating, persists. “Chinese labour is of a low, degraded and servile type,” proclaimed the racist Knights of Labour a century ago. “They are enabled not only to live but to grow rich on wages far below the lowest minimum on which we can possibly exist.”

The rhetoric of fear has echoes in the present. A century ago, Vancouver’s Chinese community was violently targeted by the Asiatic Exclusion League and a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Like other Chinatowns, in response to the prejudice they faced, the community created colourful and beautiful borders and then sent their children to mingle with the outside world. Like my parents, they hoped we would find our place by forging new identities, without forgetting to come home.

Madeleine Thien was born in Vancouver to Malaysian-Chinese parents. Her novel Do Not Say We have Nothing was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker prize.

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